When I arrived in Buenos Aires in early 2018, I could barely order food at a local restaurant. Two years later, I calmly explained German grammar to a Venezuelan friend in his native language, Spanish. I am currently fluent in Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese and fluent in German. I will not tell you that it was easy or that there is a shortcut or a trick. I practiced like crazy. Frankly, I have seen so-called “tricks” to learn a foreign language and none of them worked for me. It took me hours of study and many mistakes.
Here are the tips I have collected over the past few years:
CONVERSATION, CONVERSATION, CONVERSATION
If there is a “secret” or a “trick” to learning a foreign language, it is this: hours and hours of awkward and exhausting conversations with people who are better at that language than you are.1 One hour of conversation (with corrections and a reference dictionary) is worth as much as five hours in class and 10 hours with a language course alone.
There are many reasons for this. The first is motivation.2 No matter how good your study guide is, you will be much more engaged and motivated if you communicate with a live person in front of you rather than with a book or an audio program on your computer.
The second reason is that language is something to be processed, not memorized. I am not a professor of linguistics, but my experience is that fixing and memorizing a word 100 times in a book or with flashcards does not fix in the same way as when you are forced to use a word two or three times in a conversation3
I think the reason is that our minds give higher priority to memories that are about real human and social experiences, memories to which emotions are attached.
For example, if I look up the verb “complain” and use it in a sentence with a new friend, I will probably always associate that word with that particular interaction and conversation I had with her. In contrast, I can go over the same word 20 times with flashcards and, even if I get it right, I haven’t really practiced its application. It has no meaning to me, so it is less likely to stick.
THE INTENSITY OF THE STUDY IS GREATER THAN THE DURATION OF THE STUDY
By this I mean that studying a language for four hours a day for a fortnight is more rewarding than studying one hour a day for two months. This is one of the reasons why many people take language courses in school and never memorize anything. This is because they study only 3-4 hours a week and classes are often several days apart.
Languages require a lot of repetition, a lot of reference experience, and constant commitment and investment. It is better to devote a certain period of one’s life, even if it is only 1 or 2 weeks, and devote 100% to it, than to half-heartedly complete it for months or even years.
CLASSES ARE AN ABSURDITY AND AN INEFFICIENT USE OF TIME AND MONEY….
Ultimately, group classes are not very convenient in terms of time and commitment.
There are two problems. The first is that the class moves at the pace of the slower learner. The second is that learning a foreign language is a rather personal process: everyone naturally learns some words or topics more easily than others, so a class cannot meet each student’s personal needs adequately or in a timely manner.
For example, when I studied Russian, verb conjugations were easy for me because I had already learned Spanish. But one of my English classmates had a lot of problems. So I spent a lot of time in class waiting for him to catch up with me.
I also had a German classmate who had already met the cases, while I had no idea what they were. I am sure he also had to wait for me. The bigger the classroom, the less efficient it is. Anyone who has had to take a foreign language class in school and had absolutely nothing to remember can say that.
KNOW WHAT MOTIVATES YOU TO LEARN A NEW LANGUAGE
It is silly to have to say it, but knowing why you learn a foreign language is the key to mastering it.
Many people start learning a language without knowing what they will use it for. And in fact they fail. You may know all the tips and tricks for learning a language, but if you don’t know why, how it will enrich your life, you will probably lose motivation and learning will fizzle out like an engine without gasoline.
do you want to start a new life in another country? Are you learning a foreign language because you are fascinated by its culture and want to immerse yourself in it? Are you planning a trip abroad and want to be able to order food on the street and tell the taxi driver where you are going in the local language?
These are all good reasons to learn a foreign language.
And yes, there are bad ones, too. If you want to learn Russian to impress that cute Russian guy you met at the bar, if you want to learn French phrases to impress people and sound smart, I have bad news for you.
Motivation is a tricky thing. You can force yourself to learn something difficult for a short period of time. But in the long run, you need to get a practical benefit from your efforts. Without that, you end up getting burned out.
SETTING LEARNING GOALS FOR LEARNING A FOREIGN LANGUAGE
Language learning goals are best when they are short, simple and easily measurable. Many of us start a language study by saying, “I want to learn to speak Japanese in six months!”
The problem is, what is fluency? Fluency in what sense? Informal conversation? Reading and writing? Are you discussing legal issues for your company?
Instead, it is best to set clearly defined goals. Start with something like, “By the end of the day, I will know how to greet someone and introduce myself. In two days, I will learn how to ask someone what they do and explain what I do. By the end of the week, I will know how to get food and avoid starving.”
And to begin with, I give you the goal of all goals, the milestone that will take you the furthest on the road to fluency: “Master the 100 most common words in X weeks/months”
STARTING WITH THE 100 MOST COMMON WORDS
Not all vocabularies are equal. Some perform better than others.4
For example, when I was living in Buenos Aires, I met a young man who had spent months studying with Rosetta Stone (absolutely not recommended). He had been working occasionally with a tutor for a few weeks, but I was surprised that he could not follow even the most basic conversations, despite having studied and lived there for months.
It turned out that much of the vocabulary I had studied was about kitchen utensils, family members, clothes, and rooms in a house. But when I wanted to ask someone what part of town they lived in, I didn’t know what to say.
Start with the 100 most common words and create sentences with them several times. Learn enough grammars to do this and do it until you feel comfortable with all of them.
CARRY A POCKET DICTIONARY WITH YOU
This has made a much bigger difference than I expected.
I have an English-Spanish dictionary app on my phone and used it all the time when I lived in Spanish-speaking countries. In my first two weeks in Brazil, I was lazy and forgot to download an English-Portuguese app. In those two weeks, I had a lot of difficulty in conversations, even though I knew basic Portuguese.
Once I downloaded the dictionary, the difference was immediately obvious. Having it on the phone is great because it takes two seconds to look something up in the middle of a conversation. And because you use it in a conversation, you are much more likely to remember it later.
Even something so simple has affected my conversations and my ability to interact with locals.
PRACTICING THE NEW LANGUAGE IN ONE’S HEAD
The other use of the dictionary is that you can practice it during your daily life, without talking to anyone.
Challenge yourself to think in the new language. We all have monologues in our heads, and they are usually in our native language. You can keep practicing and building up mock sentences and conversations in your head in a new language.
In fact, this kind of visualization makes conversations much easier when they actually take place.
For example, you can visualize and practice a conversation about a topic that you will probably have to deal with before you actually do it. You can start thinking about how to describe your job and explain in the new language why you are abroad.
Inevitably, these questions will come up and you will need to be ready to answer them.
YOU WILL START TALKING A LOT OF NONSENSE. ACCEPTANCE
When I was learning Spanish, I once told a group of people that Americans put a lot of condoms in their food. Later I told a girl that basketball makes me horny. Um, yes… It will happen. Trust me.
DISCOVER PRONUNCIATION PATTERNS
All Latin-based languages have similar pronunciation patterns based on Latin words.
For example, any word ending in “-tion” in English will almost always end in “-ción” in Spanish and in “-ção” in Portuguese.
English speakers have been known to simply add “-o” “-e” or “-a” to the end of English words to mean Spanish words they do not know. But stereotypes aside, it is surprising how often this is correct. “Fate” is “destiny,” “reason” is “reason,” “part” is “part,” and so on.
In Russian, noun endings always rhyme with each other, so if it is a feminine noun (like “Zhen-shee-na”), adjectives and adverbs rhyme with their endings (“krasee-vaya” vs. “krasee-vee”).
(For a language learning method that focuses on pronunciation, see the Mimic method).
USE AUDIO AND ONLINE COURSES FOR THE FIRST 100 WORDS AND BASIC GRAMMAR
After that, they should be used only for reference and not much more.
Many study materials are available (I recommend Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking courses, but there are many). These courses are ideal for going from no knowledge of the language to basic phrases and sentences in a few days. They are also useful for learning basic vocabulary (words such as: the, I, you, eat, want, thank, etc.)
I have already mentioned Rosetta Stone, of which I am not a fan (you can get better results elsewhere for your money, read on to find out). Other than that, there is no shortage of language apps to choose from: Babbel, Memrise and Duolingo are the most popular.
Each has its shortcomings. No magic pill will give you miraculous language skills. But there is no doubt that you can use them to supplement your learning. The phrases Duolingo uses to teach grammar and vocabulary provide great entertainment (and often an inside look at the people whose language you are trying to learn).
But remember that the greatest return on investment in learning a foreign language is in forcing you to talk and interact with others, and sitting in your room with a book or software program does not force you to formulate the meaning and importance of the new language on the spot.
On the contrary, you are encouraged to repeat and copy concepts and patterns observed in other materials. As I said, I believe that these are two different forms of learning and that one is much more effective than the other5
AFTER THE FIRST 100 WORDS, FOCUS ON CONVERSATION….
Studies have shown that the 100 most common words in a language account for 50 percent of all spoken communication. The 1,000 most common words account for 80% of all spoken communication. The 3,000 most common words account for 99% of all communication.6
In other words, learning more vocabulary has a very low yield.7 I probably only know between 500 and 1,000 words in Spanish, and in most conversations I never have to stop to look up a word on my phone.
Basic grammar should enable you to pronounce the basic phrases in a few days.
“Where is the restaurant?”
“I want to meet your friend.”
“How old is your sister?
“Did you like the movie?”
The first few hundred words will take you far. Use them to become as familiar as possible with grammar, idiom, slang and the construction of thoughts, jokes and ideas in the new language. When you are able to make jokes in the new language, it is a good sign that it is time to expand your vocabulary.
Many people try to expand their vocabulary too quickly and too fast. It is a waste of time and effort because they are not yet familiar with basic conversations about where they are coming from, yet they study vocabulary from economics or medicine. It makes no sense.
TARGET BRAIN FUSION
you know when you spend hours doing intellectually intensive work, at some point your brain feels like a piece of gravy?
At that point, focus on learning foreign languages. Until you get to the gravy phase of the brain, you are probably not maximizing your time and effort.
At first, the mind will melt away in an hour or two. Later, you may have to spend a whole night with the locals before that happens. But when it happens, it is very good.
Concentrated young man with head melting into tangled lines
USING THE NEW LANGUAGE ON A DAILY BASIS
Unless you have superhuman abilities, you will not master a language unless you use it often and consistently. The best way to make sure you achieve both goals is simply to use it every day.
Keep doing these mental monologues. Repeat the 100 conversational words and phrases you have learned so that they stick with you.
Better yet, immerse yourself in the new language. Changing the main language of your browser or phone will leave you disoriented for a few days, but it will allow you to get used to seeing the language in your daily life. When traveling, listen to podcasts or radio in the target language.
Watch YouTube videos in the language you are trying to learn. Many foreign-language videos have English subtitles. And if you dare, you can even watch them without subtitles Internet is your friend. Let it help you melt your brain every day.
“HOW DO YOU SAY X?” IS THE MOST IMPORTANT SENTENCE YOU CAN LEARN
Learn it early and use it often.
PRIVATE INSTRUCTION IS THE BEST AND MOST EFFICIENT USE OF TIME
It is also often the most expensive use of time, depending on the language and country.
But if you have the money, hiring a good private teacher and sitting with him or her for a few hours a day is the fastest way to learn a foreign language that I have found.
With just two hours a day for a few weeks with a private teacher in Brazil, I was able to reach a respectable level of conversation, which meant I could go out with a girl who didn’t speak English and converse all evening without making a fool of myself.
By the way.
DATING SOMEONE WHO SPEAKS THE TARGET LANGUAGE AND NOT YOUR NATIVE LANGUAGE
We talk about investment and motivation. Within a month, you will be speaking fluently. Best of all, if you upset them or do something wrong, you can say they got lost in translation.
IF YOU CAN’T FIND AN ATTRACTIVE PERSON TO PUT UP WITH YOU, FIND A LANGUAGE PARTNER ON THE INTERNET
There are several websites of foreigners who want to learn English and are willing to exchange practice time in their native language for practice in yours.
Here is a list of language exchange websites and apps (reviews are written by Bilingua, which is itself one of the apps reviewed, so be aware of their bias)
FACEBOOK CHAT + GOOGLE TRANSLATE = WIN
Really, the technology is amazing.
WHEN LEARNING A NEW WORD, TRY TO USE IT A FEW TIMES AT A TIME.
When you stop to look up a new word in a conversation, try to use it in the next two or three sentences.
Studies on language learning show that you should reach a certain number of repetitions of a word within a minute of learning, within an hour of learning, within a day, and so on8
Try using it a few times right away and then use it again throughout the day. It is likely to stick.
TV PROGRAMS, MOVIES, NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES ARE A GOOD SUPPLEMENT
But they should not be confused with or replace legitimate practice.
When I was learning Spanish, I watched a few movies every week and read an article from El País every day. It was helpful in keeping me fresh, but I don’t think it was as useful as the time spent in conversations.
MOST PEOPLE ARE HELPFUL, LET THEM HELP YOU
If you are in a foreign country and make a fool of yourself trying to buy something at the supermarket, ask random people for help. Point to something and ask them how to say it. Ask them questions.
Most people will be friendly and willing to help you. Learning a foreign language is not suitable for shy people.
THERE WILL BE A LOT OF AMBIGUITY AND MISCOMMUNICATION
The reality is that for a large number of words, translations are not easy.
“Gustar” in Spanish can roughly mean “like,” but in usage it is more nuanced than that. It is used for particular situations and contexts, while in English we use “like” as a general verb referring to anything we like or are interested in.
These subtle differences can be important, especially in serious or emotional conversations. Intentions can be easily misunderstood. In nuanced conversations about important topics, it will probably take twice as much effort to determine the exact meaning for each person than for two native speakers.
No matter how good you may be at the new language, it is unlikely that you will fully master the small intuitive differences between each word, phrase, or idiom of a native speaker without having lived in the country for years.
THESE ARE THE STAGES YOU GO THROUGH TO LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE….
First, you are able to speak little and understand nothing. Then you are able to understand much more than you speak. Then you become talkative, but this requires a lot of mental effort. Then you can speak and understand without conscious mental effort (i.e., you do not have to translate the words in your native language in your head).
Once you are able to speak and listen without thinking, you begin to really think in the foreign language without effort. Once this happens, you reach a really high level.
and the final level? Believe it or not, being able to follow a conversation among a large group of native speakers is the final piece of the puzzle that fits together. At least that was the case for me.
Once you have done that, and once you are able to insert yourself in and out of the conversation at will, you are pretty much done. After that, you have no choice but to live in the country for at least a year or two and become fully fluent.
FINALLY FIND A WAY TO MAKE IT FUN
As with anything, if you want to stick with it, you have to find a way to make it fun.
Find people you enjoy talking to. Attend events where you can exercise by doing something fun. Don’t just sit in a classroom in front of a book or you will quickly go into burnout.
Talk about personal topics that interest you. Inquire about the person you are talking to. Make it personal, a life experience, otherwise you are in for a long and unpleasant process that will probably eventually make you forget everything you have learned.
And these, my friends, are my tips for effectively learning a foreign language. Start learning it now.