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:
- Get the right resources for learning: a grammar book, memorisation software and films/books.
- Get a private tutor. You want one for at least a month. I recommend four hours per day.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.