Lifehacker reader Gabriel Wyner was tasked with learning four languages in the past few years for his career as an opera singer, and in the process landed on “a pretty damn good method for language learning that you can do in limited amounts of spare time”. Here’s the four-step method that you can use too (and you don’t have to invest hundreds in a language course like Rosetta Stone).
This is the method I’ve used to learn four languages (Italian, German, French and now Russian); it’s the method that got me to C1 fluency in French in about five months, and I’m currently using it with Russian (and plan on reaching C1 equivalent fluency by September).
I go in four stages. The stages will take different amounts of time for different languages and depend on how much time you have available per day, naturally. The US Foreign Service Institute makes estimates for language difficulties for native English speakers, and they seem to be spot on in terms of comparative difficulty — Russian seems to be taking twice as long as French did for me, and they estimate languages like Chinese to take twice as long as Russian. That being said, let’s say we’re talking about a language like French, and you have 30-60 minutes a day to spend on it, I’ve included estimates for how long each stage might take.
Stage 1: Learn the correct pronunciation of the language.
Time: 1-2 weeks (or longer for languages that have a new alphabet that will take some time to get comfortable with)
Starting with pronunciation first does a few things — because I’m first and foremost learning how to hear that language’s sounds, my listening comprehension gets an immediate boost before I even start traditional language learning. Once I start vocabulary training, I retain it better because I’m familiar with how words should sound and how they should be spelled. (Correct spellings in French, for example, are much easier to remember when there’s a connection between the spelling and the sound), and once I finally start speaking to native speakers, they don’t switch to English for me or dumb down their language, which is awesome sauce.
If you’re learning a language with a different alphabet, this is where you learn the phonetic alphabet(s) (Kana, for Japanese or Pinyin for Chinese, for example).
How do you learn pronunciation?
There are a few routes here, and a lot of excellent online and in-print resources (Pronunciation guides with CDs or MP3s are usually very good). Personally, I think it’s worth the (short) time to learn the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) for the English language first (Wikipedia / some video tutorials I’ve been producing), and then see what sounds are different in your target language. In the process of learning IPA, you learn the components of each vowel and consonant and you’ll really understand what makes a French word sound French, and a Chinese word Chinese.
Stage 2: Vocabulary and grammar acquisition, no English allowed.
Time: About 3 months. This stage involves two different time commitments: building your vocabulary and grammar flashcards and reviewing the deck.
This stage takes advantage of a few valuable tricks:
First, I’m using Anki, a wonderful, free flashcard program that runs on smartphones and every computer platform. Anki is a spaced repetition system, which schedules reviews of flash cards based upon how often you’ve successfully remembered a card. In the end, it helps you put a huge number of facts in to your long-term memory very rapidly — you can typically learn 20-30 new words a day in about 30 minutes on your smartphone.
Second, I use a modified version of Middlebury College’s famous language pledge — No English allowed! I use pictures and whatever limited vocabulary I have to build the rest of my vocabulary. By skipping the English, I’m practising thinking in the language directly, and not translating every time I try to think of a word. This results in quicker learning and better vocabulary retention over time, and a much faster transition to comfortable fluency in the language.
Third, I’m using frequency lists to guide my vocabulary acquisition. These lists show the most common words in a given language, and learning those words first will be the best use of your time — after 1000 words, you’ll know 70 per cent of the words in any average text, and 2000 words provides you with 80 per cent text coverage. It’s not enough for fluency, but it’s a pretty phenomenal base!
Since I’m starting out with zero words, I have to go in a few steps:
- To save time, I start with a basic list of 400 words that are common in English and extremely easy to picture — things like man and woman, dog and cat, to run and to cook. I find good (!) translations of these and put them in my Anki deck without any English — just the word and its picture.
- After those, I grab a frequency list and mark off any remaining words I can portray with pictures alone (basic nouns and verbs), and put them in my Anki deck. Once I have some words to play with, I start putting them together. I use Google translate (Exception to no English rule — just be careful there’s no English in your Anki deck) and a grammar book to start making sentences, then get everything double-checked at lang-8.com before putting them into my Anki deck. Fill-in-the-blank flashcards let you drill your grammar and connecting words, and you can usually just type these straight into Anki from your grammar book.
- As vocab and grammar grow, I eventually move to monolingual (French-French, for example) dictionaries and writing my own definitions for more abstract words (again double-checked at lang-8.com). This builds on itself; the more vocab and grammar you get, the more vocab and grammar concepts you can describe in the target language. Eventually you can cover all the words in a 2000-word frequency list as a foundation and add any specific vocab you need for your own interests.
- Most people’s eventual goals (by, say, the end of stage 4) will be approximately 2000 to 6000 words, plus around 1000 grammar cards, depending on how far you want to go. (Here, we’re talking about words that are in your Anki deck — you’ll pick up a bigger passive vocabulary from reading.) As a very rough estimate, if you end up with approximately 5000 cards, it will take you a bit less than six months to learn them with Anki if you’re doing 30 minutes a day (half that if you do 60 minutes per day).
Stage 3: Listening, writing and reading work
Time: This stage overlaps quite a bit with stage 2 and 4. Once you’re comfortable reading or writing anything, usually a month or two into stage 2, you can start stage 3. Stages 3 and 4, the immersion part, combined took me about seven fairly insane weeks where I spent any free time reading, watching TV and writing.
Once I have a decent vocabulary and familiarity with grammar, I start writing essays, watching TV shows and reading books, and talking (at least to myself!) about the stuff I see and do. Every writing correction gets added to the Anki deck, which continues to build my vocab and grammar.
You should read and watch anything that’s enjoyable to you — it’s more about quantity than anything; I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series in translation, and dubbed versions of the TV series 24 are insanely addictive and not that difficult to follow after the first few hours — you can literally spend all day in front of the TV, and it’s actually productive! As for writing, you can (and should) write whatever you want — journals, opinions, what you did today, your grocery list, anything. The goal is to get something down on a page that you can submit to lang-8.com, get a correction, and put that correction into your Anki deck.
Stage 4: Speech
At the point where I can more or less talk (haltingly but without too many grammar or vocab holes) and write about most familiar things, I find some place to immerse in the language and speak all the time (literally). No English allowed or else you won’t learn the skill you’re trying to learn, which is adapting to holes in your grammar or vocabulary by going around them rapidly and automatically without having to think about it). I prefer Middlebury college, but if you don’t have seven solid weeks where you can cut ties to the rest of the world and just speak the language, you’ll still get a lot from even a couple of weeks in your target country as long as you stick to your target language and spend as much time as you can talking. There are internet exchanges and Skype videochats that will absolutely help you practice speaking, and if you surround yourself with foreign language TV and movies, read books and videochat with people frequently, you can sort of simulate the immersion experience on your own.
The more intense you can make it, the faster your brain will adapt and learn how to put all the info you learned in stages 1-3 together quickly enough to turn into comfortable, fluent speech.
About Gabriel Wyner: “I am an opera singer, and part of my job involves singing in Italian, French, German, English and Russian (and sometimes Czech, Spanish, Hebrew and Latin). After several unsuccessful language learning attempts, I tried my first immersion program in German in 2004 and got hooked. Since then, I set out to see if I could become fluent in all of these languages. I’ve gotten through German, French and Italian, and I’m aiming for fluency in Russian by September. I’m currently living and singing in Vienna, Austria, where I’ve been teaching English using these methods and have recently finished a book on language learning. The companion website is at www.TowerofBabelfish.com, where these ideas are described in a bit more detail.”