“I studied Spanish for seven years in school, but all I can remember is hola and adios.”
Learning a new language is one of the most enriching and rewarding skills we can acquire over a lifetime, but why is it so difficult? If you studied a language in school, why are you still unable to carry out a basic conversation?
You don’t want to spend another seven years re-learning a language the wrong way again, so here are five ways to learn a language fast!
How to Learn a Language Fast
1. Put Yourself in a Situation Where Growth Is Inevitable
If you give yourself an option of using your language skills, chances are you will choose to not use them. Our brain will instinctively choose the decision that is simple and requires less thought. Like acquiring any new skill, learning a new language is going to require strong will. You must consciously lock yourself outside your comfort zone and not allow yourself to step back inside it for a while. It’s not an easy decision, and may require some creative thought, but the results are well worth the effort.
Many people say the best way to learn a new language is by living in the country—this is not true! More often than not, when you are in that country, the natives will want to practice their English skills when they see you. We live in a world where English is a desirable and lucrative skill to have, so most foreign countries will have an English-speaking population, especially around the larger cities. In this situation, growth is not inevitable; it is still optional.
But is it truly possible to keep ourselves in a situation where we have no choice but to use our language skills? Yes!
When I moved to China, I was assigned to work at a school in a less industrialized part of the Shenzhen. Although it was a city of over 12 million people, it was rare to find any Chinese people fluent in English. Most of the time, I was the only foreigner within a given 5-mile radius. This was insanely frustrating at first, but it forced me to start learning the language. If I wanted to order food at a restaurant or find my way around the city, I had to start communicating with the locals. Within a few weeks, I acquired dozens of new, useful phrases that may have taken me months to learn otherwise.
Not living abroad? No problem! There are still plenty of ways to make learning unavoidable. Some of these might include switching your cell phone or social media to the language you are studying, committing yourself to a language group or finding a conversation partner. You can even try visual cues by taping a list of new words to your bathroom and kitchen walls.
You might also want to consider checking out Olly Richard’s Language Learning Foundations video course, which helps solve the commitment problem by walking you through the immediate concerns of learning a language to fluency. It’s applicable to any language, but you’ll receive specific guidance, including “homework” to keep you on your toes.
By forcing yourself into such situations where you must use your target language, you’re guaranteed to learn faster.
2. Value Fluency over Accuracy
Another way to learn at a more rapid pace is to value fluency over accuracy, which is one of the most difficult, yet powerful concepts to comprehend. First, let’s clarify what I mean by “fluency” and “accuracy.”
Fluency is the ability to express oneself easily and articulately. It means using the language smoothly in real time.
Accuracy, on the other hand, is the ability to be correct and precise. It means communicating without any grammatical, vocabulary, tonal and other errors.
Yes, these two are distinct entities. You can be fluent in a language without having 100% accuracy. Alternatively, you can have language accuracy while still not being anywhere near fluent. The ultimate goal when learning a new language is to use it fluently, not accurately.
This does mean we should forget the importance of accuracy. Yes, you may have slip-ups when using your new language, and that’s okay. Think about times when you didn’t accurately follow the rules of your native language, but you were still perfectly understood by others. It happens more than we realize.
When beginning to learn a new language, resist the urge to start learning as many words as possible. Resist the urge to say each sentence perfectly. Language cannot be learned from a textbook alone. Instead, focus on learning practical, colloquial topics and work your way up from there. You’ll save yourself a lot of time and stress.
3. Replace Cramming with Spaced Repetition Software
In Mandarin, there’s the saying: 好好学习天天向上 which means, “Study hard every day and you will improve.” But is it really that simple?
When you do study on your own, it can be tempting to try cramming loads of new vocabulary into our brains and then waiting a while before we study again. While this may be effective in the short term, it is ultimately not the way to develop a long-lasting memory.
Treat learning a new language different than you would studying for an exam. There are more effective ways to memorize information that improve the likeliness of long-term learning, such as spaced repetition software (SRS). SRS are computer programs modeled after a process similar to using flashcards. These flashcards are generated by sophisticated algorithms that space out the time intervals indicated when each card will appear again on the screen.
In other words, easier cards appear less frequently that harder cards, allowing users to spend more time studying the cards that are more difficult. The tough ones continue showing up until they are mastered, giving you the chance to actively learn them more efficiently than other learning styles.
By replacing cramming with spaced repetition softwares, you’ll be saving yourself lots of studying time, and thus learn faster.
Once you start using SRS, finding quality learning examples and sentences are going to become a chore.
After all, it’s not enough to just memorize a lot of words.
What you really need is a nuanced understanding of them, and you can only get that from actual examples.
If you know what I mean, you’ll want to check out FluentU, the best way to learn a language with real-world videos. FluentU takes real-world videos like music videos, movie trailers, news, and inspiring talks, and turns them into language learning experiences. There is a video-based review “learn mode”, which of course has an SRS feature.
FluentU has a wide variety of videos like movie trailers, funny commercials and web series, as you can see here:
FluentU has interactive captions that let you tap on any word to see an image, definition, audio and useful examples. Now native language content is within reach with interactive transcripts.
Didn’t catch something? Go back and listen again. Missed a word? Hover your mouse over the subtitles to instantly view definitions.
You can learn all the vocabulary in any video with FluentU’s “learn mode.” Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
And FluentU always keeps track of vocabulary that you’re learning. It uses that vocab to give you a 100% personalized experience by recommending videos and examples.
So with FluentU, you can learn from authentic, real-world content, and still enjoy SRS. Now you can focus 100% of your time on actually learning.
There’s no shame in asking someone else for help. So do it! Asking for help is an action you should be proud of. It shows you take your learning seriously and will do whatever it takes to become a master in your desired skill.
With that said, having the support of another person will accelerate your learning immensely. No matter what stage you are at in learning your new language, find someone who is also trying to learn the language. Schedule times to meet up and share any progress and offer feedback for one another. Exchange resources or tips that have been helpful to you.
This can also be a great time to practice your skills with each other. Best of all, you can set goals and hold each other accountable to completing them by the next time you meet.
5. Learn from (and Celebrate) Every Mistake
If you are living in an environment that allows you to practice your new language, congrats! Now get ready to make a lot of mistakes. It’s best to leave your ego out of the situation when doing something as difficult as learning a new language. Leave any desires for perfection and any fears of judgment at the door.
You can be the smartest person in the world, but if you are stubborn or defensive, you’ll shield yourself from endless opportunities for growth. Keep in mind that many natives will be grateful and appreciative of your attempt to learn such an important part of their culture. Congratulate yourself for even the smallest mistakes because it means you are trying.
As you go about your day-to-day life and practice using your new language, resist the urge to judge each conversation as a success or failure. It’s tempting to be our own worst critic and beat ourselves up for not remembering a particular word or knowing how to clearly express a thought. Instead, approach each interaction as a new opportunity for you to learn something.
Reflect on each conversation and give yourself constructive feedback. Some things you might want to think about are:
- What words/phrase would have served me in that conversation?
- What new words did I hear/see?
- How could I more effectively have a similar conversation in the future?
When you start embracing the ups and downs of the learning process, you’ll better enjoy and appreciate the journey, which sets yourself up for more learning opportunities.
Remember, the success comes from the simple fact that you are trying. Use these tips and you’ll be well on your way to learning a new language with grace, speed and ease. Good luck!
Frank Macri works with those looking to create off the beaten path lifestyles. For tips on saving (and making) money abroad, unique options to travel for a living, and wisdom picked up around the world, visit www.TheFrankLife.com.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn languages with real-world videos.