“I studied Spanish for seven years in school, but all I can remember is hola (hello) and adios (goodbye).”
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 nine ways to learn a language fast!
How to Learn a New Language Fast: 9 Tips That Actually Work
1. Put Yourself in a Situation Where Growth Is Inevitable
If you give yourself an option of using your language skills, chances are you’ll choose to not use them. Our brain will instinctively choose the decision that’s 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.
Use your target language as much as you can
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’re 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 isn’t inevitable; it’s 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 five-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.
Bring the language home to you
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.
Find your saturation point through immersion
An excellent method for making fast progress is intensive immersion. And yes, you can achieve this wherever you are!
The key is not to ease up one bit on the target language. Make every area of your life part of your language program. That means you should listen to the news and music in the language, speak only the language—just make every option available in only the target language!
Create a period of relentless study and so much language it feels like on-site immersion. And when you think you can’t stand one more bit of the language? That’s the time to intensify your study.
Force your brain to begin thinking and responding in the target language.
Consider every minute of the day prime time for language study, and that includes your nighttime hours, too. I know a number of language learners who adhere to the technique of listening to languages while they’re sleeping. Play music, turn on some lessons or let the foreign-language films play while you rest.
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.
Focus on usability, not thoroughness
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.
Start speaking right away
Don’t wait for your skills to get great—begin speaking immediately. Just dive right in! Speak aloud, name everything and engage in conversations with anyone available. If you don’t have a language partner (more about this later in the post), talk to yourself. Now is the time to do that!
Expect to make mistakes—and be grateful for them. You don’t have the time to fret over language blunders, so just learn from them and move on. Remember, practice makes perfect—so practice constantly.
The more you practice (and make mistakes) the more you’ll learn. We learn from our mistakes, right? That definitely applies to fast-tracking a language!
3. Replace Cramming with a Spaced Repetition Software
In Mandarin, there’s a saying: 好好学习天天向上 (hǎo hǎo xué xí, tiān tiān xiàng shàng) 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’s ultimately not the way to develop a long-lasting memory.
Treat learning a new language differently 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 than 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 software, you’ll be saving yourself lots of studying time, and thus learn faster.
Pair SRS with authentic language resources
Once you start using SRS, finding quality learning examples and sentences is 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.
With FluentU, you hear languages in real-world contexts—the way that native speakers actually use them. Just a quick look will give you an idea of the variety of FluentU videos on offer:
FluentU really takes the grunt work out of learning languages, leaving you with nothing but engaging, effective and efficient learning. It’s already hand-picked the best videos for you and organized them by level and topic. All you have to do is choose any video that strikes your fancy to get started!
Each word in the interactive captions comes with a definition, audio, image, example sentences and more.
Access a complete interactive transcript of every video under the Dialogue tab, and easily review words and phrases from the video under Vocab.
You can use FluentU’s unique adaptive quizzes to learn the vocabulary and phrases from the video through fun questions and exercises. Just swipe left or right to see more examples of the word you're studying.
The program even keeps track of what you’re learning and tells you exactly when it’s time for review, giving you a 100% personalized experience.
Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes store or Google Play store.
4. Invest the Necessary Time
Maximize your time investment.
That is, commit to as many hours each day as possible to dedicated language learning.
It makes sense. If you wanted to grow your financial investment portfolio, you’d pump as much of your assets into the endeavor as possible. Time is your greatest asset and speed-learning is the endeavor—so prioritize the investment to see rapid results.
Fast, short-term growth means you have to grab some foundational skills to build upon. A foolproof way to do that? Invest the time—it’s so commonsense and logical that many learners often overlook this point’s importance.
Set SMART goals for fast language learning
SMART is the acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely. SMART goals help you determine the specific milestones you want to hit, how you’re going to reach those milestones, the attainability of your goal, the reason for the plan and the time frame you have to accomplish this task.
SMART goals leave little wiggle room and are helpful, especially when facing a deadline!
Create—and stick to—an optimized schedule
Determine a schedule that’ll ensure your success at meeting your goal of speed learning.
If you’re wondering how you can possibly squeeze another hour of anything into your already busy day, here are a few tips:
- Suspend your social media browsing habit or YouTube video binges. Put those hours toward exercising your language skills instead. It’s not forever, just for the quick-learn adventure.
- Rise before the sun. I’m not kidding—set your alarm to wake you an hour or two earlier than your normal routine time. Use those bonus hours to work on language acquisition. Many people, myself included, feel extra alert at this quiet time of the day. Without the day’s noisy distractions, these hours can be pure gold for learners.
However you do it, make sure your schedule adheres to your SMART goal. In other words, be ambitious but realistic!
5. Make Learning Fun
Let’s be honest: Would you rather do something because it’s an obligation or for the sheer joy of doing it?
No need to answer out loud. We all agree that fun trumps “duty” any day!
So an important trick to learning a language quickly is to take it out of the must-do portion of your life and drop it into the entertainment section. Even if you’re learning a language out of necessity—whether it’s for education, employment or another reason—treat it as an entertaining adventure.
Don’t make language learning a duty call. It’s time to find some super fun and appealing methods to grab some skills as quickly as possible.
Study with entertaining and fun resources
To make studying fun, bring in some resources that you actually enjoy. Here are two suggestions:
- Gamify language learning. Download apps that add an element of gaming into your learning. Look for board games in your target languages. Try an old favorite or, for a bit of cultural exposure, pick a game that originates in the country where your target language is spoken. Don’t forget online games—simply type “Games in (language)” and see what comes up. Chances are, you’ll have lots of options.
- This is the time for movies to make an appearance in your language program. It might seem like a time-waster but I assure you, it’s not. Whenever I want to brush up on language skills or learn a language in a short period of time, I settle in for a Netflix binge.
Of course, it’s only one element of my language-learning program, but it’s an effective way to power up language skills almost effortlessly. Think of all of the idioms, conversational phrases and essential vocabulary that shows up in films. Pause and repeat to practice pronunciation—that’s what I do and it really helps!
6. Plan a Virtual Trip
Who wouldn’t love to fly off to a country to learn a language? Immersion programs sound like heaven to travelers and language lovers but for most of us, they aren’t feasible. (Jobs, families and other obligations. Remember those? The things that keep us grounded?)
But if you can’t go traveling in real life, there’s no reason you can’t plan a trip. Virtual travel won’t get you a slice in a Roman pizzeria or a seat in a Munich beer garden but it’ll certainly engage you so well that you’ll want to learn as much about a culture—and language!—as possible. And quickly, too!
The key to this strategy is to investigate traveling options as if you were actually going to grab your passport and head to your dream location. You need to act as if time is of the essence, which makes it imperative that you gather as much information—particularly language skills—as possible!
Prepare as if you had a one-way plane ticket. Read up on local attractions in the target language. Nearly every country has a webpage and most allow visitors to choose a language for the material they showcase. Choose the target language and add some authenticity to your planning! And, don’t forget to learn some travel phrases. They’re often part of the country’s webpage!
Find a virtual host in the destination country online. Start a friendly chat in the language. Ask questions about the area and its attractions and culture.
7. Find a Language Partner
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 that 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’re at in learning your new language, find someone who’s 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.
8. Open Your Wallet
Sometimes, we get what we pay for and if we want something badly enough or it’s absolutely crucial that we obtain it, we need to be willing to put our purchasing power to use.
We wouldn’t expect professional services for free. We shouldn’t necessarily think language learning should be gratis, either.
So while it’s great that there are so many free language-learning options available, if you’re trying to learn the most in a time crunch, you may need to make an investment. Pay for a course. Subscribe to a learning service. By investing in a professional and high-quality learning resource, you’ll be giving yourself the best chance at learning effectively… and quickly.
Consider hiring a tutor
Hiring a tutor is a good option for getting on the fast track to language success. Look for qualified tutors at universities and colleges, on Craigslist or even on the message boards in local businesses. Many tutors offer their services on those boards, so it’s a good idea to check them out.
Also, remember to interview any potential tutors to be sure you’re finding the right person for the job. Discuss price, scheduling and language qualifications.
Don’t want to leave your home? No problem: There are plenty of online tutoring services you can turn to.
9. Learn from (and Celebrate) Every Mistake
If you’re 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’re 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.