Learning a second language has many cognitive benefits. For example, learning a new language has been shown to delay Alzheimer’s, boost brainpower, reduce cognitive biases, and even increase concentration and the ability to tune out distractions. Your ability to build better habits will improve by learning a new language.
But, more so than cognitive effects, the ability to speak a second language has a ton of social benefits. There’s bliss in having the ability to order food in the waiter’s native language, to eavesdrop on people in an elevator, 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 one day, when I actually tried to speak the language, I suddenly realized. Four years of studying Spanish in school, and I couldn’t even order a burrito.
So what went wrong? According to official standardized tests, I was an expert in Spanish. But I couldn’t even do the most basic of tasks!
The fact is that we 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 practicing for just that—for worksheets. But if you want to learn to speak, well, you actually have to practice by speaking.
So when people try to learn to speak a language out of a book, I try to show them that they won’t achieve their goals that way. If you want to speak, you have to practice 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.
1. Get the right resources for learning: A grammar book, memorization software, and films/books.
2. Get a private tutor. You want one for at least a month. I recommend four hours/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 memorization software. Practice 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. Practice continuously.
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 practice 4-8 hours a day, then you can modify the plan. It is extremely important that you practice every day, however—20 minutes a day is much better than once or twice a week.
The Resources You Need To Learn A Language
A good grammar book. This is essential if you want to learn a language.
A phrase book. This is similar to a dictionary, but for phrases. You can start memorizing full sentences and phrases, and you’ll naturally learn the individual words.
An online dictionary. For most romance langauges, I recommend http://wordreference.com. Google Translate can be useful, but it easily becomes a crutch. Use it sparingly.
A memorization app. You have to memorize vocabulary. I always put new words in my app, and practice them every night.
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.
If you don’t have the freedom to focus fulltime on learning a language, that’s okay, but the process will take longer than 90 days. Just make sure that you continue to practice every day, or else you’ll lose your knowledge rapidly.
The first thirty 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 will 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 to, but you have to take an active role in asking questions.
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 practice languages on your own. Enter these words in your memorization software.
You want to start memorizing 30 words and phrases per day. Why 30? Because in 90 days, you’ll have learned 80% of the language.
As you can see, you need to learn around 3000 to hit 80% of the words … probably enough before you can start learning words easily by context. At 30 words/day, you’ll have learned 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. Attempt to spend a few hours everyday practicing 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 socializing 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 memorization 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 memorization 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 practicing. Have deeper conversations with your language partners. Try to go out with them as much as possible—I’ve even found that a moderate amount of alcohol helps significantly with language practice.
Continue studying 30 words a day and practicing the ones you’ve already learned, 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.
Congratulations! You’ve done it–you’ve learned a language in just 90 days. The best part is that you’ll find it much faster to learn your next language. You’ve done the hard part–learning how to learn a language.
You’ve unlocked a new skill. Language learning is about building a new habit—the habit of thinking and speaking in a new language. And once you perfect a single language, you’ve laid the foundation for doing even more.
Imagine, the next time you meet a waiter or tourist from Italy or Mexico or Greece, you could start talking, tell a joke, and—if you can remember the punchline in time—get to experience the elation of making someone laugh in their own language.