13 Tips on Learning a New Language Fast and Conquering Your Study Goals
“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!
1. Make Using Your Target Language Unavoidable
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. To make fast progress, put yourself in a situation where growth is inevitable.
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!
In China, I was assigned to work at a school in a less industrialized part of 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.
Not living abroad? No problem! There are still plenty of ways to make learning unavoidable, such as:
- Switching your cell phone or social media to the language you are studying
- Committing yourself to a language group
- Finding a conversation partner
- Taping a list of new words to your bathroom and kitchen walls for visual cues
- Designing your home environment so you’ll be surrounded by the language
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. 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. Netflix is a pretty good source for movies across different languages. Pause and repeat to practice pronunciation—that’s what I do and it really helps!
Movies, TV shows, podcasts and online videos for native speakers are actually some of the most fun resources for learning a language. Think of all of the idioms, conversational phrases and essential vocabulary that show up in them. Aside from being interesting, they also immerse you in the culture (different languages can have different ways of expressing humor, for example).
One downside is that as a language learner, you’ll likely have to keep checking what words mean, plus expressions and cultural references can be confusing. To fix this problem for learners, the FluentU program uses interactive, dual-language subtitles:
FluentU takes authentic media clips in your target language and turns these into study material through tools like flashcards, transcripts, a video dictionary and clickable subtitles that explain each word. It also has personalized quizzes that include listening and speaking exercises.
FluentU lets you choose from 10 languages, and it works on both web and mobile (Android and iOS).
3. Use Spaced Repetition Software to Remember Vocabulary
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 and make progress every day.” But is it really that simple?
When you study on your own, it can be tempting to try cramming loads of new vocabulary into your brain and then wait a while before you 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.
To power up your SRS, you can even do sentence mining, where you put sentences on flashcards instead of isolated words.
Replace cramming with spaced repetition software, and you’ll be saving yourself lots of studying time, thus learning faster.
4. Get Plenty of Comprehensible Input
Comprehensible input means material in your target language that you can understand–but it’s still slightly above your level because there are some words or grammar concepts that you don’t know.
According to one of the most influential theories in linguistics, getting comprehensible input is how people acquire and become fluent in a language. It might seem unexpected, but to get good at a language fast, you’d want to get a lot of comprehensible input (listening and reading), especially at the start.
The more comprehensible input you study, the more natural the language will become for you–until you’re actually starting to think in your target language without too much lag.
This is pretty fun to apply because input can mean TV shows, comics, online videos, podcasts or even actual conversations that you overhear in your target language. The catch is that they have to be comprehensible, though. If you watch a movie without understanding the lines at all, take it down a few notches and choose easier material!
This video explains how comprehensible input speeds up the language learning process:
5. Focus on the Most Commonly Used Words and Expressions
The traditional approach is to focus on “textbook learning” by memorizing vocabulary. While this may build your arsenal of new words, it won’t get you very far when actually implementing the language. Speaking a new language is not a formulaic process. It requires quick and flexible thinking. Unless you plan on sounding like a robot, you may want to devote your attention to areas outside vocabulary.
Strategize and prioritize your learning by focusing on what matters. Mandarin is a language of over 3,000 characters. But did you know that by learning the 500 most commonly used words you acquire approximately 75% of language understanding?
This is not just isolated to Mandarin. In just about all languages, about 20% of the vocabulary accounts for 80% of understanding. So why waste time trying to learn more words?
While vocabulary is important, it must be considered holistically when learning a new language. Identify what words, phrases and expressions will get you the most bang for your buck, and work from there. You can start with practical, colloquial topics then work your way up from there.
You can also let someone else do that work for you by taking the “I Will Teach You A Language” Conversations course, which is designed to get you talking by systematically introducing you to your target language’s most common words and phrases.
6. Find Your Saturation Point Through Immersion
Another excellent method for making fast progress is intensive immersion. And yes, you can achieve this wherever you are!
With intensive immersion, you don’t 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.
7. Practice Speaking Right Away
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.
Don’t wait for your skills to get great—practice 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!
For faster progress, you’ll have to value fluency over accuracy, which is one of the most difficult, yet powerful concepts to comprehend.
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.
So 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.
8. Set SMART Goals and Optimize Your Schedule
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.
Part of this would also be coming up with 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!
Just to show you how much you can achieve if you’re consistent, here’s a video about how FSI (Foreign Service Institute) diplomats manage to learn different languages to fluency through intensive study:
According to the FSI scale, FSI students could learn Italian, French, Spanish and other languages similar to English in 24-30 weeks or 600-750 class hours, while languages like Chinese and Japanese can be learned in 88 weeks or 2,200 class hours.
The more hours that you put into regularly studying a language, the faster you’ll make progress with it. This is called your time investment. Time is your greatest asset and speed-learning is the endeavor—so prioritize the investment to see rapid results!
9. 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 for completing them by the next time you meet.
10. Consider Investing in Tutoring or Other Resources
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.
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. You could also pay for a course, subscribe to a learning service or take classes on the side.
We wouldn’t expect professional services for free. We shouldn’t necessarily think language learning should be gratis, either. By investing in a professional and high-quality learning resource, you’ll be giving yourself the best chance at learning effectively… and quickly.
11. 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.
12. Become Passionate About Learning Your New Language
Hobbies are activities we enjoy doing at our own leisure. They are simply for the purpose of fun, but there’s no pressure to keep at them every day. If you treat your new language like a hobby, it can mean the difference between you spending five months and five years when learning a new language. By being nonchalant about learning, you’ll achieve nonchalant results.
Make language learning a passion instead. Merge the fun of language learning with the commitment to follow through. Knowing that you want to learn a new language is not enough to get us to actually take action.
Give yourself clarity on what exactly compels you to learn a new language. Figure out the why behind your desire to learn. What’s the goal behind the goal? What’s the bigger picture here? How will learning a new language open opportunities in your future?
Simply answering these questions for yourself will motivate you on a much higher level to take action when necessary.
13. 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/phrases 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 you up for more learning opportunities.
Remember, 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!