So you want to learn a language quickly and to reach a relatively high level? Maybe you’ve got a scholarship for studies in a foreign country? Or you want to move and find work abroad, but the fact that you don’t speak the language seems like a big hurdle?
In this article I will describe how you can learn a language quickly and effectively in just around six months. You won’t reach full proficiency (it takes much longer time), but you will reach a solid, upper-intermediate level that will enable you to read newspapers, speak confidently on most topics, and understand most of the language on TV. This is more than enough for you to follow the lectures in that language or to work in a country where the language is spoken. If you have never touched that language before, my estimate is that in 6 months time, with clever approach and consistent effort you’ll be there.
1. Comprehensive approach
This means that if you’re serious about learning a language, you can’t stick just to one method, one textbook or one type of studying or practice. You need to use all the resources that are available to you and combine them intelligently. You also need to use multiple methods and techniques for working on your grammar, vocabulary, conversation skills, writing skills, listening skills, etc.
2. Self-directed approach
While I will explain this approach in detail, including all the steps, techniques, tips and tricks, etc… my explanation will serve only as a general guideline. You can deviate from it and you are encouraged to do so. Why? You know yourself best. You know what your strong and weak points are, you know where you need to put more effort. Everyone’s situation is unique. Learning a language is influenced by many factors including how distant your native language or other languages that you speak are from the language that you are learning right now. So, in first steps, you need to design the whole approach for yourself, and my article will only serve to help you with this.
This is an essential step! Before embarking on your language learning journey you need to gather the information that will help you make a plan and that will give you a realistic estimate of time and effort needed to learn a language. In this phase try to find answers to as many as possible of the following questions:
- How distant my target language is from my native language or from other languages that I speak? If they are similar, how much of a “discount” I get from already knowing related languages? Are there many “false friends” (the words sounding the same or similar, but having different meanings) between my native language and the target language? You can research online, or ask other people who speak your native language about their experience learning the same language.
- How many good textbooks, grammars manuals, phrasebooks, dictionaries, etc. are available for the language you want to learn? Try to figure out what the best books are before making any purchases. If you have no knowledge of your target language you need to find a book in which there are explanations in your native language or some other language that you speak, for example English. I would recommend getting both a phrasebook and a more classical textbook, which includes sections on grammar and vocabulary. Buying a separate grammar manual and dictionary is optional.
- Research the opportunities for using the language, both passively and actively. Passive use is when you are exposed to the input in your target language (reading books, newspapers, graded readers, watching TV, YouTube videos, etc…)… Active use is communicating: exchanging messages (SMS, Viber, Whatsapp), being active on online forums, speaking, live or on Skype, etc. This is very important because just studying a language will get you nowhere if you are not using it. Use of language is essential, though it doesn’t have to be active in the first phase. Passive use, reading for example, can make you improve a lot, but only if you understand what you read, so choose materials that are not too hard for you.
- Figure out what the trickiest elements of the language are and whether you’ll need a teacher to help you with it. For some languages the trickiest part is grammar, for some others (like French), it’s the pronunciation and writing… If you can afford it, I would definitely recommend using the services of a private teacher, but you need to explain to your teacher that you are learning the language on your own, and that you just want their help with the specific elements of studying, or for practicing conversation or for any other specific thing… You pay them, so you have the full rights to negotiate and to ask them to give you specific information and help. If you just passively go to the lessons they might take a more conservative, conventional approach, and you might pay for many lessons in which the teacher just covers the things that you could have covered on your own, without spending a dime. On the other hand, a good teacher and a motivated student who knows what he wants can make a perfect team and they can achieve amazing progress much faster than the student would be able to on their own. Still, having a teacher if fully optional, and not required for this approach.
2. Make a plan
After the research, you can make a plan. In the plan you write down the goals you want to achieve, what you need in order to achieve your goals, and how much time you think you will need to achieve them. When you have a clear plan you can be well oriented during the whole journey and easily navigate between individual steps in language learning process. An example plan would look like this:
- Get informed about the structure and grammar of the language
- Quickly learn basics of grammar and 2000 most frequent words
- Re-learn it all, now with a different method, covering a classical textbook(s) – in this phase you apply your knowledge that you learned before and let it sink into your subconscious mind
- Expose yourself to language as much as you can, actively use the language and occasionally you can still study grammar and vocabulary. At the beginning of this phase you can optionally test yourself and consult a teacher.
Now, we’ll cover these steps in more details.
3. Get more deeply informed about the structure and grammar of the language
As you already know something about your target language from your previous research, now you need to go into details. In this phase you can benefit from Wikipedia article about your target language and its grammar, or some similar general grammar overview. You should ask questions like this: are there cases in the language, how many verb tenses exist, how prepositions are used, are there articles, etc… so that you know what there is to be learned about grammar, which will help you a lot in the learning process itself… you will always know what areas of grammar you have already covered, and what remains to be covered. You can even make a map on a large piece of paper, and check the elements on the map as you cover them. Each time you cover something you can add additional check-mark, so that you know how many times you have passed certain things.
4. Quickly learn basics of grammar and 2000 most frequent words
This is probably the most controversial step. Most authorities in language education argue against studying grammar and vocabulary explicitly and consciously. However, I don’t fully agree. While it’s true that you need to subconsciously acquire a language, and not just study it consciously in order to be able to use it naturally, I think that conscious and explicit study of grammar and vocabulary can’t hurt you if you know their purpose. Quite the opposite, it can accelerate your learning process a lot, and prepare you for the next step, in which you will subconsciously acquire much more language and much quicker than you would be able to if you didn’t precede it with conscious and explicit study.
Let me show it with an example. Here is a sentence in Italian language:
I ragazzi giocano a carte.
If you have never touched Italian or another Romance language this sentence will be a total mystery for you. So if you are learning from a book, and you encounter this sentence, you would have to look up all those words, and you would spend quite some time decoding the sentence.
However, if you first learned the most common words and basic grammar, decoding such a sentence would be much, much quicker and easier.
So, learning basic grammar and vocabulary, will NOT make you truly acquire a language, but it will prepare you for it and help you decode much more text and much faster, than you would be able to do if you didn’t learn it. Only during this decoding process, which is initially conscious, and gradually becomes more and more unconscious and spontaneous you truly acquire language. In other words you acquire a language when you understand input in that language. And this is fully in line with findings of language education science.
Now that’s all about WHY study grammar and vocabulary initially, now let’s see HOW:
When it comes to grammar, you can get a good grammar manual or a language textbook that contains grammar section, and try to memorize all the important stuff. It maybe sounds crazy: “learn all the grammar of a language at once?!” – but it’s not crazy at all. If you learn it once fully and properly, you’ll never be confused about it in the future and you’ll avoid countless hours of frustration. Is it hard to do? Well, it’s not a child’s game, but it’s much easier than you can imagine! If you compare it to a typical university subject or exam, it’s much easier. All the most important elements of grammar of any language can be easily explained in 30-40 pages max. Of course there are much larger grammar books, but they cover all the countless details and exceptions. With 30 page grammar summary you get a solid foundation in a language and this can serve as a starting point for all of your further grammar studies. These 30 pages you need to learn fully, and by heart. You should know all the verb endings, cases, etc… If you dedicate 3 hours a day to learning it, you can learn it all in a week. One week – pretty much all the grammar. Give yourself another week for rehearsing it and practicing it. You can find websites for verb conjugations, for example and they can help you practice verbs.
Now the vocabulary. The fastest and the most efficient way (though maybe not so pretty and appealing) to learn the vocabulary is to simply study the vocabulary! You need to find a list of around 2000 most frequent words (that’s minimum for basic fluency) in your target language, and memorize them. You can find such lists (words ordered by frequency) online, or you can also use the vocabulary given at the end of the general language course textbook that covers all the words used in the textbook. If you just study words, a few hours a day, you can memorize 2000 words in around 15 days. It’s 133 words a day, it’s not that much.
To memorize a word you need to be exposed to it around 5-7 times on average. Now let’s say that one such exposure lasts 10 seconds. In a minute you get 6 exposures. In an hour 360 exposures. If your goal is to be exposed 6 times to 133 words, it’s 6×133 = 798 exposures. You can get it in 798/360 = 2,21 hours or 2 hours and 13 minutes.
So with just 2 hours and 13 minutes of study each day, in 2 weeks you can know 2000 words. And even this time of study is probably overestimated, as further exposures will probably last less than 10 seconds. Only first time you need some time to properly read a word and remember its meaning. Next time you pass it, you need maybe just 5-6 seconds or even less. So even less than 2 hours a day will be enough.
You can design your own ways in which you’ll get exposed to words. You can use flashcards, you can put words in Excel table, you can just write them down in a regular textbook, or maybe you can record yourself reading the list of words, with translations, and then listen to such recording repeatedly. Whatever method you use, around 2 hours will be more than enough to learn 133 words, and stay on your way to 2000 words in 15 days. Just one tip: try not to get all 6 exposures to a word in a single day. Design your schedule in such a way that you get exposed to one word at least on two separate days, or even more. 3 times on the first day, and 3 more times on 3 separate days would be a good strategy to best remember a word.
Now, after the first month of study, where you are: you know all the most important grammar (you know it consciously, but you haven’t yet acquired it on subconscious level – that’s what you do in the next phase) and you know enough words to give you basic fluency… yet… you still have no fluency at all and you probably can’t even speak the language at all. But don’t worry, this will all be solved in the following phases. Now you have a very solid foundation to build upon and to actually understand the language, acquire it and get fluent very quickly. The real fun is just about to start.
5. Re-learn everything, with a different method
This is perhaps the most important phase of study. In this phase you do the following: Find a good, high quality textbook, that covers the language at least up to B2 level, and study it all. It should contain a good variety of topics and areas of language use, a broad selection of vocabulary, and all the most important aspects of grammar. If you can’t get it all in one book, you can buy several textbooks that cover consecutive levels of language, for example from A1 to B2… One of the books you use in this phase can also be a simple phrasebook. Once you learn a lot of vocabulary and understand basic grammar, learning the phrases from the phrasebook will not be a mechanical process for you, but one in which you understand what you learn and get further exposure to language. Also, try to find a textbook that has at least some explanations in your native language or in another language that you know. This is important as you are still a beginner and you want things to be CLEAR to you. Now you study the textbooks in a similar way that you would if you haven’t already learned all the grammar and 2,000 most common words. You go unit after unit, or lesson after lesson, you read the explanations, do the exercises, study the vocabulary and grammar, until you finish the entire textbook, or several of them (if you bought more than one). But here is the BIG DIFFERENCE:
- You’ll be able to do it much, much faster than you would be able to if you haven’t studied the grammar and the vocabulary previously.
- You’ll learn it all much better, and you’ll remember more, because you will cover many pieces of grammar and vocabulary again, it’s the second time you encounter them (actually in case of vocabulary, 7th time)… Everything that you have learned on a conscious level in the previous phase, and that was only contained in your short and medium term memory, will now be acquired subconsciously and remembered in your long term memory. This is because in a good textbook you encounter good texts (input) and when you understand such text, you actually acquire language.
You can pass one large textbook, or several smaller ones in just 1 or 2 months. To be conservative again, let’s say 2 months.
Now your total time learning the language so far is around 3 months. At this point you have probably not just learned, but also acquired all the basic grammar, and 2000-3000 most common words. Since you haven’t talked or communicated much in the language so far, now is the time to start doing it. After this point, classical studying that you did so far becomes less important, while high quality exposure to language (input) and active use of language become the most important elements to keep improving.
6. Exposure + active use + occasional studying
This is the last and never-ending phase of lifelong improvement in your language. The first three months are especially important as your knowledge that you gained through formal studying in previous phases is still fresh and not fully consolidated, so now you need as much exposure and as much active use of language as possible, to let it all sink deeper and get more ingrained in your mind.
6a ) Optional testing, consulting with teacher, private classes
At the start of this phase you would probably benefit from subjecting yourself to a formal test or from booking several private lessons with a professional teacher (if you can afford it) or from enrolling in a standard language course. This is because no matter how diligently you studied and how rational and systematic your approach to learning grammar was, there is a large chance that you didn’t understand everything fully and correctly, that you use some grammar structures wrongly or that you pronounce some words with a wrong accent. Testing yourself and receiving several formal lessons will help you check and verify your progress and eliminate the most common errors that you make. It’s quite important to do it in this phase because, now is the time when you start actually SPEAKING and actively using the language, and if you get into habit of making certain errors and wrongly pronouncing words, it will be much more difficult to eliminate it later.
Here is what I did after 3-4 months of studying Italian on my own, with the previously described methods. I went to a language school in my town, did the placement test, which allowed me to enter the third level. So I skipped the first 2 levels, which last 2 years… Thanks to 3-4 months of focused, self-directed study, I achieved what typical students achieve in 2 years of attending the course. But I decided to enroll in the course nevertheless, because I wanted to get the chance to actively use the language: speaking in the classroom, written assignments, interacting with teachers and students… and to test myself, and get aware of the errors that I make and start eliminating them.
Was it the optimal option? Maybe not, but it was good. Maybe private lessons would be even more helpful, especially if they were highly focused on conversation. Imagine what a full hour of one-on-one conversation can do, especially with someone who is professionally trained and can make you feel comfortable, engage you with interesting topics and correct your errors. With 10 hours of private lessons, you will probably spend first 2-3 lessons on checking your progress and correcting your errors, then you can use the rest just for practicing conversation. Such practice will make a big difference.
6b ) Lifelong learning
After you’ve tested yourself, checked your progress and received a few formal lessons or attended the course for some time (one month for example), you’re ready to start actively using the language on your own and getting exposure in the language, outside of formal academic context. Now here are the things that you should do to keep improving in the language. (And in first few months do it as much as you can, later you can lower the intensity)
- Find a conversation partner who is a native speaker. There are websites for finding language exchange partners (like Italki), but you can also benefit from sites for finding pen-pals or even dating websites. It would be extremely beneficial to befriend a native speaker and keep a long stream of conversation with him/her in your target language. Try to use as much actual speaking as possible (Skype), but texting is also not bad, but not as good as speaking.
- Register on forums that use your target language and get involved in discussions. That’s excellent way to practice your written conversation, while exploring topics that you enjoy.
- Write a blog in your target language, or keep a diary.
- If you can afford it, visit the country where the language is spoken, however, if you do it, try to get involved with some local project or find some temporary job where you will interact with natives. Attending language courses for foreigners, while a wonderful experience, is maybe not so beneficial for practicing language because you’ll mostly spend time with other students who are foreigners, rather than with native speakers. And what’s worse, you can end up speaking to them in your native language or English, rather than the language you’re learning.
- Read A LOT in your target language. The more addictive the material the better, your goal is just to read as much as you can. You can read books for kids, encyclopedias (including Wikipedia), romance or crime novels, newspaper articles, textbooks about things unrelated to language itself, non-fiction etc. Whatever keeps your interest. If you’re still uncomfortable reading authentic materials, you can start with graded readers, gradually increasing the level, until you start reading authentic materials.
- Watch movies, cartoons, TV series, talk-shows, news, documentaries, listen to podcasts, radio programming etc… choose whatever is available to you and what you find interesting. It’s important to get exposed to a lot of spoken language as well.
- YouTube also offers a good chance to get exposed to a natural, unscripted language. You can find many youtubers who have vlogs about things that you find interesting, or just speak about their life.
- And last but not the least, you can periodically still study the grammar and vocabulary, to review and broaden certain areas of knowledge or get more practice in them. Also whenever you feel you need some boost in your language, you can still benefit from private lessons. And when you have them, you’re the boss. Tell the teacher exactly what you need help with so that you get most benefit from your money, as it’s not cheap! Of course, it doesn’t mean being disrespectful to your teacher.
Now after 2-3 months of such practice, and after 6 months of total time learning a language, you’ve probably reached basic spoken fluency, you have solid understanding of language, and you can understand pretty much ANY text, perhaps with the help of dictionary. If you did everything correctly, you’re now probably around B2 level, which is enough to get a professional job in the country where the language is spoken and to follow lectures at University in that language.
Not enough for you?
Just keep doing all the things mentioned in 6b section, and gradually, your language will improve. While it’s easy to reach basic fluency and B2 level in just around 6 months as described, it takes much longer to reach a full proficiency and approach the native level. But instead of demotivating you, it should keep you motivated, as you know that you can always keep improving. Even the native speakers improve in their language and especially in their vocabulary as they age. According to studies, people reach the maximum vocabulary around the age of 60!