How fast can you learn a new language?

Some say reaching a good level via rapid language learning takes at least a year. Another guy claims it can all be done within 3 months. You might have even met someone who appears to have picked up proficiency in a matter of weeks.

The reality is that foreign language learning is as rapid as you make it.

This post will show you how you can sprint towards spoken competency in a new language as quickly as possible.

Gauge the language

If you want to learn a foreign language as quickly as possible, where do you start?

You need to form realistic goals for what’s possible in your language journey in the time frame you want to acquire the language in. To do so, you have to understand relative difficulty of languages.

All languages are related to each other in some way shape or form, they all contain the same linguistic elements: grammar, syntax, cognates, phonemes etc.

What determines whether they’re closely related or not is their historical origin and how similar these elements are to each other in each language.

Czech and Slovak are closely related as they belong to the Slavic language family and share similar grammar and vocabulary. A Czech speaker is going to be able to learn Slovak way faster than an English speaker for this reason. Due to the existing similarities, they’ll have “less to learn” in a sense.

German and Arabic on the other hand don’t come from the same language family and so have a larger relative difficulty between them due to their dissimilarity. It’ll take the average German speaker much longer to learn Arabic than English, particularly as German and English both belong to the Germanic language family.

Discover the relative difficulty between your current language(s) and your target one and create realistic goals in line with it. You might not succeed in reaching basic Spanish conversational proficiency in a few weeks as a Thai speaker but you genuinely can as a French speaker.

Of course even in the best cases, rapid language learning almost always takes months and not weeks. But understanding relative difficulty instead of comparing yourself to other language learners will help prevent disappointment and frustration. Find out the relative difficulty between your languages and adjust expectations accordingly.

Rapid Language Learning Gauge

Focus on speaking and listening

I’ll be straight with you: as long as you’re not learning to pass an exam of some kind, your best bet in learning a foreign language as fast as possible is to focus on speaking and listening.

When people say they want to learn a language quickly, it’s usually not because they need to read a book in the next few months or can’t wait to journal their thoughts in the language in a diary.

It’s because they want to communicate with others in person.

Speaking and listening are the means to do this so prioritise them over reading and writing.

This means sacrificing certain aspects of a language for the time being if you have to. I’m a speaker and reader of Japanese but if I were a beginner trying to learn conversational Japanese as fast as possible, I’d put learning the written characters (known as ‘kanji’) aside in order to have more time for speaking and listening.

In most cases, you’ll learn some of a language area through osmosis via another area anyway. Improving your speaking and listening will diffuse into your reading proficiency somewhat since you’ll be better able to map the phonetics of the language onto the written words.

Let’s look at some ways to accelerate your speaking and listening skills in a foreign language.

Speaking

Speak from day 1

It should come as no surprise that if you want to learn to speak a language as fast as possible, you need to start speaking it as soon as possible.

The sooner and more consistently you speak the target language, the quicker you’ll activate the new linguistic pathway in your brain for that language that’ll get you competency.

If you really want to turbocharge your ability: speak every day.

If you can’t speak with someone every day, there’s always yourself. It’s not a sign of madness to talk to yourself and even record what you’re saying in a foreign language if it helps you improve. The mad thing to do is to worry about what others think and hinder your progress as a result. Don’t let perfectionism stifle your expression.

Have conversational language lessons often

Since we’re talking about fast acquisition, we’re going to assume you’re willing to turn over every stone or thereabouts to learn quickly. Investments in whatever can help you achieve that goal in time are desirable and there are few better investments in language learning than a conversational teacher.

I’ll admit I’m biased since I used to teach English as a foreign language one-on-one. But my clients kept coming back to the company and saw huge results in their speaking ability compared to the stagnancy of middle and high school English lessons.

Find teachers that’ll help you with your output and piecing the spoken language together bit by bit even at the most rudimentary level. As I wrote in ‘Language Learning: How To Speak And Write Fluently’:

“Any instructor worth their weight in salt should be qualified to help you navigate the spoken language as a raw beginner. They’re being paid to help you no matter what your level. If they can’t manage beginner conversations and adapt to the student’s needs, they can’t call themselves a good language teacher. Find the many instructors out there who can, they’re waiting for you.”

There are a range of online platforms that can connect you with instructors from all around the world for most languages. Take as many lessons as you can afford so that you get streamlined speaking practice to maximise your new linguistic pathway development. Rotate instructors as necessary to fit your schedule and keep the conversational lessons varied.

Instructors can even help you plan your language goals with their experience and tailor their lessons to help you reach your goals as fast as possible.

Rapid Language Learning Lessons

Listening

Combine i+1 and chunking

I’ve written about the two most powerful methods for listening ability in a foreign language: i+1 and chunking.

In a nutshell, i+1 for listening is listening to audio slightly above your current level in order to find the balance between progress and challenge without overwhelm. Chunking is listening to shorter pieces of audio repeatedly until your ears fully understand them.

Merged together, the two present a powerful formula for foreign language listening comprehension.

As a beginner, find course material audio, YouTube content or even recordings of lessons with your instructor that you can break into chunks. Listen back to these chunks again and again until you understand each one perfectly (use a transcription if you need to) before moving on to the next one.

As you progress your i+1 level will shift too and you’ll be able to use more challenging audio material with this technique.

Feel free to supplement i+1 and chunking with general listening of TV series, films and more to keep a sense of novelty if you need. But nothing will beat a combination of i+1 and chunking for rapid listening comprehension gains.

Rapid Language Learning Lessons Listening

Immersion

Picture two different learners.

One is a typical classroom learner, attending a couple of lessons a week, doing their homework when necessary but outside of this, not someone activating the foreign language in any other way.

The other doesn’t attend any lessons at all but is exposed to the language for several hours every day, speaking it with colleagues on weekdays and listening to music and shows in the language on weekends.

Who’s going to reach proficiency faster?

Formal lessons can be effective but rarely beat consistent active and passive exposure to a foreign language provided the learner is highly attentive during the immersion.

Contrary to expectations, you don’t have to live in a country where the target language is spoken to create an immersion experience. In fact, picking up the language as a result of moving abroad isn’t guaranteed at all.

The key to success through immersion is to be active with how you immerse yourself in the target language. You can do this even from the comfort of your bedroom in your home country. Configure your life and environment to give you maximum exposure to the target language.

Listen to songs in the target language rather than songs in your own.

Instead of watching Netflix in your native tongue, watch overdubbed films and TV series.

Change your browser settings to that of the target language/country and only search, type and read in that language when online.

Modify your console’s settings so that you’re playing video games in the language… and so on.

An underrated but go-to technique for me is thinking in the target language on a daily basis. Have imaginary conversations in your head only using the target language where you’re describing what you’re seeing as you go about your day or you’re chatting with someone in a pretend dialogue. This ensures you’re activating those new language muscles everyday regardless of how your other learning techniques unfold.

Remember, you’re looking for rapid language learning so surround yourself in it as much as possible.

Rapid Language Learning Immersion

Mnemonics and stories

In general, I don’t believe in ‘hacks’ in life (most hacks are shortcuts that aren’t actually shortcuts) but if I had to pick a ‘language hack’ technique that has helped me more than any other it would be the use of mnemonics and stories.

Mnemonics and stories leverage the power of the associative mind. This is a potent part of the human brain that was recognised as far back as Ancient Greece as a means of advancing memory, recollection and learning.

The premise is simple but effective. You use a visual association and link it with an element of the language you’re learning such as a word. The visual association acts as a memory hook making you far more likely to recall the word in the long future than if you tried to learn it without making an association.

For example, let’s say you’re learning the French word for morning which is ‘(le) matin’. You could make a mnemonic out of the two syllables—splitting it into ‘mat’ and ‘in’ and create a story. The story could be how you’re only allowed to use mats in the morning and you visualise this scenario vividly in your mind.

The same trick can even be used with grammar. When I learned the future tense in Spanish, I was taught “Wherever there is a ‘Will’, there is a way. Wherever there is a way, there is a ‘Ray’ of hope. This saying helped me associate the future tense (will ___ ) with the conjugation ending ‘-ré’, examples being hablaré and comeré meaning ‘I will talk” and ‘I will eat’ respectively.

Use the power of associative memory in your own learning to speed up your recall of a foreign language.

Rapid Language Learning Lessons Mnemonics

Fast + Satisficing > Slow + Perfecting (for rapid language learning)

When I was starting out on my language learning journey with French, my biggest weakness was not practicing my output enough because I wanted it to be perfect.

This inhibited my speaking development in the language because I only wanted to speak with someone if I knew what I was saying was going to be right and if I was sure I’d understand everything they said back to me.

Since perfection is by definition impossible for beginners and intermediates (otherwise you’d be fluent), you can imagine how horrible this attitude was for making fast progress in speaking French. I even had a crazy situation where I worked with a couple of French colleagues for several months who I could have practiced speaking to but didn’t for (wrongly) assumed fear of reprisal.

I eventually learned my lesson but if you’re a language learner thinking the same way, understand that perfectionism is your enemy in language learning, especially for speaking.

Making mistakes is ok and expected. Think about non-native speakers in your language who you’ve known for a while. Have they ever gone thousands of minutes without making a single error? Moreover, how many natives themselves make errors when speaking their own language? (“Me and her ___” instead of “She and I ___”, anyone?)

When it comes to rapid language learning, the gains you make from constructing sentences out of your mouth, even if some of them aren’t perfect, FAR outweigh never opening your mouth in the language at all. By taking every opportunity you can to speak, you’ll speed up the development of your new linguistic pathway tenfold.

It’s better to be mostly right than to hinder yourself waiting for perfection so practice conversing with people as soon as you can.

Rapid Language Learning Fast And Satisficing

Learn every day

This one isn’t groundbreaking but it’s a tried and tested rule that’s probably the most important.

Learn your target language every day.

When I say every day, I mean EVERY DAY.

Whether it takes you a month, three months, a year or two, if you want to acquire good proficiency in a foreign language, never stop learning it until you get there.

Momentum is a game changer when it comes to language learning. Just as a hiccup in a race can topple a sprinter’s chances, pausing your learning can thwart your dash towards rapid proficiency.

The trick is to make language learning a habit so that you don’t need willpower every day down the line to get you studying, it just becomes second nature.

Create a schedule for your daily learning and ascertain how much time you’ll put towards speaking and listening practice along with any lessons.

With general ‘hobbyist’ language learning, the length of study time is wide-ranging depending on the person. Most people in this category study anywhere from as little as 15 minutes a day to an hour.

However when it comes to rapid language learning, even an hour is too little. Remember, you’re looking to learn a language as fast as possible—the more study the better.

If you can, allocate at least 2-3 hours every day towards your learning. If you really want to achieve fluency in a few months, you might need 6 or more (for the highly motivated among you).

This doesn’t have to mean 3 hours of repetitive study. A realistic schedule for a full-time employee on a weekday could be:

-> 15 minutes of inner monologue in the shower

-> 1 hour of revising flash cards with mnemonics during their work commute (1/2 in the morning, 1/2 in the evening)

-> 30 minutes of listening to course audio during their lunch break

-> 1 hour lesson with a conversational teacher in the evening

-> 15 minutes of listening to music or watching a show in the language before bed

By breaking up a day into varied language learning activities, learning remains fresh and novel whilst still getting the hours in.

However you learn, solidify a language learning habit and keep going.

Rapid Language Learning Flash Cards

Final note

We’ve discussed ways of making language learning a sprint where you can make progress as fast as possible.

But understand that true competency in a foreign language is a marathon.

This post is not intended to pretend there are shortcuts to fluency. Nor is it intended to claim that reading and writing can be left by the wayside for too long. Prioritisation doesn’t mean neglect—ensure you’re supplementing your rapid language learning journey with them eventually otherwise you’ll be lopsided in your ability.

Barring exceptional cases where the relative difficulty between two languages is minimal, learning a language to good proficiency always takes some time. The key is finding the right strategies and combining that with hard work so that you can reach your goals sooner.