The Fastest Way to Learn Any Language
10 Simple exercises to learn a language in days, not years.
Before you start, please dispel 2 myths.
First, that languages are hard to learn. They are not. Everyone in the world speaks some language. And even people who speak only one language seem to have no trouble learning all kinds of things complex things, from mastering a new software, to deciphering social norms, to memorizing the entire NBA draft. People learn new complex things all the time. So can you.
Second, that children are better at learning language than adults. This is false. Children take much longer to learn languages than adults. We simply don’t realize this because we don’t time them. When you’re a child, you can literally spend all day everyday learning a new language. Adults rarely have that luxury. The only reason it might be easier for a child to learn a new language is because when you’re a kid, learning to speak is empowering, which makes it super fun! Once you realize that it can be empowering for adults as well, language learning will become fun, and you’ll get good at it.
Here is the fastest way I know to learn any language.
- Create Urgency
- Learn the Phonemes
- Memorize the 100 Most Common Spoken Words
- Memorize the 100 Most Common Spoken Verbs
- The basics of Grammar - 8 Lines of Gold - & Imperatives
- Memorize the 200 Most Common Spoken Words & Verbs
- Key Phrases, Relationals, & Prepositions
- Memorize the 500 Most Common Spoken Words & Verbs
- Past, Future, & Subjunctives?
- 1000 most common Words
- Dive in with Native Speakers!
And remember, as you learn any new language, try very hard to avoid translating in your head. Don’t think of new words as translations. Think of them as new synonyms for words you already know. You’re not so much learning a new language as much as you’re expanding your vocabulary in a radical way. Once you become fluent, you will be able to think in your target language instead of constantly translating from your native one. So if you want to get to that point down the road, it's best to adopt that mindset from the start.
Step 1 - Create some urgency.
Saying "I've decided to start learning Dutch" is not the same things as saying "I have only 10 weeks to become conversational in Dutch because I'm going to a design conference and the future of my career could depend on my ability to communicate."
When I decided to learn Spanish, I had only 6 weeks to become conversational because I had already bought a flight to Mexico city to attend the family reunion of the girl I wanted to marry. There would be 100 people attending the event, only 5 of whom spoke any English at all. Stakes were high. And despite having enrolled in a 6 week Spanish 101 course in the months leading up to my trip, I would say that only 20% of my learning happened in the classroom. The other 80% all happened in the 2 days it took me to travel from Philadelphia to Southern Mexico.
In fact, this method worked so well that on the car ride home from the airport, I was able to have a 30 minute conversation about national politics, all in a language I didn't speak 2 days earlier.
Here's how I did it.
Step 2 - Learn the Phonemes of your Target Language
The phonetic alphabet is the total collection of letter-sounds (phonemes) of your target language. No this is not the same thing as the alphabet. For example, while it may have only 26 letters, the English language actually has 44 phonemes, such as /th/ as in thick, or even /th/ as in feather. Yes, it can get confusing.
In languages that use phonetic alphabets, letters have a close relationship with the sounds they create, both individually, and in combinations. In some romance languages, like Spanish, this relationship is almost 1-to-1. However, many language that use phonetic alphabets—whether it's the Latin, Greek, or Cyrillic alphabet—may not have a direct correlation between their letters and sounds. English is a notorious example of this, and it’s why many people hate learning it. Then there are language like arabic, whose alphabet is pseudo-phonetic, and languages like Mandarin, which are not phonetic at all and whose writing system is not technically alphabetical anyway.
But regardless of what language you're learning, or what writing system it uses, you will always have to learn the phonemes. This is not because you want to become proficient in the written language, but because you will be reading to learn. Chances are, if you’re reading this post, you’re more interested in speaking and social conversation. Writing is obviously important, but it comes second. And it will make a lot more sense to you once you know what the language sounds like. Instead of filling your head with false associations of written words, learn the sounds first, and the words will come.
When I took a 3 week trip to Kuwait in 2010, I spent just a few hours of the plane ride memorizing the Arabic alphabet and phonemes. On the taxi ride from the airport, I was able to look and billboards and signs out the window and read them all aloud with good enough pronunciation that the driver could understand everything I was saying, even though I could not. At that point, simply carrying around my phrasebook was enough to get me through most situations I would face during my trip, but I still hadn't learned the language at all. That would come in the next step.
Step 3 - Learn the 100 Most Common Spoken Words
Before you read any further, go back and read that heading again. Notice that is specifies the top 100 most common spoken words, not written words. This is a crucial distinction as the two lists will be markedly different in any language. Again, since the goal is to become conversational, we should absolutely focus on spoken words.
So why the top 100? Because the most common words in any language appear so frequently that just the top 100 words can make 50-75% of all words you will hear on any given day. Once you get to the top 1000 words, you’ll cover roughly 95% of the words you’d hear in any conversation. Once you get beyond that, you’re basically as comfortable as native teenager, who very often hears words they don’t understand but figures them out through context clues, which is exactly what you’ll be doing. Once you start down this path, you’ll see that it's much more effective than learning all the typical strategy of learning “Kitchen Words” in Chapter 2, before moving on the “Office Words” in Chapter 3 which is what most textbooks do.
Step 4 - Learn the 100 Most Common Spoken Verbs
This might sound repetitive, and it is, but there a good reason for it. Many of the most common verbs will have already appeared on your list of most common words. This is a good thing, because it helps you identify the most important and powerful of the words you’ve already learned. This is a pattern that will be repeated later in your journey.
Step 5 - The basics of Grammar
Grammar always sounds more complicated than it is. Luckily, almost all your basic grammatical structures can be demonstrated in just 8 lines, translated from your native language, into your target language, via Google translate. Here they are.
- The apple is red.
- It is John’s apple.
- I give John the apple.
- You give me the apple.
- We give him the apple.
- He gives it to John.
- She gives it to him.
- They do not have the apples.
Start by writing these sentences on the left side of a page. Then, using Google Translate, write their translations on the right side of a page. The sentences are all simple enough that google will get it correct.
Now it's time to study those translations. In just 8 sentences, we can learn an incredible amount about the way the language behaves.
- We already get a sense of how the language handles sentence structure, like whether to default to [subject > verb > object], or [subject > object > verb], or simply [verb > object] with implied subject.
- It also teaches us how the language handles possessives, direct objects, and indirect objects, as well as subject conjugations for first, second and third persons, singular and plural.
- It introduces plural nouns, and negation, which is absolutely essential when you need to tell people you don’t speak a language well.
- It covers negation.
- It also introduces gender.
Famed Life Hacker Tim Ferriss gives a good explanation of this approach, which he boasts can give him a grasp of a language in less than an hour.
Aside from these 8 lines, you will also want to take a look at some basic verb conjugation charts, look into the mechanics of pronouns as subjects and objects. You might also want to learn how to modify actions with things like imperatives or desires. This also introduces how to treat verbs as infinitives. Try these:
9. I must give it to him.
10. I want to give it to her.
Step 6 - Learn the 200 Most Common Words & Verbs
This is exactly the same as steps 3 and 4, except that you’re doubling the number of words in each case.
Step 7 - Key Phrases, Relationals, & Prepositions
Key phrases are things that are specific to the language you are learning. Things like how to say good morning, and whether there’s a difference between "Good evening,” a greeting, and “Goodnight,” a farewell, or if you just say “Good evening” for both. Key phrases will also included things like, thanks, cool, ouch, gross, excuse me, pardon me, I’m so sorry! Take some time to look these up online, based on the country you're visiting. Learn as many as you can think of. Treat these like vocabulary. They may be multi-word phrases, but they’re attached to specific situations, just like words.
Relationals are also very important at this stage. You’ll want to get proficient at saying describing things as being bigger or smaller than, more or less, and better and worse. You’d also want to say things like very, a lot, a little, barely, and always/never. Learn as many as you think are relevant.
Finally, you’ll also need to equip yourself with some basic prepositions, like to, from, for, at, in, on, under, about, around, outside, etc… Most of these you will have already covered in the 200 most common words, but it's good to know how to insert them in a sentence, since they can often have irregular behaviors.
Step 8 - Learn the 500 Most Common Words & Verbs
This is exactly the same as steps 3, 4, and 6, except now its 500.
Step 9 - Past, Future & Subjunctives?
Now it’s time to master tenses. Start simple, and build your way up
First learn the past tense in the simple form, as in, “I arrived yesterday”. It happened in the past. It was a concise event. It had a beginning and an end. It is now finished. That’s the past tense.
Next learn the future tense. Still as simple as possible. For example, “I will leave tomorrow.” It hasn’t happened yet. You intend to do it (or you know it will happen). It is a concise action.
Once you get the hang of those two, you will most likely feel more comfortable modifying and elaborating on them. Now you can say things like. “I lived there for a while” or even “Yes, I have been there”. Likewise you can start to say things like, “I’m going to buy you dinner”
Then we get into the subjective, a tense which many native english speakers don’t even know exists. This is not because they don’t use it, but because they don’t think about it. This is partly because the subjunctive is really an auxiliary tense, meaning that it's not strictly necessary. So while it can be very useful to learn how to say things like, “I would buy you dinner, if I had money,” or “Could you give me a ride?” these things can often be said with combinations of other tenses. For example, you could say “I want to buy you dinner, but I have no money,” or perhaps “Can you give me ride?”. While you will certainly sound less formal than some of your peers, your ability to communicate has not been compromised. For this reason, only learn the subjunctive at this stage if you really want to. Otherwise, put it on the back burner, or skip it altogether.
Step 10 - Learn the 1000 Most Common Words
You know the drill. But this time leave out the list of verbs. By now you’re getting into the rarer words, and almost all the verbs will have already been covered.
NOTE: It’s only necessary to learn 1000 words to arrive at the fabled point of “being able to comprehend 95% of what you’ll hear on a given day.” This 95% figure also guarantees that you’ll be comfortable diving into a conversation with native speakers. However, if you already feel comfortable speaking with natives, or if you’re satisfied with only 90% comprehension, fee free to jump to Step 11 whenever you feel ready. The only thing holding you back now is confidence!
Step 11 - Dive in with Native Speakers!
Game time. Go somewhere where you can find native speakers. Preferably people who don’t speak your native language either. And then just talk the them as much as possible. The best possible situation would be 2 weeks abroad, without any real work to do in your native language, so you can spend all your time practicing the new language.
If you don’t know the “best way to say something” just make it up. By now your vocabulary is plenty big enough to find a substitute word, or combine smaller words into bigger phrases. Remember the goal is not to be able to express yourself as eloquently as you do in your native language – that will take years. Instead, the goal is to be able to communicate. And that's what you’ll do.
Congratulations, you’ve learned a new language. Now go tell people the story of how you did it, preferably in the language you just learned. :)
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