Growing up bilingual in two opposite corners of the world, Denmark and Australia, I definitely had an upper hand in learning what is now half a dozen languages. So I often get asked about how you learn a language quickly, and to be honest; being multi-lingual is the most overrated skill in terms of perceived difficulty of acquisition. Because of the completely backward approach we’re taught in school, which time and time again, has shown a sad rate of efficiency, we’re lead to believe that learning foreign languages is one of the most difficult skills to achieve.
In school we’re usually given a table of random verbs and told to conjugate the heck out of them. We then get all these fancy latin terms thrown at us. I still only know a few of these. This is the reason I did not learn much in foreign language classes; I would hear these fancy words and just immediately think “oh this is too hard.”
To be honest, I’m happy this is the case. It makes me look super smart for having invested, what I perceive as, little effort.
Everybody can learn languages with the right framework. You’re lucky; because that’s exactly what I’m about to teach you.
So here are 7 practical tips on how to learn a language quickly.
1. Pick a Course
My recommendation is going with anything Michel Thomas has released, and staying away from everything Rosetta Stone has released. That being said there’s plenty of great free resources available. Of all the ones I’ve tried, Duolingo is definitely the way to go. Duolingo has a great interface, and uses gamification to keep you staying consistent by competing with friends. Did I mention it was free?
2. Find Your Vehicles
We’re all spending loads of time on semi-mindless TV-watching and web surfing, so what I like to do is leverage this waste of time and use it as a vehicle for learning my target language. So instead of watching, say, The Simpsons in the original English version, watch the Spanish version. In the beginning you will find it difficult to keep up with the pace, which is why I like to take in the material at least twice, but the more you expose yourself to the target language the better your comprehension will be, even though you’re just passively taking in information. This method works especially well with material you’re super familiar with, so you’re not wasting mental energy trying to figure out the plot while trying to keep up with the dialogue.
One of the many ways I use this is I only play video games in French or German—that’s my rule. I keep dialogue in English but put everything else in the target language.
3. Set Measurable Goals
Is there a specific event you want to achieve a certain level of fluency for? Having a goal can really help when learning a language. Assign an event where you will need a certain fluency level to keep you motivated. It’s important to set a certain metric so you can quantify whether you’ve reached your goal or not. A goal like “Speak good French” will get you nowhere; it’s unquantifiable. Something like “Have 5-minute conversation via Skype with French speaker” or “Read random Italian Wikipedia with only having to look up 5 words” is quantifiable and therefore effective. Remember the old adage; what gets measured gets managed.
4. Use Memory Pegs
Every single one of us are using memory pegs every single day to store information, whether you know it or not. The mind stores visual information way better than any other medium. This is one of the reasons why you’re able to remember people’s faces and nothing else about them. So using notable imagery will help you store new vocabulary so much better—the crazier, the better.
So say you have to remember the French word for house: maison. You could think of a house in the spring (May) sun, and that’s your peg. That was a peg I literally came up with just now, so it is super simple to come up with these. If you’ve come up with a peg and you still forget whatever you want to store, you might have to come with a more relevant or notable situation. Play around with this; it can help in way more areas than language learning.
5. Leverage-free time
Instead of listening to the same radio station on your commute every day, start listening to audio tapes, podcasts or even music in your desired language. Learning how to learn a language quickly can get a lot easier if you’re making the most of your time every day. Saving articles in the language you’re learning on your smartphone with apps like Pocket can make you leap bounds in your language learning. Other apps like the CoolGorilla series, Flashcards and the aforementioned Duolingo can be super helpful in making the most out of standing in line or waiting for the bus.
You won’t get good at soccer by playing FIFA all day. Sure, you might learn the rules really well, but you won’t learn to juggle a ball any better. You have to put your skin in the game and utilize whatever you’ve learned thus far. In terms of return on time invested, this is the most important part of your language learning. If you’re not applying what you’ve learned, it’s not going to stick. In the beginning it can be daunting to start speaking to natives. But there’s an easy way to make sure you will not have to fall back on English; chances are you pretty much already know what the other is going to be saying to you. Things like; Oh wow! You’re (insert-language) is really good. Where did you learn? Why? Where do you come from and what do you do for fun, etc. 50% of all everyday interaction is the same, so putting together a script for answering these anticipated questions can be of massive benefit in giving you the initial boost of motivation needed to keep you getting better.
6. Learn More Languages
The more languages you know the easier it gets learning more. See, the way you process information is your brain creates pathways between pieces of information, and the more information you learn, the better “paved” these pathways become. The more these synapses keep firing back and forth from each other, the better you get at storing that kind of information. Have you noticed how you store information a lot better if you can relate it to things you already know? So, say you know Spanish already, you will have a way easier time learning Portuguese or Italian because you can “relate” new vocabulary to what you already know. Same goes for, say, guitarists wanting to learn piano.
7. Create stakes
Stakes are important when wanting to achieve any goal. What happens if you don’t follow through? Are you just setting this goal to stroke your ego? If you’re not penalized if you don’t follow through, chances are you won’t. This is why it’s easier to learn a language leading up to, for example, a holiday in said country. If you don’t get studying you won’t be able to communicate and you won’t have as good a time. StickK is a great service for this. The way it works is you assign an “anti charity” and an amount large enough to make you follow through, and if your assigned “referee” deems your result inadequate, the money goes to the foundation you dislike.
So that’s 7 practical tips to help you learn a language quickly. I suggest you play around with every tip and see which ones works best for you. Language learning is not math; there is no one way to reach your goal. Use the methods that get you where you want to go fastest.