(a 10 minute read) I have a question for you: How many languages do you speak? For lots of people reading this, the answer is more than one. Most people usually learn to speak a secondary language next to their native one either because they grow up in a multilingual household or because they learn it in school (for example: in Germany it’s English from grade 3 onward, and a third language from grade 6). For most native English speakers though, attempts at learning another language in school are in vain.
The good news on the other hand is that it’s never been easier to change that. See, learning languages in school is such a backwards way of doing it because not only is it ineffective and slow but it also takes out all the fun of it and in turn makes it something boring. And I partly get why it’s done in such a way because everyone learns at a different pace, standardized tests and more reasons I won’t get into right now. But all of these factors are vaporized if you simply use the magic of the Internet to your advantage and turn learning a language into an adventure, not into a chore.
The Duolingo Bird Won’t Come To Kill You
Sometimes all it needs is a little shift in perspective to really make a difference. For example, Latin is often referred to as one of the toughest languages to learn because it’s a dead language. But it’s not because we’re not smart enough. During the height of the Roman Empire every crook, every dumb person and even every child was able to speak Latin. It’s not us that’s wrong, it’s the way languages are taught that is. Children start to speak without any grammar school or online courses, and you don’t need that either. I’m not saying that you won’t ever need them, but what I mean is that these things come way later down the road.
What matters now is that you simply start. Different languages require different amounts of effort and it’s obviously easier if you already know some basic words, can string together three-word sentences or even cuss. Either way, you really have to go out there and start making mistakes. As said before, this isn’t school - nobody will come and punish you or beat you up if you mess up a sentence or forget some vocabulary...not even the Duolingo bird. So, here are the 5 stages to learn any language FAST.
Stage 0 - Find Your WHY
When starting any new project, the right kind of motivation is always one of the most integral aspects of it.
-Do you want to travel and dive into new cultures?
-Do you want to exercise your brain and see what you’re capable of?
-Do you have a loved one or a spouse that you want to connect to on a deeper level?
Whatever your reason may be, remember it because it’ll keep you in it for the long-run. The journey you’re about to go on will be a long-term skill that you want to keep from now on. You don’t want to load up your brain with a ton of new information only to forget all of it by next summer.
I’ll keep on using Spanish as an example from now on because it’s what I set out to learn so it’s what I know the most about. I started it because I have friends that speak it, and I’ve always been in love with the sound of it and the whole culture behind it. And lucky for me, I got to study Latin in school which makes the process easier for me because Spanish is a Romance language (and even German, my native tongue, is somewhat related to Latin). As said before, learning something that you already have knowledge of will make everything easier but it’s far from a necessity.
Another thing that always fascinated me is that new languages simply turn you into a more interesting person because they open so many new doors for you - be it via travels, the people you can get to know and you as a general package. Another thing is that it basically reshapes your entire mind and your thoughts. It’s probably the best workout your brain can have and it will keep you much fitter for decades to come. So, what I want you to do is fuel the fire in you and imagine what it’s gonna be like when you can express ideas in a whole different way. With nothing lost in translation. A new life and a new way of thinking are waiting for you.
Stage 1 - Aim For The Top 1,000
Now let’s start actually getting into the more practical stuff - a lot of what I’m about to say is inspired by some of Nathaniel Drew’s videos (I’ll link one down below). The first tactic is really straightforward: you don’t need to buy a course or even use apps like Duolingo. Yes, while they can be really helpful for starting out they’re not actually the most efficient because our goal isn’t to simply learn as much vocabulary as possible...that’s a short-term solution but we want this language to be a part of our lives from now on, remember?
Instead of soaking in as much as possible we want to only focus on the most important or most common words because we can get way more mileage from those compared to more random, one-use words like “bloodshed” for example (I know that’s a weird word to pop into my mind first).
Have you ever heard of the Pareto principle? It’s also called the “80/20” rule because it’s a universal law which states that 80% of outcomes are determined by just 20% of inputs. For example...just 20% of drivers cause 80% of traffic accidents, 20% of a company’s customer base make up 80% of the company’s profits, or 20% of words in a language are used 80% of the time. And that’s what’s meant with greater mileage: a rather small set of vocabulary is actually enough for most situations so that’s what we should focus on.
And the best way to do it is by writing down the 1,000 most common words either in an actual notebook or in a spreadsheet to have them organized by categories. You can search for such a list on Google or you can research the most common nouns, verbs and other words and note them yourself. You could even look up words you usually use in everyday life to make it more personalized and more fun for yourself. Once you’re done with that (or do it in batches to speed up the process) you have to review them over and over again to start memorizing. It’s okay to be obsessive when starting out and learning as much as you can fit in but the goal is to learn for the long-term and not as fast as possible!
Naturally, some words stick much quicker than others and some are real troublemakers. Once those words cross your path, start making visualizations, associations or build stories around those words to exercise your brain and to build connections. That way your brain can put more focus on tough words and remembering will become easier. The goal is to keep the learning process as fun and light as you can to not make it boring for you. It’s much easier if you have a finish line in sight and don’t get caught up all the time.
Another thing you should do is record yourself speaking the words and then listen to the recordings over and over again, for example while exercising, cooking, stretching, driving, yadda yadda - you know the deal. This builds further associations and you also don’t miss out on the actually-speaking part of the process. If you don’t know how to pronounce words or if you have trouble getting it right, research it online or ask someone else to do it for you if you have the option (you could even pay people if it’s really pressing). Just remember that it’s not about nailing the perfect accent right now. You’ll sound like a foreigner no matter what and that’s okay because we simply want to build the confidence to speak that language - something that won’t happen by memorizing words non-stop.
Stage 2 - The Glue
Once you’re comfortable with where you’re at it’s time to start gathering the linguistic tools to string simple sentences together and start expressing thoughts. This stage is called the glue because we need to be able to connect the standalone words we’ve been memorizing up until now. Simply putting them together isn’t what languages are like. We need to gather the most common pronouns, get a general feel for the tenses and also sprinkle in connecting words and language-specific words to complete the picture.
Let’s start by learning how to conjugate the most common verbs (and irregular verbs too) and then going time traveling by getting into the grammar of the most important tenses (get it? time traveling? it’s because of tens-- okay, I’ll stop). Different languages have different amounts of tenses to learn - for example, all in all Spanish has 48(!) different tenses you could get into - but for general conversations basic present, past and future conjugation really is enough. That’s because what’s important isn’t perfect memorization of all the details but a general understanding for a proper use.
What you should also do is start catching general quirks and more nuanced stuff you wouldn’t normally come across in a list of vocabulary. Once you dive deeper you’ll start to notice lots of different recurring words that seem very specific...find out what they mean and why they’re used. All of this is much more useful for general conversations compared to as large of a vocabulary as possible because it’s much more truthful to reality. It leads to a greater insight into the language overall and therefore to a better understanding of your mission. (yes, this is a serious topic)
Not as fun and exciting as you thought it would be, right? At this point you should probably feel the pressure and be a little overwhelmed with all the information and all the different areas you have to keep an eye on all at once. And that’s okay. It’s normal. Whenever trying something new one usually gets the ball rolling and starts having a general understanding of the basics and of what’s going on - things are going great, this is gonna be EASY! And then you come crashing. You hit a dip and feel like it’ll never work out as anticipated. It’s at this point when it’s most important to realize that and to keep going. YouTuber Johnny Harris has a great video about this where he states everything much better than I’ll ever be able to; so here it is, check it out once done reading:
To keep going just remember that no one's forcing you to do this. There’s no pressure to live up to - as said, no Duolingo bird is waiting to kill you and no teacher is there to punish you if you mess up. You don’t need to pass an exam or get recognition from others. It’s just for you personally to see how far you can challenge yourself and to see what you’re capable of. It’s an opportunity to grow and something to look back on proudly. So, at this point it’s important to say: sleep well. Sleep helps your brain learn the information much better and it’s essential...and who doesn’t like to sleep. If you want this to be a part of your life and not just a cool thing for a while, it’s essential to rest.
Stage 3 - Start To Connect
As said, at one point you’ll most probably hit a wall. Once you’re burning out on memorization and when excitement fades, so will your consistency and motivation...and that’s the most important hurdle to overcome. Lucky for all of us, we have access to more opportunities to make it fun than ever before. With platforms like Netflix, YouTube, Spotify and podcasts your options are basically limitless.
Dive deeper into the language by drinking from the sources and simply try to follow along as much as you can. You won’t be able to understand everything but you’ll probably notice that you know more than thought. Turn on subtitles, rewind if you have to and keep it light to make it fun for yourself. Listen to native music and sing and dance along, let it out. Prepare some snacks and get lazy by treating yourself with a good show. Enjoy the content and indulge in mindless entertainment by making it mindful. For example, I started watching “La casa de papel” on Netflix and ordered a few spanish children’s books...and learned a good bit of Spanish along the way! These are great opportunities to spice up everyday life and make the normal more exciting again while learning and growing at the same time.
This way you can listen to new music (or international outlets like tunein.com, CNN Español, Deutsche Welle or France24 to name a few), find great creators and content that you enjoy, discover new hobbies and interests, and get a greater appreciation of the culture as a whole. This is a perfect way to do something you otherwise would never have done...another thing ticked off your bucket list. It may not be the most perfect way to learn and it’ll also require time but it’s undoubtedly more fun than school. A great way to see how people actually speak and not just dry textbook learning.
By doing this you’ll get the general sense of what the language and the culture are about. How to correctly speak a language and how people actually speak can be two very different things. you’ll start connecting the grammar and memorization to real life usage and speed up the process. At one point it’ll just click and you can see how much progress you’re making. For that to happen you have to do it consistently - cramming all these lessons into a few weeks and then never doing any of it again isn’t the best idea. Especially when all you have to do is start consuming the culture and find stuff that excites you about the language and the people that speak it.
Stage 4 - Make Mistakes
Go and fuck it up. This always sounds super counterintuitive and it’s something teachers won’t tell you. That’s why I think school is really backwards sometimes; in school you learn the lessons, study for a test and if you make mistakes you get punished - in real life you get tested and naturally make mistakes that you then learn from...it’s the exact opposite and most people still seem to avoid taking risks at all costs for this reason.
But you just have to take the leap and go for it. Start putting yourself out there and actually begin conversing with others. Your first conversations will be far from perfect but that’s the point. You have to make the mistakes to test what you learned, how to adjust and how to improve going forwards. You can’t JUST study your way to proficiency. And you won’t be punished or look like a fool - yes, some people may chuckle at you and your response should be to laugh with them. Learning a language is a great way to practice humility and it’s something most people don’t do for these exact reasons. What a waste.
Conversing with strangers in a foreign language in times of social distancing and face masks isn’t easy. Under normal circumstances, traveling would be the best way to put your skills to the test and to expand on them - not only is it a great tool to learn but the experiences themselves are priceless...and that’s why you should do that once it’s possible again. Really immersing yourself in a culture, meeting new people, having everyday interactions in new ways and going on adventures will all be different to you. You can actually experience that world in a totally different way. That’s kind of like unlocking a world that you otherwise would never have the same access to. Like Narnia, where the new language is the closet and the new world is the experiences you’re now able to have.
But there are other options, too. Maybe you have a friend that speaks the language and you can talk to them like Nathaniel does in his video. Or maybe you have a multilingual loved one or you simply know someone that knows someone and find your way through that. But even if all of that fails, there are ways to test yourself by using the tools provided by the Internet. You can reach out to people on social media, you can ask people on Reddit, you can probably pay people on Fiverr just to have a conversation with you, or you can even use websites like italki.com which allows you to talk to native speakers for just 5 bucks an hour. Just set up a Skype or Zoom call and get it going.
And there are probably tons of other options that I won’t go into right now because the point is this: if you really want to learn a language, you have to put your skills to the test. Again, you can’t just study your way to proficiency. And that’s why - if you really want to learn - you will also find ways to make that happen.
Enter A New World
Some sources on Google state that you can become fluent in any language if you study for 10h per day, for 48 days straight. No one has that kind of time. Earlier I said that it's okay to be obsessive when starting out but I doubt that anyone thought of doing 10h shifts to memorize vocabulary...And you shouldn’t expect to be fluent two months from now. Which also isn’t the point.
The point isn’t to not make any mistakes. It’s to speak with somebody in a new way and to exchange ideas. We’re not trying to achieve mastery in 7 days or whatever. We simply want basic human interactions that can then lead to much more. Putting the focus on communication instead of perfection makes it much easier to see the finish line and to stay motivated. It’s only through this that you can actually succeed in finding your own personal Narnia.