Say you've gone back in time Terminator-style (no possessions, no clothes, nothing but you and your cells) to roughly 6,000 BC to the ancient near east. You meet a farmer and his family who take you in, assuming you to be a vagrant who has been robbed (you are naked and confused in the middle of the desert after all). You figure it's the time and place it is because you recognise certain elements of the landscape and basic architecture of the buildings you can see.

Now, you don't know the language he speaks, you have no way of translating other than pointing, and the only language you speak won't be around for another few thousand years.

You can communicate basic things like food and water by pointing at examples of them, and let's also assume the next day you walk out to see the farmer farming away and gesture to help him, so assuming he's willing you have secured food, water, and way of paying for it. Over your time working and living with your foster farmer family your main goal is to learn to communicate verbally so you can start making sense of the world around you.

This article says it is possible to learn a new language in 3 months, but that is with translations available in your own language, plus a wealth of other resources. Is it therefore realistic to say in this situation you could communicate effectively after a year of living and working with someone who only spoke the ancient language?

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    $\begingroup$ One year is a serious time constraint, but if you think of it, every single child does just that over the course of its first few years of life - and worse, they don't have any original language to base their learning on; they start from scratch, learning words along with concepts behind them as they go. $\endgroup$
    – SF.
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:06
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    $\begingroup$ I "recognise certain elements of the landscape" from 6000 BC? Dam, I'm very knowledgeable, aren't I? $\endgroup$
    – DSKekaha
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 17:19
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    $\begingroup$ @SF: Children have a specialized bit of their brain that helps them learn languages particularly quickly. It atrophies into complete uselessness by the end of the teenage years, leaving you to learn by ordinary learning mechanisms, which are much less efficient. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ @MasonWheeler: that theory is fairly controversial actually, and I know of no formulation of it involving an actual bit of the brain (the theory is based on evidence of skills, not brain imaging). $\endgroup$
    – zeta
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 20:06
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    $\begingroup$ For what it's worth, I had a friend who learned enough of a tribal language in Ghana on her own, "cold," so to speak, in less than six months without assistance of books, etc. I say this, because it's not like a native English speaker learning French (or whatever) where the structure has similar, albeit distant roots. $\endgroup$
    – Mikey
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 21:08

7 Answers 7


It doesn't really matter if it is an ancient language or a contemporary one. Throwing someone into an environment where there is no common tongue will end up being the same.

In this case you are likely going to be motivated to learn the language just to be able to communicate. So most of the basic things will come quickly. Objects are easy to learn and many common actions as well. Apple, cow, tree, eat, sleep, etc.

Now one thing you talked about both an ancient language and one spoken by a farmer. In this case it should be pretty easy to have a 'normal' conversation with the farmer in a few months. You won't be discussing philosophy or maximizing crop yields partly because many of these concepts are going to be beyond the knowledge and learning of the individual.

If you were found and cared for by a priest or other learned man of the time, you have the ability to learn a lot more, and the priest likely would be able to teach you speeding up your learning process.

But in general I'd say full immersion with no option to use your native tongue, a few months and you'd be a decent speaker. Full immersion just for the 1 or 2 hours a day in classes makes a huge difference. A full 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year you are going to learn a lot.

I can't find it but I've seen stuff for how long it reasonably takes.

  • $\begingroup$ Hmm, I never even thought about the wide difference in vocabulary based on profession present back then (and still now to some degree). $\endgroup$
    – leylandski
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:18
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    $\begingroup$ I'd add to this that most children learn to talk within ~18 months to 3 years of their birth, with around 2 years being typical. That's on top of all the other development they're doing, and without the ability to either relate words to existing ones, knowledge of likely grammar/linguistic constructs, or any ability to prioritise learning. As long as the teacher was patient, I'd expect a year to be a reasonable time frame $\endgroup$
    – Jon Story
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 16:16
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    $\begingroup$ Yep, we love to talk about "fluency" as a point where you know the language, but in reality, languages are learned fluidly, from just a few words up to complex grammatical constructions, with "fluency" being defined as a line in the sand simply to make it easier for us to talk about languages. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 17:23
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    $\begingroup$ I'd disagree that the priest could teach you a lot more. Farming is a profession, and the farmer would have an enormous vocabulary concerning animals, weather, the natural world (native plants, etc.). I remember reading about how some hunter gatherer groups knew names for many hundreds of plants. Different professions have different vocabularies, but I'm guessing the farmer's vocabulary would be different but not less than other ancient professions'. $\endgroup$
    – user11599
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ @bowlturner did you mean "serf"? $\endgroup$
    – Kevin
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 19:22

You don't need to be able to identify the language in order to learn it. This study shows that adults are capable of discerning nouns, verbs, and sentence structure in an entirely made up language.

Two different forms of memory help us learn a language. Declarative memory allows us to learn nouns, verbs, subjects, etc. Procedural memory is less exact, and allows us to learn and remember rules of grammar and context. Adults have a far superior declarative memory than children, however they struggle to use their procedural memory without distraction.

That said, this means that your time traveler will be able to learn words very quickly in the new language, if his hosts are amenable to teaching him the words for things he points at. Within a few months he should be able to identify all objects on the farm. He should also know basic verbs, enough to say things like "sleep, eat, wash, etc". He may know subjects, enough to say "I/me" and he will likely be able to identify more abstract concepts like "night/day" and perhaps even religious ideas if the farmer is interested in this sort of thing.

The host itself is probably the most limiting factor in learning the language fluently. As an uneducated worker, your farmer has a limited vocabulary and is likely illiterate. The average vocabulary of an illiterate language is only 3-5000 words, which doesn't sound that small, until you realize that most European languages with written lexicons today have upwards of 50,000 or more.

If all you want to do is "communicate effectively" then you should be able to do that within the first six months. Granted, you will probably be saying things like "Me work dirt" or "Eat meat now" or "Give water", but the message will be clear to the native speaker.

Depending on the language, the time, and the speakers that you encounter, you may never reach true fluency in the language. But it shouldn't take as long as you think it will take to be able to communicate with other native speakers.

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    $\begingroup$ Of course English is the exception, having close to 300,000 words. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 21:59

Year might be enough, or not. It strongly depends on which language you are learning, how different is it from the language(s) you already know, and what kind of proficiency level you want. And process of learning language will be very different from the way we learn new language now.

Big problem you will have when learning new language is that pencils and notebooks and dictionaries were not invented yet. You have to remember it all, cannot write any notes which you can conveniently take along and consult/review. Which will be a problem if you are visual learner - prefer visual input over audio.

Just take audio language course, like Pimsleur, and check how many times you would prefer to read what was said to see the differences. Even if Pimsleur translates it all for you.

Some tonal languages have up to 8 tones for every syllable - and different tones have different meaning (syllable "ma" repeated 5 times in different pitch means "crazy horse run though village"). So unless you have a musical ear (experience of playing instrument, like piano), and expect that, you will have hard time distinguishing differences. Some click languages have up to 100 consonants you may have hard time to reproduce.

Some mental concepts can be completely different. I recall that some Australian tribe has no concept of "left" and "right", but only "north" and "south" - like "there is ant next to your north leg". So you may need to change your mental model what language is about.

Child's brain has advantage of neuroplasticity. Adult brain is substantially less flexible, and has harder time to adapt to new grammar. According to some research, by 12 is too late to start learning second language - you will never become like native.

Also, nouns are easy, you can point and ask. Verbs are much harder. Verb persons and tenses and moods are even more complicated. Some verb tenses might not be present in your mother language. If you know Spanish - imagine if most verbs were irregular. You would have hard time even to see they are related. It's not like in English, where all persons are the same (or adds 's).

Spanish and English are similar languages from Indo-European languages family. Learning Spanish in few months says very little about how much time you need to learn some more obscure Chinese dialect, or click language like Xhosa. In example, even experienced Japanese learners of English have problem distinguishing R from L - because that difference does not exist in their mother language.

In many languages, there is gender in verbs. Your (male) explorer will make fun of himself if will be using female form of verbs, learned from farmer's wife and daughters (which might be assigned to help him, because he will be able to do only simple works to earn his food).

If the only language you know is English, and the only other one you tried to learn is Spanish, you have no idea how more complex are other more different languages.

Especially if neighbor of your farmer is speaking different dialect, or if you have a bad luck and spend a year to learn some obscure language spoken in a few mountain villages.

Summary: If you are lucky and new language is similar enough to yours, you may be able to function in your new community in a year. If not, you will struggle, be able to speak very limited language (and be handled/helped like a child, and not considered equal or competent ). And likely, you will always speak with an accent.

And because you are considered incompetent (dim-witted: cannot even speak properly), you will ave hard time to "sell" your ideas about more advanced technologies you know are possible, but unable to explain with your limited vocabulary. Or you break some tabu, commit some crime and they decide to abandon you, as not worth taking care of.

How I know it: I am fluent in two more languages beyond my mother language (which is not English), and have basic understanding of few more. Even after 20 years of "full immersion" into English I do have accent and make mistakes. And as far as languages go, English is rather easy.

  • $\begingroup$ The OP had: "your main goal is to learn to communicate verbally so you can start making sense of the world around you." And not sounds like a native. So yes some people will never manage to sound like a native, even spending their whole life in another country. But to be able to communicate for basic needs, is certainly doable within a year. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 8:20
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    $\begingroup$ You make great points about specific difficulties you may encounter. I think even Cantonese and Xhosa would be easily doable in a year. Sure, you'll be treated like a child (probably ignored a lot of the time in Chinese dialects, since that's how they teach kids to use the proper tones), but you'll have the rudiments of the language and probably be able to say whatever you need to. $\endgroup$
    – Josiah
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 18:20
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    $\begingroup$ Unless this culture is really isolated, they must have previously encountered people who don't speak their language or share their culture. I'd think they would have figured out that such people are not necessarily mentally incompetent - they'd probably have experience of foreigners who could produce and trade valuable goods, create unusual works of art, win victories in battle, etc. So our time traveler might well be able to convince them he is a person worth getting to know, even if he can't communicate verbally. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 4:57
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    $\begingroup$ 6000BC. Late stone age. Hunter-gatherers are transitioning to farming. Not much trade, and most contacts are fight for hunting grounds. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 28, 2015 at 14:16

There isn't any difference between learning an ancient foreign language and a modern foreign language since the process is exactly the same. A language is a set of ordered symbols and sounds that represent ideas. Learning a primitive language means internalizing the sounds and the ideas they convey.

From a practical standpoint, learning this language is a life-or-death problem. If you can't communicate then you're probably going to die. You'll learn pretty quickly. You'll have valuable skills to trade for survival. Math, any kind of hygiene knowledge, accounting, season, astronomy, advanced tool making (if you can make copper or bronze you'll be hugely popular).

Six thousand years ago means that practically no one will be literate so you don't have to worry about writing or reading, just talking.

  • $\begingroup$ I like this answer best. It's simple and to the point. The only other thing I'd add is that you'll be fully immersed in this language. Not just taking a college class every few days for a few hours and then going back to speaking English. You won't have anyone to speak to in any other language bu theirs. You'd learn it VERY QUICKLY. $\endgroup$
    – oxide7
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:12
  • $\begingroup$ This also implies, but doesn't quite state, another important element - learning a language is a skill and one can become good at learning languages. If I was going to travel in time I would probably develop that ability as far as possible before I left. $\endgroup$
    – glenatron
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 15:52
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    $\begingroup$ “You'll have valuable skills to trade for survival. Math, any kind of hygiene knowledge, accounting, season, astronomy, advanced tool making (if you can make copper or bronze you'll be hugely popular).” — Since you can't take any material items with you, better memorize this cheatsheet. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 19:56
  • $\begingroup$ @BlacklightShining The hint about Polaris on that cheatsheet is not quite correct for timetravellers (such as 6000 years back) due to procession of the Earth axis ... $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 22:29
  • $\begingroup$ @HagenvonEitzen Really? Just a few thousand years throws that off? Ah, well…I'm sure it's still good for making close estimates. Just keep that fact—that it's not as accurate as it is in the present day—in mind. $\endgroup$ Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 4:15

In addition to other answers, I think you can easily find some similar situations happening in real world. One that I can cite without research is Nicholas Miklouho-Maclay, a XIX-th century

...Russian explorer, ethnologist, anthropologist and biologist who became famous as the first scientist to settle among and study people who had never seen a European.

He has lived (with two servants) for several years among New Guinea native tribes, apparently without any prior knowledge of their language. As Russian Wikipedia states (I did not find any detailed English source, though I did not search much), after one year he knew about 350 words of one of many local languages; sometimes to find the meaning of even the most common words he had to spend months.

This all was despite the fact that he had a lot of things that XIX-th century could have provided to him: notebook, food supply, medicine (apparently very helpful for negotiations with natives), etc. At the same time, natives initially were rather suspicious to him, which makes the setting more difficult than you have described.


I agree in principle with bowlturner. The first priority would be to establish a primitive nonverbal communication to get the basics; food, water, shelter, and a means to continue to receive those things (if you go back in time with nothing but your own skin, all you have to give initially is sweat).

Once you're in a rhythm with these, which might take a week or so, you might try to communicate your willingness to learn the language in some way. You might point at something and then put a hand to your ear, indicating you want to hear the word. Once your host gets it, you'll get a flood of noun vocabulary; anything you can point to and get a symbol-word is yours for the learning.

As your vocabulary grows, you'll start hearing these words in context and conversation, and this will be the last real quantum leap required to be able to communicate verbally with a degree of fluency; you are going to have to recognize the boundaries between words, and the parts of speech, well enough to mimic them and put together simple sentences. Once you can ask more complex questions, you can get more complex answers, and your fluency and language education will get another big boost.

It's not impossible in the slightest. Our own children become semi-fluent in their native language (or even two or three) by following exactly this process. There's only one problem; they get this far on a time scale of about 5 or 6 years, during which time a human's brain is adapted specifically to learn the society the child lives in including its language, and for the majority of that time they really have nothing to do but learn the language. By already being fully ambulatory and knowing what language is, you might skim off the first year or maybe two of the average child's life, but if you follow the same process I think it would still take you about 3 or 4 years to become fluent in a language you are immersed in, given no inherent commonality with your native tongue.


I lived virtually this same scenario in present day Quebec, working and learning French on farms and if you're doing it every day and have no other choice, you'll be fluent in well under a year. And I don't agree with this idea that somehow a farmer is less intelligent than a priest!

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think it's a case of one being more intelligent than the other, but these were the days when a lot of farmers were still subsistence farmers and so had no time to increase their amount of knowledge because they were working in the fields, while the clergy basically had all day to potter about reading and learning about things that weren't always necessary to their survival. $\endgroup$
    – leylandski
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 10:40
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    $\begingroup$ French is very similar to English; lots of shared vocabulary, phonetics, syntax, and so on. Learning a completely different language would be much harder. $\endgroup$
    – abcde
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 21:03
  • $\begingroup$ The human brain is hard-wired to understand syntax. It precedes any specific language. It would be the same because all linguistic learning is contextual/situation-based. You'd figure it out. The trick is simply not being able to resort to your native language. $\endgroup$
    – corporeal
    Commented Oct 27, 2015 at 22:14

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