When I arrived in Buenos Aires in the beginning of 2010, I could barely order food in a local restaurant. Two years later, I calmly explained the mechanics of Russian grammar to a Guatemalan friend… in her native Spanish.
Today, I’m conversationally fluent in both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, and low conversational in Russian. I’m not going to blow smoke up your ass and tell you it was easy or that there’s some shortcut or hack. I practiced my ass off. Honestly, I’ve seen the supposed “hacks” for language learning, and none of them worked for me. It took hours of study combined with stumbling through many, many conversations.
Here are some language learning tips I’ve gathered over the past few years:
1. Conversation, Conversation, Conversation
If there’s a “secret” or “hack” to learning a new language, it’s this: hours and hours of awkward and strenuous conversation with people better than you in that language.1 An hour of conversation (with corrections and a dictionary for reference) is as good as five hours in a classroom and 10 hours with a language course by yourself.
There are a few reasons for this. The first is motivation.2 I don’t care how cool your study guide is, you’re going to be far more invested and motivated to communicate with a live person in front of you than a book or audio program on your computer.
The second reason is that language is something that needs to be processed, not memorized. I’m no linguistics professor, but in my experience, staring and memorizing a word in a book or with flashcards 100 times simply does not stick the same way as being forced to use a word in conversation a mere two or three times.3
I believe the reason is that our minds place more priority on memories which involve actual human and social experiences, memories which have emotions tied to them.
So, for instance, if I look up the verb for “to complain” and use it in a sentence with a new friend, chances are I’m always going to associate that word with that specific interaction and conversation I was having with her. Whereas I can blow by that same word 20 times with flashcards, and even though I may get it right, I haven’t actually practiced implementing it. It means nothing to me, so it is less likely to stick with me.
2. Intensity of study trumps length of study
What I mean by this is that studying a language four hours a day for two weeks will be more beneficial for you than studying one hour a day for two months. This is one reason why so many people take language classes in school and never remember anything. It’s because they only study 3-4 hours per week and often the classes are separated by multiple days.
Language requires a lot of repetition, a lot of reference experiences, and a consistent commitment and investment. It’s better to allot a particular period of your life, even if it’s only 1-2 weeks, and really go at it 100%, than to half-ass it over the course of months or even years.
3. Classes suck and are an inefficient use of time and money
All things considered, you get a really poor return for your time and effort in group classes. There are two problems. The first is that the class moves at the pace of its slowest student. The second is that language learning is a fairly personal process—everyone naturally learns some words or topics easier than others, therefore a class is not going to be able to address each student’s personal needs as well or in a timely fashion.
For instance, when I took Russian classes I found verb conjugations to be simple because I had already learned Spanish. But an English classmate struggled quite a bit with them. As a result, I spent a lot of my class time waiting around for him to catch up.
I also had a German classmate who had already been exposed to cases, whereas I had no clue what they were. I’m sure he ended up waiting around for me to figure it out as well. The larger the classroom, the less efficient it’s going to be. Anyone who had to take a foreign language in school and retained absolutely none of it can tell you this.
4. Know your motivation
It’s silly to even have to say this, but knowing why you’re learning a foreign language is key to mastering it. Many people start learning a language with no idea of what they’ll use it for. And, sure enough, they fail. You can know all the tips and tricks there are to learning a language, but if you don’t know the why behind it all, how it’s going to enrich your life, chances are you’re going to lose motivation and the learning will fizzle out like an engine sputtering out of gas.
Are you looking to start a new life in a different country? Are you learning a language because you’re fascinated by the culture and want to dive in at the deep end? Are you planning a trip to a foreign land and simply wanting to be able to order street food and tell the taxi driver where you’re going in the local language? These are all good motivations to learn a language.
And yes, there are bad ones too. If you want to learn Russian simply to impress that cute Russian you met at the bar, if you’re thinking of picking up French phrases to impress people and look smart, well, I have bad news for you.
Motivation is a tricky thing. You can will yourself to learn something difficult for a short period of time. But in the long-run, you need to be reaping some practical benefit from your efforts. Without that, you’ll eventually burn out.
5. Set learning goals
Language-learning goals are best if they are short, simple and easily measurable. Many of us embark on studying a language by saying, “I want to be fluent in Japanese in six months!”
The problem is, what is fluency? Fluent in what way? Casual conversation? Reading and writing? Discussing legal issues for your business?
Instead, it’s better to set clearly defined goals. Start with something like, “By the end of today, I will know how to greet someone and introduce myself. In two days, I will learn how to ask someone what they do for a living and explain to them what I do. By the end of the week, I will know how to procure food and avoid starvation.”
And to get you started, I’ll give you the goal of all goals, the milestone that will take you furthest on the path to fluency: “Master the 100 most common words in X weeks/months.”
6. Start with the 100 most common words
Not all vocabulary is created equal. Some gives you a better return on investment than others.4 For instance, when I lived in Buenos Aires, I met a guy who had been studying with Rosetta Stone for months (not recommended). I had been working on and off with a tutor for a few weeks, but I was surprised by how he could not follow even the most basic of conversations despite months of study and living there.
It turns out, much of the vocabulary he had been studying was for kitchen utensils, family members, clothing and rooms in a house. But if he wanted to ask someone which part of town they lived in, he had no idea what to say.
Start with the 100 most common words and then make sentences with them over and over again. Learn just enough grammar to be able to do this and do it until you feel pretty comfortable with all of them.
7. Carry a pocket dictionary
This made a much bigger difference than I expected. I carry an English-Spanish dictionary app on my phone and I used it all the time when I lived in Spanish-speaking countries. My first two weeks in Brazil, I was lazy and kept forgetting to download an English-Portuguese application. I struggled in my conversations A LOT during those two weeks, despite knowing basic Portuguese.
Once I downloaded the dictionary, there was an immediate difference. Having it on your phone is great, because it takes two seconds to look something up in the middle of conversation. And because you’re using it in conversation, you’re that much more likely to recall it later. Even something that simple affected my conversations and ability to interact with locals a great deal.
8. Keep practicing in your head
The other use for your dictionary is that you can practice while going about your day and not talking to anyone. Challenge yourself to think in the new language. We all have monologues running in our head, and typically they run in our native tongue. You can continue to practice and construct sentences and fake conversations in your head in a new language. In fact, this sort of visualization leads to much easier conversations when you actually have them.
For instance, you can envision and practice a conversation about a topic you’re likely to have before you actually have it. You can begin to think about how you would describe your job and explain why you’re in the foreign country in the new language. Inevitably, those questions will come up and you’ll be ready to answer them.
9. You’re going to say a lot of stupid things. Accept it
When I was first 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, yeah… It’s going to happen. Trust me.
10. Figure out pronunciation patterns
All Latin-based languages will have similar pronunciation patterns based on Latin words. For instance, any word that ends in “-tion” in English will almost always end in “-ción” in Spanish and “-ção” in Portuguese. English-speakers are notorious for simply adding “-o” “-e” or “-a” to the end of English words to say Spanish words they don’t know. But stereotypes aside, it’s surprising how often it’s correct. “Destiny” is “destino,” “motive” is “motivo,” “part” is “parte” and so on. In Russian, case endings always rhyme with one another, so if you are talking about a feminine noun (such as “Zhen-shee-na”), then you know that the adjectives and adverbs will usually rhyme with its ending (“krasee-vaya” as opposed to “krasee-vee”).
(For a language-learning method that focuses on pronunciation, check out The Mimic Method).
11. Use audio and online courses for the first 100 words and basic grammar
After that they should only be used for reference and nothing more. There are a lot of study materials out there (I recommend Benny Lewis’ Language Hacking courses, but there are tons). These courses are great for getting you from absolutely no ability in a language to being able to speak basic sentences and phrases within a few days’ time. They’re also good for teaching the most fundamental vocabulary (words such as: the, I, you, eat, want, thanks, etc.).
I’ve already mentioned Rosetta Stone which I’m not a fan of (you can get better bang for your buck elsewhere—read on and find out). Other than this, there is no shortage of language apps for you to take your pick: Babbel, Memrise, and Duolingo being the most popular ones. Each has its own shortcomings. None is a magic pill that gives you miraculous language abilities. But there is no doubt you can use them to complement your learning. If anything, the crowd-sourced sentences Duolingo uses to teach you grammar and vocabulary will provide great entertainment (and often a peek into what goes on in the minds of the people whose language you’re attempting to learn).
But remember, the greatest return on investment in language learning is forcing yourself to speak and communicate with others, and when you’re sitting in your bedroom with a book or a software program, you’re not being forced to formulate meaning and significance in the new language on the spot. Instead, you’re encouraged to parrot and copy concepts and patterns you’ve observed elsewhere in the materials. As mentioned before, I feel that these are two different types of learning and one is far more effective than the other.5
12. After the first 100 words, focus on becoming conversational
Studies have shown that the most common 100 words in any language account for 50% of all spoken communication. The most common 1,000 words account for 80% of all spoken communication. The most common 3,000 words account for 99% of communication.6 In other words, there are some serious diminishing returns from learning more vocabulary.7 I probably only know 500-1,000 words in Spanish and in most conversations I never have to stop and look a word up in my phone.
The basic grammar should get you speaking fundamental sentences within a matter of 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 get you pretty far. Use them to get as comfortable as possible with grammar, idioms, slang and constructing thoughts, jokes, and ideas in the new language on the fly. Once you’re able to joke consistently in the new language, that’s a pretty good sign that it’s time to expand your vocabulary.
A lot of people attempt to expand their vocabulary too quickly and too soon. It’s a waste of time and effort because they’re still not comfortable with basic conversations about where they’re from, yet they’re studying vocabulary about economics or medicine. It makes no sense.
13. Aim for the brain melt
You know how when you do a lot of intellectually-intensive work for hours and hours on end, at some point your brain just feels like a lump of gravy? Shoot for that moment when learning languages. Until you’ve reached brain-gravy stage, you probably aren’t maximizing your time or effort. In the beginning, you’ll hit mind-melt within an hour or two. Later on, it may take an entire night of hanging out with locals before it happens. But when it happens, it’s a very good thing.
14. Use the language daily
Unless you have superhuman abilities, you’re not going to become fluent in a language if you don’t use it often and consistently. And the best way to ensure you hit both marks is simply to use it daily. Keep having those mental monologues.
Go over those 100 words and conversational phrases you learned so they stick. Better yet, immerse yourself in the new language. Changing the operating language on your browser or phone will leave you disoriented for a few days, but it will get you used to seeing the language in your daily life. Listen to podcasts or the radio in your target language on your commute.
Watch YouTube videos in the language you’re trying to learn. A lot of foreign-language videos will have English subtitles. And if you’re feeling bold, you can even watch them without the subtitles! The Internet is your friend. Let it help you melt your brain every day.
15. “How do you say X?” is the most important sentence you can possibly learn
Learn it early and use it often.
16. One-on-one tutoring is the best and most efficient use of time
It’s also usually the most expensive use of time, depending on the language and country. But if you have the money, grabbing a solid tutor and sitting with him or her for a few hours every day is the fastest way to learn a new language that I’ve found. A mere two hours a day for a few weeks with a tutor in Brazil got me to at least a respectable conversational level—i.e., I could go on a date with a girl who spoke no English and maintain conversation throughout the night without making too much of a fool of myself.
Speaking of which…
17. Date someone who speaks the target language and not your native language
Talk about investment and motivation. You’ll be fluent in a month. And best of all, if you make them mad or do something wrong, you can claim that it was lost in translation.
18. If you can’t find someone cute who will put up with you, find a language buddy online
There is a number of websites of foreigners who want to learn English who would be willing to trade practice time in their native language for practice in yours. Here is an overview of language exchange websites and apps. (The reviews are written by Bilingua, which is itself one of the apps reviewed, so take their bias into account.)
19. Facebook chat + Google Translate = Winning
Seriously, technology is amazing.
20. When you learn a new word, try to use it a few times right away
When you stop and look up a new word in conversation, make a point to use it in the next two or three sentences you say. Language learning studies show that you need to hit a certain amount of repetitions of saying a word within one minute of learning it, one hour of learning it, one day, etc.8 Try to use it immediately a few times and then use it again later in the day. Chances are it’ll stick.
21. TV shows, movies, newspapers and magazines are a good supplements
But they should not be mistaken or replacements for legitimate practice. When I was getting good at Spanish, I made a point to watch a couple movies each week and read an article on El País each day. It was helpful for keeping me fresh, but I don’t believe it was as helpful as my time spent in conversations.
22. Most people are helpful, let them help
If you’re in a foreign country and making a complete ass out of yourself trying to buy something at the grocery store, ask random people for help. Point to something and ask how to say it. Ask them questions. Most people are friendly and willing to help you out. Learning a language is not for shy people.
23. There will be a lot of ambiguity and miscommunication
Fact of the matter is that for many, many words, the translations are not direct. “Gustar” may roughly mean “to like” in Spanish, but in usage, it’s more nuanced than that. It’s used for particular situations and contexts, whereas in English we use “like” as a blanket verb covering anything we enjoy or care about. These subtle differences can add up, particularly in serious or emotional conversations.
Intentions can be easily misconstrued. Nuanced conversations over important matters will likely require double the effort to nail down the exact meaning for each person than it would between two native speakers. No matter how good you are in your new language, you’re not likely to have a complete grasp over the slight intuitive differences between each word, phrase or idiom that a native speaker does without living in the country for years.
24. These are the phases you go through
First, you’re able to speak a little and understand nothing. Then you’re able to understand far more than you speak. Then you become conversational, but it requires quite a bit of mental effort. After that, you’re able to speak and understand without conscious mental effort (i.e., you don’t have to translate words into your native tongue in your mind). Once you’re able to speak and listen without thinking about it, you’ll begin to actually think in the foreign language itself without effort. Once this happens, you’re really hitting a high level.
And the final level? Believe it or not, being able to follow a conversation between a large group of native speakers is the last piece of the puzzle to fall into place. Or at least it was for me. Once that happens, and you’re able to interject, come in and out of the conversation at will, you’re pretty set. After that, there’s not really anywhere else to go without living in the country for at least a year or two and reaching complete fluency.
25. Finally, find a way to make it fun
As with anything, if you’re going to stick to it, you have to find a way to make it fun. Find people you enjoy talking to. Go to events where you can practice while doing something fun. Don’t just sit in a classroom in front of a book, or you’re likely to burn out fairly quickly. Talk about personal topics which you care about. Find out about the person you’re talking to. Make it personal, a life experience, or else you’re going to be in for a long, unenjoyable process which will likely end up in you forgetting everything you learned.
- This is exactly how all of us learned our native language as children. See: Clark, E. V. (2018). Conversation and Language Acquisition: A Pragmatic Approach. Language Learning and Development, 14(3), 170–185.↵
- If you want to learn more about the role of motivation and language learning, here’s a collection of studies to sink your motivated teeth into.↵
- Here’s what an actual former Professor of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) says on the topic: “SLA is best conceived of as involving multiple processes that in turn may contain subprocesses that work at every stage of acquisition.” Yep, processes galore.↵
- Have a guess what the words with the highest returns in English are… (Answer: ‘the’, ‘of’, ‘and’, ‘a’, ‘to.’) See: Fry, E. (1999). 1000 Instant Words: The Most Common Words for Teaching Reading, Writing and Spelling. Teacher Created Resources.↵
- If you want to learn more about speaking and foreign language acquisition, this book is as good a place as any to start.↵
- Native speakers typically know 15,000 to 20,000 lemmas in their language (‘lemma’ meaning a root word and all its inflections e.g. ‘run’, ‘running’, ‘ran’). But this is not a realistic goal for language learners. If you know the 3,000 most common lemmas, you’ll already be able to understand dialog in film or television (which is more difficult than day-to-day speaking). And if you want to master the written word, the number you’re looking for is 8,000-9,000 lemmas. See this BBC article for more.↵
- This study, for example, finds that knowing up to 11,123 words in Dutch helps to be able to understand first-year university reading material, but knowing more than that won’t get you much further.↵
- This study, for example, finds for Japanese students learning English that, “[i]f learners encounter unknown words ten times in context, sizeable learning gains may occur.”↵