Can you really learn a language in just half a year?
When it comes to learning a language fast, a few experts are cited repeatedly: Chris Lonsdale, who gave a popular TEDx talk entitled “How to learn any language in six months;” Benny Lewis, founder of “Fluent in 3 Months” and Tim Ferriss, who also purports to answer the question “How to learn any language in three months.”
In this post, I’ll highlight some of the most important themes from each of those three experts, then, I’ll help you bring it all together to create your own six-month study plan.
- Can I Learn a Language in 6 Months? What the Experts Say
- So, What Should You Do to Learn a Language in 6 Months?
Can I Learn a Language in 6 Months? What the Experts Say
Chris Lonsdale Says: Start Using the Language Immediately
Lonsdale bases his approach around a set of language learning principles and actions. Here are some takeaways that are most important to our goal of learning a language in six months:
- Listen to your target language a lot, right from the start.
- Remember that understanding is about more than knowing all the words. Use facial expressions, body language, context and style to get meaning right from the get-go, even before you worry about knowing every vocabulary word.
- Focus on core language. In other words, focus on learning high-frequently vocabulary that’s most relevant to you. Lonsdale notes that for most learners, this early “core” language will include sentences like “how do you say that?” and “repeat that please.”
- Get a language partner (or in Lonsdale’s terminology, a “language parent”). This is a native speaker who’ll support you on your journey and speak to you regularly.
Unfortunately for us, Lonsdale doesn’t exactly answer the question of how to get there in six months. Nevertheless, we can use these actions to help us when we’re creating our study plan.
Benny Lewis Says: “Hack” Language Studies for Faster Learning
Irish blogger Lewis has become popular with his talent as a polyglot, gaining a strong online following. He gave a TEDx talk on “Rapid Language Hacking” to lay out the foundations of his language-learning-fast philosophy:
- Forget the idea that language is a “talent” you either have or you don’t. He claims to have thought he was completely useless at them before starting with Spanish! This myth of language learning talent also comes up in Lonsdale’s talk.
- Remember, it’s almost impossible to know nothing of a language. With nearby languages, there are cognates, i.e. words with the same root: for example, English shares roots of -tion words with Latinate languages like Spanish and Italian.
As an Italian learner, it’s very useful for me to be able to guess at words like nazione (nation). Meanwhile, even the most unrelated languages now have a shared vocabulary (Coca-Cola, anyone?).
- Take advantage of the internet to start communicating right away. If you live in a city, there will almost certainly be people who speak your target language around. Otherwise, find friends of friends who would be willing to Skype you from time to time. You can even check out italki to find a language exchange partner or professional tutor for one-on-one lessons.
- Use mnemonics to remember words and expressions. This could be thinking of a sound the word reminds you of, or singing an expression to a simple melody.
- Create SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Ambitious, Realistic, Time-bound. In other words, you should pick concrete goals that’ll challenge you without overwhelming you, and give yourself a deadline for achieving them. We’ll discuss how to do this more specifically later in this post.
- Like Lonsdale, Lewis says that you should use the language right away. And make mistakes! This will help you to learn and to get over embarrassment about speaking with native speakers.
Lewis uses a lot of languages in his talk, which lends authenticity. He definitely knows what he’s talking about!
Tim Ferriss Says: The 80:20 Rule Means You Can Achieve a Lot in a Little Time
Taking a different tack from the motivational TEDx style of Lewis and Lonsdale, Tim Ferriss takes a more theoretical approach to the goal of learning a language in a few months. He has a three-point approach to language-learning, which incorporates the following:
- Effectiveness: Pick learning materials that’ll work for you and your goals (i.e. “effective”).
- Adherence: Keep motivated and prioritize learning in your life so that you adhere to your study routine.
- Efficiency: Make sure your study regimen and tools are propelling you forward at a reasonable rate.
Importantly, he refers to the Pareto Principle, also known as the 80:20 rule. This is the idea that 80 percent of results of any task come from 20 percent of the input, material or effort. He applies this to learning a language, arguing that—although total language mastery might take years of applied learning—it’s perfectly possible to achieve conversational fluency in three months.
How? Like Lonsdale, Ferriss emphasizes relevance of learning: Don’t read something you wouldn’t care to read about in your native language, as it’ll make it harder to understand, engage with and remember. So, if you’re a Japanese learner interested in baseball, reading about the Japanese leagues might be a perfect place to start.
So, What Should You Do to Learn a Language in 6 Months?
All these guys take a different approach to tackling the problem, but there are clearly some common themes across all of them. With all that in mind, what should your plan of action be to learn your chosen language in six months?
Step 1: Start Using Your Target Language Today
This is something all of our experts agree on, but it might sound counterintuitive to beginner language learners. How can you start using a language before you’ve learned any of it?
We can go back to what Benny Lewis said: In all languages, you already have some words you can access, and when you’re speaking face-to-face or over Skype with someone you can use hands, facial expressions, noises, props and so on to get your meaning across.
I had a very memorable conversation with a Korean learner of English in Seville, who was using limited vocabulary to explain to us the history of a particular Korean liquor. It was (intentionally) hysterically funny, so don’t worry about your speaking partner getting irritated!
Find a native speaker near you, take a trip or go online to find chat buddies. It doesn’t matter if you make mistakes—you will!—as this is all part of the process of learning. As you begin to speak, you’ll get familiar with building sentences, listening to the sound of the language and hearing common phrases and expressions.
Step 2: Familiarize Yourself with the Core Language
A common theme from our expert friends was focusing your early learning on core language. In English, for example, this would include functional words like and, the, a, pronouns, such as she, I, they and the most commonly used verbs like to have, to be and to do.
When you’re in the early stages of learning a language, there will be a steep upward curve as you start to see how you go from saying single words to sentences, and learning these words will form the basis of that.
How do you know which words to learn? Ferriss lists the 100 most common words in written and spoken English, which you can use if you’re an English learner, or otherwise compare to key words in your target language. You could also try searching for your target language plus the term “common words” on Memrise, a digital flashcard app. There are many such lists covering Spanish, Korean, French, Dutch and much more.
All the while, you should be going back to step one: whenever you learn something new, incorporate it into your speaking. For example, in Italian I’ve been trying to correctly use phrases featuring the word ecco, which is similar to the French voila. This means I’ve recently been walking around like a child, pointing at things and shouting “There it is!” Now I think I’ve got it.
Step 3: Set Those SMART Goals
While a lot of learning will happen naturally as you speak and listen and read and write, you can’t take that for granted. You’ll of course have to put in effort.
Moreover, set SMART goals, as we discussed above. It’s one thing to say you want to be fluent in six months, but what does fluency mean for you?
I can give you an example of a goal I set myself last fall. By Christmas, I wanted to be able to hold a full conversation with my Italian girlfriend’s 5-year-old niece. So, it was:
- Specific: A successful conversation with a specified person.
- Measurable: Did I do it or not?
- Ambitious: She speaks no English and, as a child, doesn’t always understand that not everyone gets what she says, so it’s a challenge!
- Realistic: I wasn’t expecting to debate the finer points of continental philosophy with a college professor…
- Time-bound: I knew I had to get it done by Christmas.
This was a huge help. I focused on language that would allow me to have that conversation—school, family, toys—and I practiced it whenever I could. The result: success!
Step 4: Use Learning Material You Care About
Our experts note that you need to practice your target language with material that matters to you.
You might consider videos and music to help with your listening. You can use YouTube to find all sorts of different videos. While I was learning Spanish, I picked up a great deal from the rap group Calle 13. Finding music you love in your target language is a fantastic thing to do, as you can listen to it over and over, understanding a little more each time.
Nowadays you can find news sites online in any language, and these are really useful for your reading skills. The language tends to be very functional and informative (whereas literary works are often a little challenging in the early stages) and it’s relevant to a wide range of language learners since it gives you up-to-date vocabulary that native speakers are using in their day-to-day lives.
You might also find it useful and entertaining to watch movies and TV shows to learn a new language. I don’t recommend watching passively, though: harness the power of movies and TV shows to immerse yourself in the language.
There are also a number of language learning programs that allow you to learn a language by watching videos and listening to audio clips. They also have the plus of typically including interactive features to make learning more direct and efficient.
One such program is FluentU. Each video comes with clickable captions you can use to explore the meaning and context of any word that’s unfamiliar to you. The videos are updated regularly so you’re sure to find topical, authentic material that native speakers watch themselves. Then, FluentU’s “Learn Mode” creates flashcards and exercises that’ll ensure you actually learned from the video you watched.
In other words, it’s comprehension practice that aligns exactly with what the experts say: to learn a language fast, you need to use relevant, engaging materials.
The right material can make your studies more engaging, which can then spur your learning speed and efficiency.
Step 5: Look Up the Grammar
You can practice all you like, but you still have to understand the grammar, right? Well, yes. But grammar study doesn’t have to be the repetitive trawling through books and verb tables that it was in school—this can be the thing that really hampers your attempts to get fluent fast.
If you notice a certain grammatical form when people are speaking to you, look it up! It’ll elucidate the reasoning and allow you to incorporate it into your speaking (back to step one!), which is far better than studying grammar in isolation.
Makes sense, right? Drilling dry grammar rules out of a textbook will only get you so far. For most people, that’s so boring as to kill your drive to learn. But even for people who thrive on book learning, if you’re not seeing and using grammar rules in context, they’ll have very little impact on your actual, measurable language development.
All of this ties into the core principles we’ve been discussing. Make all of your learning relevant and comprehensible, and you’ll hit your target in no time.
Step 6: Keep It Enjoyable
The final step is to go back to one of Ferriss’ principles: adherence. Learning a language should be a challenge but not a chore. If you’re reading this blog, I’m sure you’ll agree that one of the great joys in life is to be able to communicate in a new language, and ultimately speaking is far more important than passing an exam.
So make sure you have fun in your language studies to keep that motivation up for all six months of your study plan. If you’re not sure how to do this, here are a couple of ideas that have worked for me:
- Make it competitive. I’m an incredibly competitive person, so for me, adding elements of a game can make it extra rewarding to learn a language. This could be with another person: although this shouldn’t be about one-upmanship, finding a friend who wants to learn and testing yourself against each other can be a big help.
- Write a song. Use some of the vocabulary you have learned to create ditties or translate your favorite song into your new language.
- Use humor. Ask your language partner to tell you some jokes. Once you start understanding foreign-language jokes, you really know you’re getting proficient…
- Eat! Food is obviously the best thing about any new culture, so find some recipes in your target language you can try out and cook for your friends.
So, think about your goals and get speaking—today. Good luck!