The Fastest Way to Learn a Language

If you had all possibilities open to you, with no restraints on time or money, what would be the fastest way for you to learn a language?

Chatting in Vellefranche, France
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Last year, I wrote an article discussing how long it takes to become fluent. I was pretty open about the fact that my figures were estimates, but they were based on my own personal experiences and observations as:

  • A language student
  • A professional translator
  • A language tutor

My main concern with that article is that I might’ve scared people off from language learning, because I gave a pretty bleak outlook. But I know firsthand that it takes a serious time commitment to gain a good grasp of a language. If you were to study only a half hour a day, as some language programs suggest, it would take you years–sometimes several years–to become fluent.

I’m the first to tell you that you don’t have to be fluent to get benefits from a language, and I also think most people should focus on the journey rather than the end goal.

Yet if I’m being honest with myself, I know that some people need–or simply want–to become conversant in a language as soon as possible. So let me tell you how to do it. And since this is too unrealistic for many people, I’m going to tell you how to do a version of it in your own life.

The Dude from Milwaukee

After I had become a professional translator, I traveled to Cairo to take an Arabic class. While I was there, I met an American–a guy from Milwaukee who became Muslim as an adult–who was learning Arabic at the same school I was in. The difference was that I was at the school for a refresher course, and he had started at this school from scratch.

By that point, I had taken about 18 months of Arabic classes, all in all, and even though I was highly proficient, I was still making a lot of mistakes and stumbled during conversation. I had also taken classes for six to eight hours a day and studied in my room at night, so I had devoted over 2500 hours to the study of Arabic.

This guy had been studying in Egypt for a year, but was only taking four hours of class a day. I estimate that given homework and class time, he spent about 1200 hours on the formal study of Arabic. Altogether, that’s less than half the time I had studied.

Here’s the thing: He was better than me. By a long shot. And I was a top performer in my class and at work.

Language learning isn’t a competition. But when someone is outperforming you by quite a bit, and has achieved his or her success in a shorter time span, spending half the time with formal study, you take notice.

I’d seen other people throughout the years who accomplished similar things, and I started to notice some similarities.

What to Do

If you want to learn a language as fast as humanly possible, do three things:

  1. Move overseas to a country that speaks the language.
  2. Take an intensive language class in that country.
  3. Live your life using the language.

This is a proven formula for success. It’s what the dude from Milwaukee did, it’s what ex-pat Americans I met in Germany did, and it’s even similar to what Bradley Cooper did to learn French.

All three parts of this formula are vital:

  • Moving overseas forces you out of your comfort zone and bombards you with the language–that “immersion” that everyone loves talking about.
  • Taking a language class helps ensure you’re making constant progress and building on what you know.
  • Living your life–buying groceries, setting up your cell phone service, hanging out with friends–makes you actually communicate in the language to get by.

If you take any one of these components away, the formula loses its effectiveness. For example, it’s common to hear about American students who travel to a foreign country to study a language, but they only hang out with Americans during their time there. They’d be much better off if they actually put English aside and forced themselves to get by in the language they wanted to learn.

If you want to learn a language as fast as possible, you have to commit.
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The Dude from Milwaukee was a full-time student, so his day consisted of something like:

  • Four hours of class, with a half hour of homework
  • Eating a meal or two at a neighborhood cafe
  • Prayers, going to the Mosque, and attending a religious study group
  • Shopping for groceries at the market
  • Taking care of daily chores

His whole life was lived in Arabic. Even though I had more classroom hours than him (my seven hours to his four), he had been spending every waking moment–sixteen hours a day–speaking, hearing, reading, and thinking in Arabic. And not only that, but he was being exposed to both formal and informal language. He heard the most common words and phrases again and again and again until they became ingrained, and recognizing them became second nature.

It’s almost like his learning the language was inevitable.

Back to Reality

As I said at the beginning of this article, this advice was for people with no time or money restrictions. Very few people have those luxuries. I certainly don’t

But even if we can’t replicate this 100%, maybe we can take bits and pieces of this and apply it to our own language learning.

First, you can push yourself out of your comfort zone by exposing yourself to much more of the language than you currently get. The only upper limit on this is your tolerance, and even that can be built up. Sure, I’ve seen people burn out, but burn out (in my observation) happens when people keep having to learn actively and pass tests, such as in a classroom environment. It doesn’t happen so much when people limit their class time and surround themselves with the language all day.

Second, you can take a class, learn with a tutor, or tackle a self-study course. I’ve written about why you might avoid classes, but I do admit that they at least provide a curriculum for you to follow, and they ensure that you keep building. Whichever option you choose, it’s important to go with something that will explicitly tell you–or show you–what words mean and how they are put together. It’s indeed possible to pick up a language by being immersed in it, but some kind of formal instruction will definitely speed things along.

Third, you can do some of your daily activities in the foreign language. You can switch your language settings on Facebook and Twitter. You can get your news from your foreign language stations. You can take a class, such as an art or dance class, instructed in your foreign language. You can use a foreign-language cookbook for recipes. When I was in Germany, I took full-contact kickboxing classes at a martial arts school and got exposed to all sorts of words and phrases I didn’t expect, like the numbers (during calisthenics), commands, and explanations. It helped make some of the stuff I had been learning in textbooks real.

Most importantly, remember: Rapid language learning isn’t for everyone. If you’re learning for fun or to enrich your life, maybe you’re not in a hurry, and that’s totally fine. But if you want to learn a language as fast as possible, at least now  you know the level of commitment it really takes and the kinds of things you can do to bump up your current efforts.