Do you want to learn a language but don't want to spend years studying? Or are you learning a language now and wish it didn't take so long (maybe to move on to your next target language)? Although speed isn't the most important thing when it comes to learning a language, it doesn't have to take three, four, five years or longer! I'm fully confident that even the busiest of people can learn a language to decent or even professional fluency in no more than two years if they are dedicated enough. But how?!?
This article will take you through five key areas, among others:
- Interest-/topic-based learning
- Immersion/massive input
- Speaking/targeted output
- Grammar as a tool for massive expansion
- The 80/20 rule
It will also give you various tips on how to learn your target language faster. Even if you don't care about how long it takes, there will still be plenty of useful information to help you on your journey.
Interest-based and Topic-based Learning
Perhaps the single most important factor beyond learning the basics of a language is interest, so let's start here. Learning a language shouldn't be boring! So one of the first things you should do, even before you learn your first word, is determine why you want to learn this language. If you want to speak, reading will help (and I highly recommend it) but if you are more concerned with speaking and listening, focus more on that. Personally, I want to develop all skills because I want to know the language itself, as well as be able to communicate, read great literature, and so on.
One thing that I've always struggled with is setting and sticking to goals. Even today I don't do this very well, but I do know what I want to do with a language. Maybe you are interested in the culture and history, you have a family member who only speaks that language, or you need it for work or school. Once you know your main goal(s), don't stop there. Try to break them down into smaller pieces. Benny's “Triage System” (Click here and go to day three and four) where he talks about mini-goals and priorities. Focus on what needs the most urgent attention first, always keeping things in line with your personal goals for how you will use the language.
That said, if you are like me and are interested in fantasy novels, once you're advanced enough you can read Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, or any other story that has been written in, or translated into, your target language. Like poetry? Read the work of famous poets in that language. How about movies or TV shows? Find topics and areas of interest that you would normally like in your own native language and use those things to further your studies, especially if they help your main goal(s) of speaking, reading, or whatever it is.
“Hold on!” You might say. “Isn't all that for intermediate and advanced learners?” Technically it's a tricky issue when you're still a beginner, but beginners don’t have to be stuck with children's books and cartoons (I do like cartoons, though, anime mostly). There is one method that can be extremely useful called the Telenovela Method which can be used with almost any language. Click the link for more info, as it's too much to discuss here. Otherwise, if you follow at least some of my advice in this article you will be out of the beginner stage much sooner and, though it might be difficult, you can begin working on native materials (which is what I prefer). Don't be afraid, but also don't try to read Anna Karenina when you first start out!
Regardless of your position on the “speak now or wait” debate, everyone agrees that you need to have a lot of exposure to a language. This is one of the major cornerstones of my personal approach, and for good reason. Now, this section is called “immersion,” but don't be fooled. These days you do not have to be in a country where the language is spoken, although it is definitely much better, especially because you get direct experience of the culture. I managed to reach a B2 level in Spanish in only seven months (and that was without really having any idea of what I was doing at first), and although I was living in Arizona, I almost never used it, encountered it, or interacted with native speakers outside of Skype. So how did I get enough exposure to Spanish? I created a bubble of immersion.
What is an immersion bubble? Basically, you surround yourself with the language, and you do it constantly. Some of the things I did/do everyday:
- Listened to Spanish music whenever I could: driving/riding my bike, going to the store, when I was relaxing, doing dishes, etc. Music is extremely important and useful. Try singing along and look up the lyrics (it helps a lot).
- A possible replacement for music are podcasts, either for language learners or actual native material. Native material is preferred unless you are a complete beginner.
- Change the language of your devices to the target language (computer, phone, etc.). This forces you to interact with the language.
- Watching TV shows (from level B1 onward). Preferably at least one episode per day.
- Reading. I tried for two hours per day if it was possible. A minimum of about twenty minutes works, but more is better. I really prefer to skip children's books and move to native material as quickly as possible (online articles, light novels, etc.) and I always try to focus on things that I am interested in.
- Check out the difference between extensive and intensive reading in my other article.
- Make sure when reading, not to learn the wrong pronunciation. Reading out loud, if possible, is highly preferred and make sure to have a native speaker check your pronunciation of different words. Reading with a native or teacher could be a very helpful exercise.
- A fantastic combination of reading and music is to use Learning with Texts, which I discussed in another italki article.
As you can see, the basic idea here is to surround yourself with the language as much as possible. I cannot overemphasize how important this point is. Now, when it comes to passive listening, it doesn't hurt, but active listening is needed much of the time.
One Language Only
Another critical point is to minimize the use of any language that is not the one you are learning. Of course, this applies to general day-to-day activities, but if nothing else, you should study as much as possible in that language. A great example is if you're using a program like Anki for flashcards, you should get pictures, audio, and example sentences and block out the target word (click here). You can give yourself hints in your own native language, but avoid this if possible. For example, when you were a child, you learned that the orange or blue thing that burns you is called “fire.” If English is not your native language, maybe it was 火 (hee), fuego, or something else, but the concept/object is the same. By learning words this way as often as possible, you cut down on your brain's need to translate and create a natural impression in your mind, just as you did with your native language. This is also very important to get into the “flow” of the language and avoid the bad habit of directly translating.
Lastly, if you do use a flashcard program that you can access from your phone (Anki is great for this, too), you can find a lot of time to study. On the bus? Do some flashcards. In the elevator? Do some flashcards. Walking somewhere and need to wait for the traffic lights to change? That's right, flashcards!
This section might be a bit controversial in some ways. Everyone seems to have their nearly religious view of when you should start speaking, some even going so far as to say that if you speak too early you will fossilize mistakes, meaning that it will be very hard or impossible to speak naturally or error-free in the future. Directly opposite to the input-only approach is the speak early approach, most famously supported by Benny the Irish polyglot. In truth, speaking is as much a part of my personal approach as immersion is, and both Steve Kaufmann (who is a big supporter of reading and listening first) and Benny are my heroes.
Now, I started speaking late (or what I consider late), which was about four months into my studies. To this day, speaking is my weakest skill. I've spent an average of about three to four hours per week speaking. As I progressed, I realized the importance of speaking for development more and more and from now on I will begin speaking within the first month of studying a language. Unlike Benny, I like to take a little time to feel a bit comfortable with the basics.
In my experience, talking (and writing) seems to help solidify what you know. So the more you speak and the sooner you start, the faster you will be able to use the words and phrases you have learned. I think it increases the conversion of passive vocabulary to active vocabulary. There may be evidence for or against this, but that is my personal experience from my own studies and from watching Benny learn languages. Being fluent in three months, at times reaching C1 level, has to be proof of some kind for the power of speaking.
About Speed and “Gifted People”
Now might be a good time to mention two important points:
Point # 1: The faster you learn something, the faster you forget it. So, it is absolutely critical that you continuously learn and use what you've learned, taking time not to rush. Language learning, as with most things, is all about repetition, so either make time for reviewing old material every once in a while and/or study each area for a longer period. I find that speaking is excellent for solidifying the information that you're learning so you don't have to review it as much.
Point #2: When talking about language learning, “gifted people” are very rare. People often use this as an excuse: “He speaks four languages? He's simply gifted with languages. An ordinary person could never do that!” If you believe this, I hate to tell you but it's simply not true (and I personally aim to prove it, as many others have). Half of language learning is about perspective and motivation. You already speak a language, don't you? Age has very little to do with it, so simply enjoy the journey and don't doubt yourself!
Thinking in the Language
One huge aspect of learning a language fast (or at all) isn't just speaking, but thinking in the target language. Just like with the Fluent-Forever method mentioned above, this helps to cut down on your brain's need to translate and makes the language flow more naturally. At first, especially if it's with your first foreign language, it is really hard. Sometimes, I used to get a small headache, but after a little while it becomes much easier and, just like with speaking, the more you do it, the easier it gets. This of course helps your speaking ability as well and, in my view, it also speeds up your intuitive “feeling” for the language.
One word of advice: if you're trying to think of how to say something and you are not 100% sure, write it down and ask a native. This is critical, especially at the early stages, but don't get stressed out if you can't write down every little thing you think of. A great place to practice thinking is in the shower, for example, where it might be a little difficult to write things down!
Writing isn't quite as important as speaking unless you need to write a lot (maybe for work or school), and this also depends on the language. Learning to write and spell in Spanish is much easier than in English or (worse) Chinese. However, writing can play a very important role in how fast you learn a language. What I try to do is every day that I don't have a conversation, I write something. Writing is a productive activity like speaking, but you have more time to think and you can look up words (I try to avoid this if I can). It's almost like a personal playground with the language where you can play around with it. In speaking, this isn't as easy or as personal because you need to keep up with the other person and share the language space with them.
I normally put the least emphasis on writing in my personal studies unless it's a language that demands this practice (such as Japanese, or even French). Writing is really great to practice spelling, but remember to practice using and listening to words as it's very easy to learn the wrong pronunciation. Forvo is always great for double-checking or learning the pronunciation of a word.
Useful Topics (Targeted Output)
Always remember that language learning is very personal, but at the same time a shared experience. One way to drastically increase your communication ability is to go topic-by-topic. Depending on your level, this could be as simple as talking about the weather: what are the words and phrases related to the weather? How do they differ from my language (Example: Spanish: Hace calor = It makes hot.)? How are they similar? Or, if you are an intermediate to advanced learner, it could be about your interests: politics, the environment, engineering, philosophy, etc. Learn how to express the things that you would normally want to express in your native language instead of trying to learn how to say everything or letting some person or course tell you that you need to learn about certain topics. However, some things are universal, such as talking about hunger and thirst. If you're not sure, let a teacher help you.
Finally, make mistakes, make mistakes, and make more mistakes! You're going to do it, no one wants to do it, but it's better to get it out of the way early and get comfortable with the language. I hate (or even despise) making mistakes, but they don't bother me much anymore because I have accepted that it's going to happen. You will gain confidence if you just keep trying, I promise! Making friends and having patient teachers who you feel comfortable with help too.
Grammar as a Tool for Massive Expansion
I wrote a lot about this topic in another article, so I won't go into too much detail here. The basic idea is that you find patterns and apply the 80/20 rule to determine the importance of certain grammar topics. Break things down. For example, in Spanish, there are three types of verb endings: -ar, -er, and -ir.
- Hablar: to speak
- Beber: to drink
- Escribir: to write
In many cases, -er and -ir verbs share conjugation patterns, which automatically reduces your stress and increases your ability even more because there is less work than if each ending had completely different conjugations.
Let's look at a common -ar verb, amar in the present tense:
- Amo (I love)
- Amas (you love)
- Ama (he/she/it loves)
- Amamos (we love)
- Aman (they/you all love)
We can easily see that you simply replace the -ar ending with the appropriate person endings: I (-o), you (-as), etc. That's useful to know, but even more useful (and one of the biggest points) is that now you can conjugate any regular -ar verb in Spanish in the present tense. Though there are a couple differences when it comes to -er and -ir verbs, you can use the same approach, and then you will be able to conjugate any regular verb in the present tense. Congratulations, you have taken a huge step in Spanish!
When it comes to irregular verbs, many are based on simpler forms. An example of this is tener (to have). We also find the verbs contener (to contain), mantener (to maintain/keep), detener (to stop/detain), etc. All of these verbs conjugate exactly like tener!
Identify the things that will give you most benefit, break those things down into simpler parts, and above all, have a positive perspective. Try looking at the pieces of a sentence, or the endings of verbs, like placeholders.
A Final Note on Grammar
There a couple things to keep in mind here. First, don't fear grammar. It doesn't have to be painful. Again, this is the main idea in my other article, so make sure to give it a read. Your perspective means a lot more than the effort needed, and that effort might not be as much as you think. Second, grammar is like knowing how a bicycle works: it might help you ride better or help you understand how the mechanical parts work, but you won't learn how to ride a bike unless you ride it. So, focus more on using and interacting with the language and use grammar as a framework or structure to build on. Lastly, as I said before, make mistakes, make mistakes, and make more mistakes!
Resources for more information: My article on grammar perspective
The 80/20 Rule
The 80/20 rule, or Pareto Principle, is a naturally occurring trend that economist Vilfredo Pareto discovered. This first came from an observation that 80% of his peas came from 20% of his pea pods. This has been shown to be valid in a number of fields, such as maths, certain sciences, economics, and business. Luckily for us, it works excellently for language learning, as well.
Basically, you identify the 20% of work that will give you 80% of the benefit. A very common use of this principle is with vocabulary. Some people don't like to use lists of common words, but this can be a precious resource. Cognates, meaning words that are similar between languages, are also very valuable but very easy to learn as you go; just don't be fooled by false friends.
Whenever I start a language, one of the first things I do, using the Anki method above combined with the goldlist method (my particular approach to this is very time-consuming…) is I begin learning the one thousand most common words. The reason for this is simple: by learning the one thousand most common words you will be able to understand 70% of everyday language. Add another one thousand and you only reach a total of 80%. These numbers vary a little from language to language, but the 80/20 principle still applies. I'm a little crazy here and learn about eighteen words per day over the course of a couple months to reach one thousand words. As I said, my method for this is very time-consuming, but for those with enough time and dedication, it's a really fast way to learn these words (and remember them).
Note: Try to get a balanced source because sometimes, it's a list of the most common words used in writing, speaking or film. A good series of books is A Frequency Dictionary of [Language X].
The 80/20 rule is one of the key aspects of learning a language quickly. Along with immersion and speaking, it serves as one of the key foundations for any language learner, whether you are trying to learn quickly or not, and it's not just about vocabulary, though that's perhaps it's biggest and most famous use. A smaller variation on the 80/20 rule is Benny Lewis' Triage approach that I mentioned before. Simply ask yourself, what is the number one thing, more than anything else, that will give me the most benefit this week? Is it speaking? Speak more than you ever have in a single week. Is it pronunciation? Work on it until your mouth hurts and then work on it some more. You get the idea?
I've already mentioned the 80/20 rule for grammar in the grammar section, which is also explored a bit more in my other article.
Resources for more information: A Frequency Dictionary of [Language X] (insert your target language).
A Final Word on Preferences and Breaks
One thing that cannot be ignored is the importance of breaks, especially when trying to learn a language quickly. I personally experienced burnout a number of times before I realized this. I simply had the feeling at times that I hated Spanish and I never wanted to see or hear it again! I felt overwhelmed. “But,” you might ask, “don't breaks make it take longer to learn a language? After all, the more time you spend doing something, the faster you'll progress, right?” Yes and no. In my experience and from what I've read, breaks actually help you advance even faster! This is true of many activities, not just language learning. Not only does your brain get a well-deserved rest, but the information can process in the back of your mind. There's probably some “optimal frequency” to get the most out of this, but breaks can be done in any way you like. What I do is every Sunday, I do absolutely nothing. I might listen to a few Spanish songs but I don't analyze them. I've noticed that if I don't do this, I'll likely start feeling burnout by the following Wednesday or Thursday because of how much time I try to put in each day (two to four hours if possible). I also take four to five days off every two to three months, which seems to help my level even more.
As I said earlier, language learning is a very personal thing. You are learning a sometimes completely new way to view the world and you have your own reasons for doing so. Anything I mention here can be followed, ignored or modified, and I encourage you to do whatever you want with all this information. Whether you want to just read, just speak or develop all of your skills, it all comes down to what works for you, so experiment and find out! Remember, these tips can help you learn fast(er), but the speed is up to you. I've learned a lot since beginning my Spanish journey and these are things that have worked for me. Once I get a solid C1 level in Spanish, I plan on learning my next language even faster! Happy language learning!!
Most of the resources listed in this article are 100% free.
Other useful resources: LanguagePod101, Duolingo, Spotify (music), The Polyglot Dream.