How to learn a language fast

Old book

Mastering a foreign language is an experience unparalleled by most other rudimentary, run-of-the-mill educative tasks. While I’ve often concerned myself with how to learn a language fast, the sheer act of language learning is enjoyable in and of itself. Why? There are a few reasons.

For one, it’s rare to derive so much pleasure out of the initial stages of learning a thing. You can go from “I have no idea what a single word in this language means” to “I can repeat a dozen phrases” in less than an hour, if you take the right approach.

Aside from practical considerations, it’s incredibly satisfying to know that you’ve suddenly entered into new cognitive territory. All of a sudden, you’re capable of new forms of expression. If you’re already bilingual, you may have on occasion found yourself undertaking different lines of thought depending upon what language you’re currently “thinking in.” While Noam Chomsky makes a claim for universal grammar, I’d argue that things aren’t quite that simple. There are certainly things shared between various languages, and undoubtedly some things about human cognition are universal. Still, though, it seems that different languages shape us in fundamentally different ways. We may all be human by virtue of language, but our culturally and geographically acquired linguistic predilections still create certain cognitive limits (and break down the barriers that other languages might erect).

But, there are difficulties, too. Scott Young and Vat Jaiswal liken the initial stages of language learning to attempting to swim out from the shore against a strong tide: you’re constantly pushed back to shore. Sure, the initial moments of wading into the water are pleasant: these are the initial rewards mentioned above, where you’re suddenly able to say “hello” and “thank you.” Before long, though, you find yourself struggling against the current. You swim as hard as you can, but you’re ferried back to land regardless.

As Young and Jaiswal point out, though, there’s a caveat here: once you reach a certain point, you’re far enough out from the shore that swimming gets easier. In language learning, this is when you’ve developed enough of an operative vocabulary to transform your daily practice from drudgery to rewarding. Once you reach a certain benchmark, your path towards fluency becomes infinitely easier.

How to learn a language fast

Some time ago, I decided I wanted to try to learn a language in three months.

Was I successful? Yes and no.

I definitely didn’t achieve full fluency in three months. Young and Jaiswal attempted to learn four languages in one year by spending three months speaking nothing but each of the languages in turn. They made good progress, without a doubt: you can see their fluency increase in their videos. I’d say that I managed roughly the same increase in fluency as they did in my 90 day endeavor. Which is to say, I went from complete ignorance to relatively comfortable conversational ability, and developed the capacity to understand the odd news article. But, I was still far from fluent.

The topic of learning a language in three months is something that deserves its own blog post. I intend to undertake the challenge again in the future, and hope to do better the second time around with a new language. That said, though, I learned a lot about metalearning (learning about learning, so to speak) along the way, and there are a few things I’d recommend to anyone who’s trying to develop their language ability as quickly as possible.

1. Don’t use flashcards

My first month, I was hooked on flashcards. I was using an introductory language textbook, too, mind you. But flashcards were so rewarding. They’re instant gratification: you get a little burst of dopamine every time you correctly identify the word for “couch” or “to run” or “dinner.”

Ultimately, though, flashcards are unhelpful if you’re looking to learn a language fast. Why? They remove context from learning. The problem with flashcards is that they involve a translation step. Think about it: if you see a single term on a flashcard in a foreign language, you probably think to yourself, “that means (insert word in native language).” Or, at best, you say the word in your head on its own, maybe while conceptualizing the thing itself. Of course, conceptualizing is harder for less concrete words.

Meanwhile, when you read (or hear) a sentence in a foreign language, you can simply follow the sentence for what it is. Granted, this is easier said than done: early on, you’ll struggle to understand anything you read or hear. But, eventually, you’ll be able to read a sentence and simply understand it, the same way you do in your native language. You’re skipping the translation step.

Embedding words into your memory without any context means that you’ll always have to translate them in order to understand them. You’ll never be able to speak spontaneously, and you’ll always be slow to understand what someone says to you. Skip the flashcards.

2. Find a native speaker

My first few weeks, I worked on my own. I used a textbook, a couple of websites, and a lot of audio exercises. Eventually, I decided to find an online language partner. That’s when my progress became exponential.

Working with a native speaker will dramatically increase the speed at which you learn. You’ll be learning everything in context, for one. Plus, you’ll have someone standing by to correct you as often as needed. And, whenever something’s unclear, you can ask for a quick explanation to sort things out. This is where you put the college language class to shame in terms of efficiency.

The best thing about working with a native speaker is you can decide what you’ll talk about, and how the lessons will proceed. This is something I’ll talk about in my third and final point below. Before I get to that, though, I want to reiterate: you absolutely need to work with a native speaker. Seriously. There’s no replacement for it.

Best of all, seeing as how we’re nearly a quarter of the way into the 21st century, you don’t have to find someone to meet up with you in person. Sure, it’s great if you can manage it. But, regardless of where you live or what your schedule’s like, there are plenty of native speakers out there who will gladly work with you. I highly recommend a website called Italki for finding a language partner or tutor. Italki allows you to connect with language partners for language exchange, which is free: you’re able to essentially trade knowledge of your language for tutoring in the native speaker’s language. Alternatively, you can opt for a language tutor: these are professional teachers who can devise a lesson plan for you, and charge by the hour. It can be surprisingly affordable, and you’ll have the advantage of working with someone who’s got teaching experience.

3. Study what interests you

This probably sounds obvious, but it’s not. Maybe it comes as a result of our collective memory of high school language classes, or maybe we’re all just too worried about the “normal” way to do things. Whatever the reason may be, we tend to try and take some sort of “standard” or “traditional” route of vocabulary acquisition. We think to ourselves, “I need to learn about furniture, sports, and the items in my kitchen.” Now, in the long run, you’ll obviously need to know about those things. But, if you don’t particularly care about decorating, cooking, or sports, you can skip all of that vocab for now.

To start, you should learn your target language’s 300 most common words. This chunk of vocabulary comprises an astounding 65% of what we say each day. Spend your time learning vocabulary for things that actually interest you, and continue in the same direction. Once that’s out of the way, though, start learning vocabulary that pertains to the things you’re interested in. If you’re a big chess fan, learn all the words you’d use when talking to someone about chess. If you like soccer, do the same for soccer: learn the names of the positions, and have some conversations with your teacher or language partner about a recent soccer game you watched or played in. The important thing here is to make it relevant: the more invested you are in the vocabulary you’re learning, the better it’ll stick.

The path to fluency

These strategies are just the beginning. If you want to know how to learn a language fast, putting these tips to use will get you to fluency quicker. Ultimately, though, the most important thing is to stay committed. Dedicate a specific amount of time each day to your language study, and stick to it.

If you opt to give the three month fluency experiment a try, here’s my challenge to you. Record a video of yourself at the end of day one. Try to say whatever you’ve just learned in the language. If it’s one sentence, that’s fine. That’s the point. Then, on day 100, do the same thing. Talk about whatever’s on your mind. Talk about your language learning experience, and how you’ve gotten to where you are now. If you’ve followed these tips and put in the time, you’ll be absolutely amazed at the progress you’ve made.


Also published on Medium.