No matter where you’re standing, learning a language can look like a marathon and then some.
If you’re about to start learning a language, you might be asking yourself, “what language should I learn?” and wondering how much time you’ll have to invest to reach your goals.
Or if you’re already learning a language, you might be asking “Shouldn’t I be fluent by now?”
So yes, if you haven’t been told yet, I’ll be the one to break it to you: Even if you can learn in your sleep, you aren’t going to achieve fluency overnight.
Now here’s the good news: With a few relatively simple strategic improvements to your language learning process—outlined below in this post—you can significantly reduce the amount of time it takes you to learn a language. Because the only thing better than learning a language is learning a language quickly, right?
How Much Time Does It Take to Learn a Language, Anyway?
But what exactly does it mean to learn a language “quickly”?
Well, that depends on what language you want to learn.
For the easiest languages to learn, we’re talking about a few hundred hours of studying. For the hardest languages, that number is in the thousands. See this infographic for a good summary of how much time it takes to learn different languages.
So if you can learn a language in a few hundred hours, that’s practically a walk in the language learning park.
The amount of time involved in mastering a language might seem overwhelming, but keep in mind that these are estimates of how long it takes to get from zero to fluency. You’ll start to enjoy some of the benefits of learning the language long before you hit the thousand hour mark.
That said, when you’re talking about hundreds to thousands of hours of your time, you can see why you wouldn’t want to drag out the process of learning a language any further than necessary. Here are some tricks for ensuring you’re making as much progress in as little time as possible.
6 Tricks for Cutting Down How Much Time It Takes to Learn a Language
1. Make your language study sessions shorter but more frequent
It’s tempting to think that because learning a language takes hundreds or thousands of hours, it’s a good idea to just sit down for ten hours straight and knock off a real chunk of the time you’re going to have to put in.
Not so fast though!
If you want to cut down how much time you have to spend learning a language, the trick isn’t just to study as much as possible, but to divide up your work into shorter, more frequent study sessions.
There are two obvious ways this method speeds up your language learning:
- By doing frequent study sessions, you’re keeping the language fresh in your mind. If you take extended breaks from language learning, you’ll lose ground and end up having to spend more time getting back to where you were.
- By avoiding unnecessarily long and drawn-out study sessions, you’re keeping your mind sharp and firing on all cylinders (or at least more cylinders), which makes your learning more efficient and therefore faster.
However, the main benefit of short but frequent language learning sessions is that something fundamentally different is happening in your brain when you study something, go do something else, then come back and study it some more (as opposed to just studying it for longer with no break in the middle).
Specifically, while you’re off doing non-language-related things, your brain is still consolidating what you’ve learned. By going back and continuing your studying in the relatively near future, you’re reinforcing what you’ve learned and building on the knowledge your brain has consolidated. But wait too long, and this knowledge starts to dissolve away.
For example, say you have a list of vocab words you want to learn. Suppose you can either (a) study the list twice, then wait two days, then study it twice again, or (b) you can study it once a day for four days.
In both cases, you’re doing the same amount of studying, but the latter approach is probably going to be more successful. Why? Because by doing shorter, more frequent study sessions, you’re getting a better balance of consolidation and reinforcement.
To apply a little bit of pressure to a familiar analogy: Language learning is a war, not a battle, and to win the war you have to make the battles shorter and more frequent.
In practice, it can take a little creativity to make the “short and frequent study sessions” approach work. Some techniques you can use to stick to this kind of schedule are:
- Give each study session a limited, concrete goal, especially on days when you’re pressed for time. For example: “I’m going to translate this excerpt,” “I’m going to review my FluentU vocab words,” or “I’m going to listen to this podcast episode,” etc.
- On days when it seems like you really aren’t going to be able to fit in any language learning, you have three options: (1) make a list of everything you’re doing that day and see if you can shave even five to ten minutes off of any of your other activities, (2) do five to ten minutes of studying first thing in the morning or (3) do five to ten minutes of studying right before you go to bed.
- Review is less time-consuming than learning entirely new material, and it’s better to do lots of lightning quick review sessions than nothing at all if you’re going through an especially busy time.
- One of the basic illusions of time management is that if you plan out how you’re using your time in advance, it seems like you actually have more time. Try to schedule as many of your study sessions in advance as possible.
2. Use repetition strategically
Unless you have a photographic memory, language learning isn’t going to happen without a healthy dose of repetition. You’ll often have to review material multiple times before you get it to stick.
However, it’s not just a question of how much repetition you do. The quickest path to learning a new vocab word isn’t necessarily just to repeat that word as much as possible.
The reason for this is that timing is everything. When you repeat things also matters.
Specifically, psychology researchers have long known that it’s easier to learn something when you repeat it at increasing rather than even intervals. For example, if you’re learning a vocab word, you’ll learn it more quickly by looking it up, then reviewing it a few seconds later, then a few minutes later, then a few hours later, then a few days later and so on, rather than just reviewing it every 24 hours.
This effect is called spaced repetition, and it’s something a lot of language learning software takes advantage of.
But you can also use it yourself to optimize your study habits. The idea is simple: When you learn something, review it multiple times with increasing intervals between your review sessions. You can even draw up a basic schedule the first time you learn it to keep track of when you want to do your repetitions.
Coming up with an optimal schedule is part art and part science, so it’ll take some experimentation, but a good rule of thumb to use as a starting place is that ideally you’ll have at least one review session within a matter of minutes, at least one review session within a matter of hours, at least one within a matter of days and at least one within a matter of weeks.
For more challenging material, it’s often especially helpful to add extra sessions at the “days” level since it’s generally not helpful to move on to “weeks” until you have it down pretty well.
This technique will really cut down your language learning time for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s a general rule for how learning happens best, you can apply it to any material you’re studying.
And second, the amount of repetition involved is the main reason it takes so long to learn a language, so anything you can do to make sure you have to repeat things as few times as possible will go a long way towards speeding up the process.
3. Make the language relevant to your life
Here’s a pretty simple truth: We remember things that matter to us and we forget things that don’t.
Language is no exception. And when we treat language as nothing more than a bunch of words on a piece of paper, we make it something that doesn’t matter.
If you want to learn a language quickly and efficiently, finding ways to make the language relevant to your life should be a top priority. The problem with trying to learn a language that’s not relevant to your life is that you’ll find yourself forgetting what you’ve been learning more often, and the problem with forgetting things is that it takes a lot of time—because then you have to relearn them!
So how can you make a foreign language relevant to your life?
The best way is to take a two-pronged approach.
In the long term, you need to be clear about your goals, about why you’re learning the language. Maybe you’re going to a country where they speak the language, maybe you’re drawn to a culture or literature associated with the language, maybe you know people who speak the language. Whatever it is, there should be some reason becoming fluent in the language is actually relevant to your life.
In the short term, you need to use the language, not just study it. Finding activities you enjoy that involve the language (reading books, watching movies, cooking, etc.) is important because things you enjoy are by definition relevant to your life! Getting someone to talk to can also do wonders for picking up your learning pace.
When you have a powerful long-term motivation for learning a language and when you have things you’re using the language for in the short term, all the studying you’re doing really matters. Whether or not you remember what you’re learning suddenly has real consequences in terms of your ability to engage in these short-term activities and meet these long-term goals.
If you don’t yet know how your target language connects directly to the things you care about, take some of the time you’ve set aside for language learning and brainstorm as many ways as possible to complete each of the following statements:
- I want to learn this language so that I can…
- Once I’m fluent in this language, I will be able to…
- If I don’t succeed in learning this language, I won’t be able to…
Then take as many of the things you wrote down and start doing them as soon as possible—especially before you feel “ready.”
Making the language personally relevant is the most direct way of calling up your brain and saying “hey, brain, this stuff is important to me, so you’d better remember it!” And the more you remember, the less you have to repeat, the faster you learn.
4. Speak the language like your life depends on it
There’s a difference between studying a language and learning a language.
Studying a language implies memorizing new vocab, getting to know new grammatical constructions, maybe following some kind of course–all that stuff. Studying a language is good.
Learning a language implies actually internalizing it and getting to the point where you can use it to communicate. Studying is important, but learning is the goal.
Now, studying is an important part of learning a language, but it’s not enough to get you all the way. To really learn a language, you have to use it. Studying gives you the raw materials you need to learn a language, but to make those materials into something meaningful and memorable, you have to use them to put together sentences and convey ideas.
Therefore, to learn a language faster, you need to speak the language any and every chance you get. When you use what you’ve learned by speaking the language, it becomes a part of you and you’ll ultimately have to spend much less time rehashing it and trying to get it to stick.
A great way to create opportunities to speak the language is by finding people to talk to, either online, offline or both.
But you shouldn’t limit yourself to talking to other people. Talk to yourself. After all, you’re around yourself 24/7, so you’re your own most accessible conversation partner. Some ways of learning by talking to yourself are:
- Have conversations with yourself out loud. You can either have conversations with yourself about topics you’d normally think about anyway, or you can create dialogues between fictional characters. Try to keep the flow of things going like you would in a normal conversation.
- Keep a journal. Write regular entries about your life, your thoughts or any topic you’re interested in. This is also a good way of making the language more personally relevant.
- Record yourself speaking. Once you’ve got the recording, listen to it and try repeating back sentences to correct pronunciation, grammar, etc. as necessary. Record yourself both speaking spontaneously and using a prepared text (which will allow you to do multiple “takes”). Or you can combine these two approaches by doing the first take spontaneously, then listening back and creating a written transcript of what you said, then reading the transcript back and recording yourself.
- Narrate an inner monologue in your new language. Push yourself to use a rich vocabulary and varied grammatical constructions.
Anything that gets you speaking the language cuts down how much time it’s going to take you to reach fluency. Speak the language like your life depends on it, and you’ll find studying translates into learning much more quickly, reducing the amount of time you have to spend studying overall.
5. Use these three apps to make language learning part of your daily life
One of the easier parts of language learning is how flexible the process is. You can study whenever you want for however long you want and still make progress–even very short study sessions can be very helpful.
With this in mind, one of the best things you can do to speed up your language learning is to take advantage of idle moments you have throughout the day to sneak in just a little language learning here and there.
Interspersing little slices of language learning throughout your daily life will shave time off your core study sessions, and it’ll also keep the language fresh in your mind and thus make your learning more efficient. After all, the idea of doing micro-study sessions at intervals over the course of your day is just an extreme version of doing shorter, more frequent study sessions.
If you own a smartphone, an incredibly simple way to make language learning part of your daily life is by installing these three apps (and using them!):
- Any dictionary app. Make a habit of asking yourself “I wonder how you say ~ in [target language],” and then looking up the word you’re curious about in your dictionary app. Two good options are Google Translate and iTranslate, though a dictionary specifically for your target language will probably be more accurate (i.e. Spanish, German, French, Chinese, Japanese, Italian, Korean, Russian).
- Any flashcard app. There’s never a dull moment when you have flashcards! Okay, that might be a stretch, but with one of these flashcard apps you can go into language learning mode at the drop of a dime.
- FluentU. FluentU lets you learn a language using real-world videos, and the app provides a sort of multimedia smartphone immersion experience. Besides helping you work a little language studying into your daily schedule, the FluentU app has the added benefit of giving you an excuse to take a minute and chill out watching cool videos.
6. Create a sustainable language learning plan that works
Learning efficiently isn’t something that’s just going to happen by itself. If you want to learn quickly, you have to plan to learn quickly.
Part of this is coming up with a language learning road map that includes time-saving language learning strategies–working language learning into your day with smartphone apps, using repetition to your advantage, speaking the language as much as possible, engaging in activities that make the language relevant to your life and doing short but frequent study sessions.
However, you also need to make sure your language learning plan is sustainable. When you’re looking to learn a language as fast as possible, it can be tempting to try to just power through a superhuman amount of material in record time.
The problem is, if you burn yourself out by trying to do too much at once, your motivation will fizzle and your language learning will end up taking more time in the end.
This is a case where slow and steady wins the race. Well, okay, maybe not slow. But steady is definitely something to strive for.
When designing your language learning plan, you want to make sure you have a specific strategy for how you’re going to improve in each of the following areas: vocabulary, grammar, listening, speaking, writing and reading.
You also want to make sure a good chunk of your activities will improve your general fluency by giving you an opportunity to integrate everything you’re learning. For example, having a weekly conversation with a language exchange partner is both a chance to improve your speaking and an exercise that you can use to improve general fluency.
Once you set your language learning plan in motion, keep tabs on whether it’s working in a sustainable way. In particular, if you’re making much more progress in some areas than others, revise your plan to spend more time on or to change your methods for the areas you’re falling behind in.
And if you find yourself consistently failing to meet your goals and stay on pace with your schedule, that’s a red flag that your plan isn’t sustainable and that you should go back and make it less dense.
So make sure you’re starting with an approach that works both in the sense that you’re using effective learning techniques and in the sense that you’ll be able to keep up your energy and commitment from beginning to end.
If you can do that, and if you use these tricks to optimize your language learning, you’ll probably be surprised by how fast those five hundred hours fly by. Instead of asking “Shouldn’t I be fluent by now?” you’ll find yourself wondering “How did I learn an entire language already?”