Let me guess: You want to learn a language as quickly as possible.
I don’t blame you. My site is about learning foreign languages and enjoying the journey, but I also know that people are often learning a language for a reason and want to start using their new skills ASAP.
This article is about how you can learn a language as fast as humanly possible.
How Long Will It Take?
As you can see on my About Me page, I got up to a high level in Modern Standard Arabic in a little less than two years. I took some intense classes and not all of my classmates made it to the end. But it showed me that it is very possible to reach a language proficiency level with concentrated study.
If a two years sounds like a long time, keep in mind a couple things.
First, I got up to a “functional” level in less than a year. The additional studying got me up to an advanced level.
Second, Arabic is tough for English-speakers to learn, at least compared to other languages. I had colleagues who got up to very high levels in Spanish in 6 months.
Depending on your motivation and on how much time you have to work, I think it’s possible for most people to get to a basic level of fluency in many languages in as little as 4 months.
Here are five things to do to learn a language as fast as possible.
1. Find a language course you like
This is almost a no-brainer, but there are some people who think they can learn a language without any kind of course whatsoever. They think they’ll just “pick it up” from, say, living in a foreign country or watching soap operas. It’s possible, I suppose, but not if you want to do things fast.
If you’re starting out from scratch, you don’t even know what you don’t know. You don’t know vocab, grammar, syntax, rhythms, intonation, cultural notes, and on and on and on. A course is not a cure-all, but it can give you an idea of what a language is all about.
Just to be clear, I’m not saying that a course should be your only exposure to a language. It just needs to be a part of it.
There are plenty of free courses online. A good place to start is at BBC’s website or at Open Culture’s website.
2. Be a language glutton (but don’t forget to share)
The traditional recommendation is to consume language for a long time (listening and reading) before generating any output (speaking).
But some people recommend speaking a lot earlier. Notably, Benny from fluentin3months recommends what he calls “speaking from day one.”
So who’s right?
I’d lean toward Benny in this situation, but with caveats. No, you shouldn’t stop yourself from speaking and producing language right away. But there’s an old saying that you should listen twice as much you speak, right? Well I think you should listen (or read) ten times as much as you speak.
In fact, if you’re serious about learning a language fast, you should be listening to at least an hour of your target language a day and reading at least five hundred words a day.
Feel free to speak immediately, but the majority of your efforts should be consuming language, and lots of it, all the time. While you’re taking in foreign language text, your brain will process the language and help you understand it at a subconscious level. You’ll hear what’s right and wrong, and then soon feel what’s right and wrong, which will set you up for speaking correctly and confidently.
3. Use both logic and intuition
Grammar and syntax are tricky, and at least in text books they’re logical. However, what happens when people learn a language carefully, via textbooks alone, is that they tend to lose their intuition.
But you need both logic and intuition to learn a language quickly.
Think of it this way. When you were young, you learned most of your vocabulary through context. You didn’t read with a dictionary. If you didn’t know a word, you figured it out by context.
But to take your language up a notch – say, to pass the SATs – you had to start paying a little more attention to what words actually mean. So maybe you did start reading with a dictionary.
You started out being intuitive, and then improved by being analytic.
A little analysis goes a long way. In fact, just as I recommend you listen and read ten times as much as you speak, I recommend you be intuitive ten times as much as you be analytic.
What does that mean? Well, basically, I recommend you try to figure things out by context. If there’s a picture with the text, as in a comic book, use it to help you understand what the text is saying. If you’re listening to a soccer broadcast, use the announcer’s tone to figure out if something exciting is going on.
Basically, spend most of your time figuring out meaning from all the cues in a situation. But every once in a while, take the time to study the language and understand the language rationally.
4. Spend as much time as you can with the language
This is probably the most difficult thing for time-strapped people to do. But I don’t really think there’s an upper limit to how much time you can spend being exposed to the language.
In language school, we had 6 or 7 hours of classes a day, plus homework. Sure, there was burnout, but that’s because of the academic-oriented nature of the course. I don’t think you’ll burn out if you spend a lot of your time doing things you actually like in the language, such as watching TV or talking to friends.
When I was in Egypt, I met an American studying Arabic, both Modern Standard Arabic and Egyptian. He had been living in Egypt for over a year. His language was incredible. His accent was great and he had no trouble conversing about a variety of topics.
His secret? He took four hours of classes a day, but since he lived in the country, he was exposed to the language the rest of the day. It was apparently a very effective combination.
5. Learn a second language with your first language
I could devote a whole article to this, but I’ll keep it short.
There are two schools of thought:
- “You shouldn’t translate when learning a second language. You should learn the new language on its own terms.” This is the idea between Rosetta Stone and some immersion-type programs. For example, instead of saying that manzana is Spanish for the English word apple, you learn that manzana refers to that red fruit you eat.
- “You should translate.”
I suggest going with #2. It’s possible to go with #1, but if you’re trying to learn a language fast, nothing beats learning a new language by comparing it to a language you already know. Also, as you get more advanced, you’ll probably start knowing the language on its own terms anyway.
Putting it together
With those tips, you have infinite ways to execute them. Here’s one suggestion to get you started. Every day:
- Study a course you like for 30 minutes
- Watch a television program for 30 minutes
- Listen to the radio for 30 minutes
- Read something you can understand (like a children’s book) for 30 minutes
- Talk to a tutor, friend or someone on a language exchange for 30 minutes
That’s 2 1/2 hours a day of exposure to the language. You could do a lot more, sure, but this would be a great base and would get you on your way to fluency in no time.