‘If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.’ ~Nelson Mandela
Editor’s note: This is a guest post from Maneesh Sethi of Hack The System.
I still remember the happiest moment of my life. I had decided to throw a party for my Italian friends while living in Florence, Italy. My friends didn’t speak any English, and I vividly remember throwing the party and trying to only speak in Italian. And then, someone asked me to tell a joke.
I don’t know if you know this, but telling jokes in another language is one of the most harrowing experiences you can imagine.
I began the joke. C’era una volta (Once upon a time) …
Halfway through the joke, I began to get flustered. I couldn’t remember the Italian word in the punchline. And 30 Italians were staring at me, waiting for the joke to end.
At the last minute, I remembered and completed the joke. I waited for the sound of crickets … but instead experienced a thunderous laugh and a round of applause. I had made dozens of Italians laugh, in their country, in their language.
Until today, that memory continues to be one of the happiest moments I’ve ever experienced. And it’s the reason that, over the last four years, I’ve studied languages and now speak five: English, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and German.
The Benefits of Bilingualism
Becoming bilingual opens up a whole new world—a world of different people, of different cultures, of different emotions.
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. It’s for this reason that, while Italian took me 3 or so months to master, Spanish took only 2 months and Portuguese took just a few weeks.
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, or with Rosetta Stone, 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.
Here is the breakdown. We’ll go more in depth into each of these later on.
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. Stop speaking English.
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.
Some of these concepts are hard to understand through the written word, so I created a video series, just for Zen Habits readers, that teaches the steps to learn a language. Get the Hack The System Language Learning Videos here.
The Resources You Need To Learn A Language
In order to learn a language, you’ll need some items that you can practice with. Here are the resources I always use.
The Necessary Resources
A good grammar book. This is essential if you want to learn a language. I recommend Dover’s Essential Grammar series: the books are very cheap, concise, and thorough. When I lived in Italy, the Dover Essential Italian Grammar book became my bible. I read it everywhere, slept with it, and even memorized it.
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. I’ll talk more about memorization tactics shortly.
An online dictionary. For most romance langauges, I recommend http://wordreference.com. For German, try http://dict.cc. 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.
If you’re on a Mac, check out the app Genius. This genius app (pun intended) uses time-spacing techniques to test our knowledge. You’ll randomly be quizzed on words or phrases you are trying to learn, and the more often you make a mistake, the more often you’ll be tested. I recommend you put English on the left column and your desired language on the right, so that you’ll learn to speak in a new language, not translate from it. If you’re on a PC, I’ve heard good things about Anki.
Resources to learn from
A Private Tutor. I highly recommend getting an in-person private tutor through Craigslist or a nearby language school. However, if you can’t find anyone in your area or they are too expensive, check out Edufire.com. Edufire is a website that allows you to take private and group classes online over the Internet. Again, remember, private lessons are essential, so skip the group classes.
Free language partners and tutors. The Mixxer is an incredible resource. It’s a site that allows you to connect, via Skype, with language partners all over the world. Just choose your native language, and what you are trying to learn, and The Mixxer will find partners with opposite needs (who speak your target language and want to learn your native language).
At the beginning, online partners are a big help. Why? First, because chatting is much easier than speaking, so you get a chance to practice your language. Second, chat gives you a log of what you’ve been saying—and it makes it easier for your partner to correct you.
I don’t recommend Rosetta Stone. Rosetta Stone is incredibly slow. In Level 1, which takes 1-2 months to complete, you’ll only be familiar with the present tense. This is not a good use of your time.
Pimsleur tapes, on the other hand, can be beneficial because they help you practice pronunciation in the context of conversations. However, they are still quite slow. To test this, I started training with the German Pimsleur tapes two weeks before beginning my German classes. I felt like I was making huge progress by finishing 1/2 of the German 1 tapes—until I had surpassed that knowledge in fewer than two days with an actual teacher.
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. The biggest shift was in mindset: I had to change my self conception from ‘Maneesh: a blogger who wants to learn Italian’ to ‘Maneesh: Italian learner (who blogs in his extra time).
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. The best way to understand this process is via video—part of the video series I made to supplement this post includes a sample of a class I took while studying Swedish, with explanations of the questions I ask during private training. Check out the language learning videos I’ve made for this post here.
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.
This great article talks about the number of words in the Russian language.
the 75 most common words make up 40% of occurrences
the 200 most common words make up 50% of occurrences
the 524 most common words make up 60% of occurrences
the 1257 most common words make up 70% of occurrences
the 2925 most common words make up 80% of occurrences
the 7444 most common words make up 90% of occurrences
the 13374 most common words make up 95% of occurrences
the 25508 most common words make up 99% of occurrences
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.
Use mnemonics to help memorize words.
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.
If at all possible, find a boyfriend or girlfriend who is a native speaker. Learning a language is much easier when you’re dating someone who speaks that language. I once met a man who spoke fluent Russian, and when I asked him how long it took to learn, he answered, ‘two wives.’ The best advice I can give you for finding a significant other is something my Italian friend once told me: “Couchsurfing isn’t a dating site … but it helps.”
Now is the time to start finding language partners. Check out the Resources section above and use The Mixxer and Couchsurfing to find people who speak the language you want to learn. 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.
That, my friends, is zen.
Read more from Maneesh Sethi at Hack The System.