How I Learnt A Language In 90 Days

Becoming bilingual opens up a whole new world of different people, different cultures and different emotions. It also takes a huge time commitment -- one that many of us can't manage to do. But what if fluency was only 90 days away?

The Benefits of Bilingualism

Learning a second language has many cognitive benefits. For example, it has been shown to delay Alzheimer's disease, boost brain power, reduce cognitive biases, and even increase concentration and the ability to tune out distractions. But more so than cognitive effects, the ability to speak a second language has lots of social benefits. There's bliss in having the ability to order food in the waiter's native language, to eavesdrop on people in a lift, or to impress natives by speaking with and understanding them.

The coolest thing about learning your second language is that it makes learning a third, fourth or fifth language much easier. The challenge isn't in learning a new language, but rather learning how to learn a language. Once you know the techniques, you'll be able to apply the same grammatical patterns and language techniques in every new language you learn.

Why Most People Are Wrong About Language-Learning

I studied Spanish for several years in high school and even got good grades on national exams. But when I actually tried to speak the language one day, I suddenly realised: four years of studying Spanish in school, and I couldn't even order a burrito. So what went wrong? According to official standardised tests, I was an expert in Spanish. But I couldn't even do the most basic of tasks!

The fact is that we're not taught languages in the ideal way. Students study languages in huge groups and think that a few worksheets and grammar exercises will be enough to learn a language. Yet almost no one actually learns to speak. In actuality, by doing worksheets, we are practising for just that -- doing worksheets. But if you want to learn to speak, well, you actually have to practise by speaking.

So when people try to learn to speak a language out of a book or with Rosetta Stone, I try to show them that they won't achieve their goals that way. If you want to speak, you have to practise speaking. And if you want to speak a language rapidly, well, you have to start speaking. A lot.

The Basic Strategy Of Rapid Language-Learning

Learning a language can seem daunting, so I'm going to provide an overview of the general strategy before we get into the specifics.

Here is the breakdown:

  1. Get the right resources for learning: a grammar book, memorisation software and films/books.
  2. Get a private tutor. You want one for at least a month. I recommend four hours per day.
  3. Attempt to speak and think only in the new language. Every time you can't remember a word, put that word into your memorisation software. Practise your vocabulary daily.
  4. Find friends, language partners and other speakers of the language. Once you can have basic conversations with your private tutor, you need to find other partners. If you haven't already, think about moving to the country where the language is spoken. Consider a group class. Practise continuously. Stop speaking English.

That's the basic strategy. Again, this strategy is intensive because learning a language in three months is a difficult task. If you'd prefer to learn the language more slowly, or you don't have the ability to move to a new country and practise 4-8 hours a day, then you can modify the plan. It is extremely important that you practise every day, however -- 20 minutes a day is much better than once or twice a week.

The Resources You Need To Learn A Language

In order to learn a language, you'll need some items that you can practise with. Here are the resources I always use.

A good grammar book. This is essential if you want to learn a language. I recommend Dover's Essential Grammar series -- the books are cheap, concise and thorough.

A phrase book. This is similar to a dictionary but for phrases. You can start memorising full sentences and phrases, and you'll naturally learn the individual words. I'll talk more about memorisation tactics shortly.

An online dictionary. For most romance languages, I recommend Word Reference. For German, try Dict.cc. Google Translate can be useful, but it easily becomes a crutch. Use it sparingly.

A memorisation app. You have to memorise vocabulary. I always put new words in my app and practise them every night. If you're on a Mac, check out the Genius app. It uses time-spacing techniques to test your knowledge. You'll randomly be quizzed on words or phrases you are trying to learn, and the more often you make a mistake, the more often you'll be tested. I recommend you put English on the left column and your desired language on the right so that you'll learn to speak in a new language, not translate from it. If you're on a PC, I've heard good things about Anki.

A tutor. I highly recommend getting an in-person private tutor. If you can't find anyone in your area or they are too expensive, check out Edufire. Edufire is a website that allows you to take private and group classes online.

Free language partners. The Mixxer is an incredible resource. It's a site that allows you to connect via Skype with language partners all over the world. Just choose your native language and what you are trying to learn, and The Mixxer will find partners with opposite needs (who speak your target language and want to learn your native language).

At the beginning, online partners are a big help. Why? First, because chatting is much easier than speaking, so you get a chance to practise your language. Second, chat gives you a log of what you've been saying -- and it makes it easier for your partner to correct you.

I use Couchsurfing.org and Meetup.com to find language partners and language meetups, no matter where I live. Check out Benny's article to learn about finding language partners through Couchsurfing. I don't recommend Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone is incredibly slow. In Level 1, which takes 1-2 months to complete, you'll only be familiar with the present tense. This is not a good use of your time.

The 90-Day Plan to Learning a Language

It's possible to achieve fluency -- or at least a high speaking level -- in just 90 days, but it requires intense focus. The biggest shift was in mindset: I had to change my self conception from ‘Maneesh: a blogger who wants to learn Italian' to ‘Maneesh: Italian learner (who blogs in his spare time). If you don't have the freedom to focus full time on learning a language, that's OK, but the process will take longer than 90 days. Just make sure that you continue to practise every day, or else you'll lose your knowledge rapidly.

Days 1-30 The first 30 days are critical to learning a new language. You need to immerse yourself as fully as possible. I highly recommend moving to a country where the language is spoken if you want to learn a language in 90 days. This will help you get into the language-learning mindset and allow you to surround yourself with the new language. If you are able to move to a new country, try to live with a host family. You'll learn a lot by eating meals with a family that hosts you.

In any case, during the first month, work one on one with a private tutor -- not group classes. Group classes allow you to sit back and be lazy, while a private tutor forces you to learn.

This is important: you must be an active learner. Most people allow themselves to be taught, but you have to take an active role in asking questions. The best way to understand this process is via video. Part of the video series I made to supplement this post includes a sample of a class I took while studying Swedish, with explanations of the questions I ask during private training.

You're going to start encountering a lot of words and phrases that you don't know, both with your private tutor and when you practise languages on your own. Enter these words in your memorisation software.

You want to start memorising 30 words and phrases per day. Why 30? Because in 90 days you'll have learnt 80 per cent of the language.

This great article talks about the number of words in the Russian language.

• the 75 most common words make up 40% of occurrences • the 200 most common words make up 50% of occurrences • the 524 most common words make up 60% of occurrences • the 1257 most common words make up 70% of occurrences • the 2925 most common words make up 80% of occurrences • the 7444 most common words make up 90% of occurrences • the 13374 most common words make up 95% of occurrences • the 25508 most common words make up 99% of occurrences

As you can see, you need to learn around 3000 to hit 80 per cent of the words… probably enough before you can start learning words easily by context. At 30 words per day, you'll have learnt almost 3000 in 90 days.

Days 31-60 After your first month, it's time to focus on exposing yourself to the language as much as possible. After a month of private tutoring, you'll have the ability to have basic conversations.

If your private tutor is getting expensive, you might consider doing advanced group classes at this point -- it'll save you money and give you access to other friends who are learning the language. Just be careful of speaking only in English. Try to make it a rule to speak in the new language as much as possible. Continue with your private tutor if possible.

Now is the time to start finding language partners. Check out The Mixxer and Couchsurfing to find people who speak the language you want to learn. Attempt to spend a few hours everyday practising your language. At this point, because you have a basic grasp of the language, it shouldn't be a chore -- you are basically spending time socialising with new friends.

Try reading simple books in your target language and underlining words that you don't know. You can add these to your memorisation app.

You should start trying to think in the new language. Every time you try to express a thought to yourself but can't remember the word, write it down in your memorisation software. Continue learning 30 words and phrases per day.

Days 61-90 By day 60, you should be in a good position to speak the language. You just simply need to keep practising. Have deeper conversations with your language partners. Continue studying 30 words a day and practising the ones you've already learnt, and you'll be approaching the 3000-word mark -- enough to speak a language close to fluently.

By now you can start watching TV and reading books in your target language. Rent some DVDs in the foreign language and try to follow along. If you need to, turn on the subtitles. Don't worry if you have trouble, because understanding film is a lot more difficult than having a one-on-one conversation.

Keep on working on the language for several hours per day, and by the end of the month you'll find that you have a good grasp on the language. It's pretty amazing what you can do in just 90 days with intense focus.

How to Learn a Language in 90 Days [Zen Habits]

Maneesh Sethi is the founder of Hack the System.


Comments

    One the best articles I've read in a long time, and right on time too since I was planning on studying a language this summer!!

    I saw an Irish bloke on YouTube talking about his language hacking guide. His name is Benny Lewis and has learned half a dozen our more languages. Put "fluent in 3 months" in a YouTube search. Amazing. I'm loving learning Spanish.

    one of the best language tools is an audio tape (and now IOS) is by an individual by the name Michel Thomas. Amazing Stuff!

    If your doing japanese. I learnt the method from alljapaneseallthetime.com or maybe its ajatt.com now? Anyway that seems pretty similar to what you mentioned and worked great for me.

    I'm a fan of the Michel Thomas school of learning - especially if you're a native English speaker and want to learn a Western European language such as French or Spanish. By going with what you already know you have a massive vocabulary (when you understand the common routes of the two languages) without resorting to boring rote learning. Couple that with focusing on key verbs and tenses and you can be up and running (although clearly not fluent) in days to weeks.

    OH hey, it's easy to learna new language quickly! Just move to an entire new country ya know, nothing hard about that! Seriously, get real Lifehacker.

    Yes, because everyone has the luxury of immersing themselves in a language for 3 months and daily lessons with a private tutor. Not to mention just upping sticks and moving to a new country.

    You make it sound so easy, when in fact 90% of the 'recommendations' impractical for anyone with a job/family/normal income.

    How about something more practical like how to learn a second language without giving up your job/family/life savings?

    Google Duolingo, it's an awesome website that i'm using to learn German and my girlfriend is learning spanish with it. Plus you're translating the internet while you do it!

    "Get a private tutor. You want one for at least a month. I recommend four hours per day."

    Four hours a day for a month? Maybe if you're blessed with infinite time and money.

    Defiantly planning on studying Japanese in my gap year next year but doubt I'll make it in 90 days. This guide is very interesting and I'll probably be following parts of it. But a private tutor for 4 hours a day for a month? I would love that and could probably just about manage that time wise. But if I did that I'd be spending everything I'm meant to be saving for uni and a car before I even have it. In fact I'd probably actually have to save up before hand before considering that.

    Is there any possibility of a possibly less time intensive and cheaper "How to learn a language in a year" guide? I mean... Sure learning a language in 3 months is dam impressing but unrealistic for so many!!

      @Kid, 90 days is SHORT for Japanese. Maybe for Spanish. But Japanese is way different. You don't need a private tutor, as you can do it yourself. AJATT.com is the best resource. Read on:

      Maneesh is spot-on in this article. I've done a bunch of research on this as well, and if you want to sound natural in your target language, as opposed to stilted and awkward (as many students of language classes do), the key is input. Tons of input. Input being mainly listening to the language spoken out loud, be it in person, from movies/TV shows, songs, or one of my favorites, talk radio. After listening for hours every day, you're creating an immersion environment for yourself whether you're in your target country or not. I studied Japanese at Stanford, taking the regular classes, but I didn't start improving very quickly until I started listening to Japanese podcasts 4 hours a day and watching a bunch of Japanese tv shows. After that, my accent improved rapidly that I started to sound like a native Japanese person except that my vocabulary wasn't that big (and that just takes time).

      By using the input method, you're learning like a baby in that culture would learn the language... hence the most natural and natural-sounding way. If you learn through textbooks alone, you will tend to try to make up turns of phrase and ways of saying things that, quite simply, sound awkward and no one would ever say it that way in reality. By having thousans of hours of audio input, thugh, you're prepping your brain with a vast dictionary not only of words, but of phrases, intonations, usages, sentence structures, and more. Textbooks do not give you this. For more on this method, check out AJATT.com. All Japanese All The Time, as mentioned above. That's the best, most in-depth website around for using this method, and applies to any language.

        Well I don't think I'll actually have any problems with in put. At the moment I could say I am already learning Japanese, almost solely from input. Yes, I'm a bit of an otaku, maybe not full fledged. But enough of one to know I need to at least get myself some actual light novels, manga and merchandise before I can say I am. Ok, well at the moment I have probably watched not far off 1000 hours of anime and have hundreds of Japanese songs (So maybe many would consider me an otaku or weeabo ). But in from this I have already learnt at least a couple of dozen words and believe I have a decent understanding of pronunciation for most words. So I'm at least a step on the way there.

        AJAAT looks like a pretty interesting site. I've bookmarked it and will probably be referring to it later as well as here so, thank you. But my main issue will be getting the structure and guidance to keep to track that I need. So I guess I'm probably looking at finding some nice resources and maybe still a tutor of some description for at least part of it then. Like maybe I'll find a tutor that does a weekly lesson or find some kind of class. Even though given my location in Northern Victoria this may be difficult.

    Human Japanese is a great iOS app for learning japanese and they are very close to releasing an intermediate edition. I believe it's also available on the mac app store and android. Worth looking into.

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