It’s a fast-paced world out there.
How many times have you seen someone waiting at the bus stop, constantly checking their watch, getting more and more frustrated with a delay of just two or three minutes?
It’s no surprise, then, that when people ask for advice on learning languages, the main thing on their minds is often speed.
Language learning involves a hump to get over, an initial investment of time where you put in effort but can’t see the results yet.
A week or even a month of regular study usually won’t get you far in a language, and dropping your studies at that point means you’ll probably forget whatever you did pick up.
But there are plenty of people out there who can pick up languages with incredible efficiency. They can add them to their CVs one after another like a daisy chain.
Have you ever seen a video of someone switching between nine languages?
These people aren’t superhuman.
They’re just ordinary people like you and me, but they’ve poured so much time into this activity that they’ve discovered the key principles to learning a language fast and holding on to it.
Let’s see what those principles are.
4 Keys to the Ability to Learn Languages Quickly
The difference between beginners and experienced language learners is that the experienced ones know how to use their hours efficiently.
Imagine a polyglot picking up Spanish to a conversational level in six months.
Sounds crazy, right? The average person might say “I spent two years learning Spanish and I don’t remember anything!”
But what they really mean was that during those two years they had a class five times a week and summers off—in other words, plenty of opportunities to forget.
To a polyglot, “six months learning Spanish” likely means that they were devoting more than an hour of serious, effective study time every day, plus regular review of their material.
They probably had a similar count of hours on task—but they used them a lot more effectively. Here’s how you can do the same and learn a language effectively.
1. Identify Goals Relevant to Your Life
Unstructured learning is sometimes called “dabbling,” as in “I’m dabbling in painting.” But in the context of language learning it might as well be called “flailing.”
It’s all too common for learners to start half a dozen beginner courses at the same time without any real plan for when they want to finish or how much time they want to spend per day.
Inevitably, after a few weeks, they’ve made little progress, repeated the same first-lesson material over and over, and given up.
That’s not just learning slowly—that’s not learning at all.
Let’s say you really want to pass your university’s required foreign language course.
Your target should certainly be mastering the vocabulary and grammar in the textbook and required readings.
In the same few weeks that you might spend on a general beginner course, you could probably learn half the words in the textbook!
Or, let’s say you’ve planned a trip to a foreign country for next summer. You’ll want to focus a lot of your energy on the tourist situations most likely to happen to you—reading a menu is a big one, as is checking into a hotel.
Brainstorm some situations that you might find yourself in and the likely interactions or vocabulary that will come up. Then use that as a jumping-off point for learning related vocabulary and sentence structures.
Where a general course might have you writing an email to an imaginary pen pal you’ll never meet, you can choose to spend your valuable time on practicing what you know is going to be relevant to you.
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By thinking of targeted things to learn, you’ll find yourself advancing far, far faster than if you were just learning in a general fashion.
2. Never Miss a Day
Sleep is directly linked to memory.
That’s significant for anybody, but especially so when you’re trying to learn and remember all the pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary of a new language.
Advice that boils down to “more studying” may seem out of place in an article about speed learning, but the point is that you have to study efficiently.
Spending three hours once a week on the language is way less efficient than 15 minutes a day, even though in the second scenario you’re only studying about half the time.
If you don’t study regularly and give your brain time to absorb that information overnight, you’ll spend a lot of your study sessions in review time instead of advancing through the material.
How can you keep yourself honest about your study time? Track your hours. You can use a time tracking app or simply keep a regular log.
The simple act of writing down your study time and comparing it to previous days is a natural motivation to do more.
3. Fill Your Hours
Well, don’t literally fill your hours. Seriously filling every waking minute with your target language is a good recipe for burnout and failure.
The mind simply can’t handle that kind of pressure, especially with a new language. No wonder lots of people in immersion programs end up taking refuge with movies and books in their native languages!
What I mean here is to keep touching the language regularly throughout the day. Use some of your dead time to do quick review sessions of what you learned during your longer study periods.
I suggest review sessions because your attention during these short bursts is unlikely to be as fully focused as it would be if you were sitting down and studying. But review doesn’t take as much concentration, and therefore is ideal for multitasking.
This can come in the form of re-listening to an audio course on the bus, messaging an exchange partner on your lunch break or even flipping through a couple of flashcards while you’re standing in a line.
This fits with the previous section about studying every day—by keeping the language fresh in your mind, you’re not only fitting in more study minutes, but you’re also preventing yourself from forgetting and having to waste time re-learning later.
4. Learn with Laser Precision
Figuring out what to learn is a very important step. We’ve already talked about goals, but knowing what to learn to achieve those goals is another factor to consider.
With so much of the language out there in books, movies and websites, you can’t attack it all at once.
One of the most common strategies is to use a frequency list of words to kick-start your vocabulary acquisition. You find, say, the most common 1,000 or 2,000 words in the language and work systematically through the list.
When you know the first 1,000 words, you may be able to understand up to 80 percent of the words you encounter—depending on the genre of the text, of course.
With 2,000 words, that number jumps up to around 85%.
That’s a good strategy, but a better strategy is to target your information and resources even more precisely. Most frequency lists are drawn from newspapers because those are easy to get tons of data for. And that’s great for your purposes if one of your goals is to be able to read a newspaper in your target language. But what if your goals are more speaking-oriented?
If you learn from vocab lists based on subtitles, you’ll find yourself learning what people say instead of what they write.
Depending on your goals for the language, that could make a big difference!
Speaking of speaking, a lot of us have certain turns of phrase that we use more than others. Little things that perhaps set us apart from others in our speech communities.
For instance, I tend to begin a lot of sentences with “I feel like…” and one of the most common idioms I use is “out of the blue.”
To avoid the feeling of being regularly lost for words in your target language, learn how to say these things relatively early.
It doesn’t matter if some teachers consider them to be “more advanced”—the point is, you’re going to have a desire to express certain sentiments in your new language fairly often, and you’ll speak more fluently at an earlier stage if you know how.
There’s one more way to learn a language quickly, and that’s simply practice.
The more you try learning languages, the more effort you put into teaching yourself this concept or that concept—and the faster it all comes.
That’s partially because you get used to seeing links and patterns between languages, and partially because you get to know the way you personally learn.
You know what’s worked for you in the past, and you know what will work for you in the future.
So to really get fast at learning new languages, keep doing it!
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