How to Learn a Language Fast
March 18, 2016
In our increasingly global and high speed world, there is more information at our fingertips than ever before, and we're also more impatient to attain it. We want to maximize our time as much as possible, and the same goes for language learning. The question is no longer how to learn a language, but how to learn a language as fast as possible.
There are more and more advertized cases of people learning a language, or multiple languages, in record time. Not only did they learn the language quickly, though; many also learned a language quickly while leading normal lives. So what are their tricks? How can you learn a language fast?
Step 1: Make a Game PlanNo great achievement ever happens over night, and learning a language is no different. In order to learn a language fast, you first need to make some smart, realistic goals to help yourself organize your time and plan your studies. Here are a few tips:
Make SMART GoalsYour New Year's Resolution may be to "learn Spanish," but what does that actually mean? Vague final goals like this are both frustrating and unproductive. After all, how will you know when--and if--this goal is ever achieved? Instead, try making some SMART goals.
SMART goals, as advocated in world of management, are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. In order to best apply this concept to languages, it's recommended that you become a little familiar with the European Common Framework that defines the different language levels. Here's a quick breakdown of the Framework and levels:
Level Group - Group Name - Level - Level Name
A - Basic User - A1 - Breakthrough or Beginner
- A2 - Way Stage or Elementary
B - Independent User - B1 - Threshold or Intermediate
- B2 - Vantage or Upper Intermediate
C - Proficient User - C1 - Effective Operational Proficiency
- C2 - Mastery or Proficiency
This framework can help you to better define what it means to be "fluent" in a language. On average, many speakers are considered "fluent" in a language by the time they've reached a B2 level or higher, a level which allows them to comfortably interact in almost all social situations. Aiming for a B2 level of a language is therefore a more specific and results-focused goal, and, thanks to the criteria provided by the Common European Framework of Reference, it's also measurable. It's much more attainable than aiming for the vague notion of "fluency" (which, trust me, seems to elude even fluent speakers). It can easily be made time-bound by keeping in mind the criteria needed for each level and making yourself a schedule with your goals in mind.
Step 2: Start with SoundsOnce you have a realistic, smart plan for approaching language study, it's time to dig in and start to get your hands dirty.
But where should you even start?
The answer is simple: sounds. Learning how to hear, pronounce and spell the sounds of your target language is a great place to get started even before you start memorizing words and their meanings.
Spend some time just focusing on sound and spelling so that the words and sounds in your target language are no longer foreign to you. Study the alphabet. Listen to pronunciation guides on YouTube, watch movies or series with subtitles in your target language, or use Rocket Language's Hear It Say It audio recognition to learn to recognize and repeat sounds.
Step 3: VocabularyThe next step is to start recognizing and memorizing vocabulary words. There are several great tips for making the best of your vocabulary learning:
Keep it PracticalLearning a new language requires learning a lot of new words. There's no way around it. Many people use their "bad memory" as an excuse for not learning a new language, but I have some comforting news for these people (and even those with great memories): you don't need to know all--or even the majority--of the words in a language to be able to speak it well. In fact, you don't even need to know half!
Let's take English as an example. It's estimated that there are over one million words in the English language, but the average native speaker has a passive vocabulary (words you can recognize) of about 40,000 words and an active vocabulary (words you use) of about 20,000. More studies have shown, however, that we don't even use the majority of those 20,000 words on a daily basis, and actually only need about 3,000 words to understand 95% of common texts. By extension, just 300 words make up 65% of all written material in English. Other studies have estimated that there are roughly 625 words and their forms that can help you to go beyond a beginner level in any language. Isn't that a much more realistic number of words to memorize?
According to the Pareto principle or the 80-20 rule, you can use 20% of the effort spent on learning new vocabulary for 80% comprehension in the language. That means that by learning the most frequently used vocabulary first, you are able to understand and communicate in a language much faster. One again, the internet is your friend here, and there are countless sources that provide lists of the most frequently used words in each language that can help you start your learning the practical way.
Your Friends CognatesBelieve it or not, you actually already know some words in your target language before you even begin studying it. While a foreign language may seem like "Greek" to you, the majority of foreign languages actually share some words or roots of words. These words that look or sound like words in your language and have the same meaning are called cognates.
The majority of European languages share countless cognates with English thanks to their shared roots, history, and evolution. Take the English words "action," "tradition," and "communication," for example. In French, they're spelled exactly the same way and have the same meaning. If you change that ending to -ción, you have the same words in Spanish. Tack on the ending -zione, and you've got them in Italian. Are you learning Portuguese? Just add the ending - ção.
The same even goes for even the more distant languages from English, like Japanese. Japanese has borrowed many words from English - such as coffee maker, cinema, and toilet--and just put a Japanese spin on them.
These cognates are your friends and can make your language learning much easier and faster. Once again, simply research a list of all of the cognates (a Google search of "[language name] cognates" or "[language name] English loan words" usually does the trick), and revel in the vocabulary that you already know. Take advantage of them!
MnemonicsAs many who have learned a foreign language already know, pure vocabulary repetition usually just isn't enough. Sometimes, our brains need a little extra jump start to remember words that always seem to slip our minds.
That's where mnemonics come in. Basically, mnemonics involve telling yourself a fun, goofy or memorable story, song, or rhyme to associate with a particular word. For example, one trick for memorizing the words "esta," "estas," "esa," and "esas" in Spanish (this, these, that those) is the rhyme "This and these both have T's, that and those don't."
It may sound like a lot of extra effort, but you'd be amazed at how effective mnemonic devices are in making your learning faster. They're also fun!
NotebookFinally, as an English teacher, one last tip I like to give all of my ESL students is to keep a journal, document, or book with all of the vocabulary they learn in one place. If you're a member of Rocket Languages, the "My Vocab" feature, which lets you save vocabulary and compile a list for future study, is fantastic for this. Not only does keeping a vocabulary journal help keep you, but just the process of writing down a word and whatever translation, notes, image or mnemonic device can be used to memorize this word helps you to memorize it. I've noticed that my students who keep vocabulary journals tend to recall vocabulary much faster and progress much faster in their learning. It's also a fantastic future reference for studying and can be used anywhere and anytime you have a few minutes free.
Step 3: GrammarNow that you've got the sounds down as well as some tips for memorizing vocabulary, what about learning all of those tricky grammar rules as fast as possible? Here are a few things that can help:
Break it DownGrammar provides the rules for the game in a language. It helps us tell a story. It tells us how we can change the words "learn new you a language" and put them in the correct order to indicate that "you are learning a new language." If we change the verb ending a little bit, then we have "you learned a new language," which has a very different meaning.
- While grammar may seem complex, it can actually be broken down into three basic operations: adding words (You are learning French > Are you learning French?),
- changing existing words (I learn Chinese > I learned Chinese)
- and changing the order of words (German is easy > Is German easy?).
Keeping this in mind, we can use the grammar explanations we learn to help us break down the rules into easily memorized chunks. When studying verb tenses, for example, I like to make a series of flash cards, each pile with many cards that belong to a different part of speech. It looks something like this:
Pronoun - Verb - Noun - Time Indicator
Ellos - Apprender - Espanol - Hoy
They - Learn - Spanish - Presente
I then put my pile of "pronoun" cards first, followed by my "verb" cards, followed by my "nouns," and with the time indicator at the beginning or the end. When I draw a new card from each pile, I know that I need to conjugate the verb "aprender" in the present tense (thanks to the time indicator "hoy") to agree with the subject "ellos." This not only helps me to learn word order, but also to practice changing word endings.
I can then complicate things by adding different pronouns (subjects), additional verbs, other tenses (different time indicators), descriptive words (adjectives or adverbs), other nouns (count or non-count, abstract or concrete), or different constructions (adding conjunctions, changing the form to affirmative, negative, or question) based on the grammar I'm studying. This may seem like it takes a lot of time, but the time invested in this saves me a significant amount of time in the long run and allows me to practice and learn almost every grammar topic quickly. When I learn more vocabulary or a new grammar topic online, I just add it to the piles. It's also the perfect way to focus on the most practical vocabulary: I make sure that the words used in every category of cards are also the most frequently used words in the language.
Read, Watch, ListenMovies, music, television series, books, newspapers, magazines and anything you can read, watch, or listen to are unbelievably useful for learning. You've probably already heard cases of people teaching themselves a language by watching movies or playing video games, and while these things don't directly teach grammar, they do help learning it significantly.
Reading, watching and listening has a remarkable effect on your brain. Simply by being exposed to the language, your brain is put to work. It starts trying to understand new words by making connections to previously learned words and seeks to make sense of any new structures. Basically, you're learning without knowing that you're learning. After a while, you'll find yourself using words and constructions that you didn't even study thanks to your brain's ability to soak up vocabulary and grammar while reading a book or watching a series.
One word of warning, though: if you really want to get useful grammar and vocabulary, make sure that what you're reading, watching or listening to is modern and in a dialect that you would like to learn. Reading Shakespeare, although a beautiful practice, is not recommended for a student hoping to learn English to study in the United States, and can lead to a lot of confusion.
Always Remember: Practice makes PerfectFinally, the cliché saying that "practice makes perfect" has never been more true than in the language learning world. Any case of someone learning a language fast involves a tremendous amount of practice and often complete immersion, but there are a few great tips to practice without needing a passport.
Interact... Without TravelingTry to interact in your language on a daily basis. Speaking as much as possible is one of the best tricks to learn a language fast. This can involve:
- Speaking with a friend, family member or neighbor in person
- Writing a letter to a friend, family member, or coworker
- Writing a letter to yourself
- Visiting a local store or neighborhood where your language is spoken and interacting with locals
- Joining a weekly or monthly conversation group or starting your own group
- Speaking online with a friend, family member, coworker, or fellow language learner
- Writing an email in your target language
- Contributing to a blog or forum in your target language (Rocket Language has some great forums for this!)
- Singing along with music in your target language
- Watching a movie or series and repeating the character's lines
- Reading a passage from a book, newspaper, or magazine out loud
- Talking to yourself in your target language (this really works!)
Make MistakesUnlike other academic subjects, learning a language is a continuous, never-ending adventure that requires constant practice. Don't treat it the same way you would treat learning another academic subject and live in fear of making mistakes. In the language learning world, mistakes are a sign of progress. Mistakes help you to learn faster. Don't worry about upsetting native speakers for being too "bold" and trying to speak with them in their native language. Just go for it! Odds are, they'll love it and want to help you. Don't let fear get in your way. Interact in your target language as much as possible, and you'll be amazed how fast you can learn it.
Good luck, and happy (fast) learning!
This is a guest post by Andrea Reisenauer. If you liked it please share on social media!
March 18, 2016
Excellent stuff! I'm working diligently to get to B2 as quickly as possible. I was doing so well until my workload tripled in life, so I've fallen back a little. I'm ready to get back to my plan!
March 18, 2016
B2 is generally what companies require in order to work for them. So for me, that constitutes fluency. Getting there is no easy matter.
Good idea regarding the cognates.
March 26, 2016
I might add to the list - Skype with a native speaker. It's a great way to learn and it's free! There are exchanges online which match native speakers wishing to learn another language.
October 10, 2018
Does anyone know where I can find the 300 most common Spanish words?
October 10, 2018
I love the "Break It Down" strategy! I will try this with my Japanese. Thanks!