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Since learning French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean, I get asked a lot about what’s the best way to learn a language. In this article, I’d like to share what I think works, what I think doesn’t and what I think doesn’t matter to learn a new language from zero to a conversational ability.
Before I start though, here’s three caveats:
- This is just my approach. There’s lots of ways to learn languages and plenty of people who’ve learned it not following this advice. So I’m not providing the method, just a method.
- The focus is on having conversations. I think conversational ability is the foundation of most languages and the reason most people want to learn them. That doesn’t mean reading novels or watching movies isn’t important, it’s just that’s not the first goal I try to reach.
- The focus is on starting from zero, or near-zero, to an intermediate level. Going from conversational to fully fluent is a somewhat different goal and it has different obstacles. I’ve addressed my philosophy on that goal here, but I’m not going to discuss it much in this article.
That being said, here’s what I would do if I wanted to learn a new language and waste as little time as possible.
The Best Strategy
The best strategy, in my mind is simple:
- Go to a country that speaks the language.
- Grab a phrasebook and learn a few basic expressions.
- Commit to only speaking in that language from Day One.
- Arm yourself with a dictionary to translate whenever you get stuck.
- Hire a local tutor (mostly to pay someone to talk to you while you’re still a beginner)
A mistake many people make in viewing this strategy is not realizing the importance of “Day One” and “Only speaking in the language”. Many people think if they wait a few months to start speaking or speak 50% of the time in the language the process will be comparably effective. Those are not the same, and they are not nearly as effective.
The reasons for why departure from the strictness of these rules isn’t effective are subtle and hard to realize if you haven’t tried this before. The purpose of starting from the day you arrive is that this is the optimal time for designing your environment. If you wait even a few weeks, you’ll have already established an English-speaking environment which will make later immersion much more difficult. This is what happened to me when I went to France.
The reason for only speaking in the language is that if you have a ratio (say you aim to speak half the time) you’ll find half of your speaking situations much harder than the other half. This creates a natural momentum which pulls you towards speaking less and less of the language you’re trying to use. The end result is that aiming for 50/50 usually ends up being only 5-10% in the language. (Note: This effect is mitigated somewhat if you have specific languages for specific people or situations, but 100% immersion is still best.)
Unfortunately, this is not a realistic strategy for most people. Most people can’t afford to travel for extended periods of time. When they do, they often have jobs or other responsibilities that prevent staying 100% immersed.
But just because it’s not possible for everyone, doesn’t mean it won’t work. If you have this option when learning a language, do this. It sounds really hard, but it gets easier fast and you’ll learn the language very quickly. Don’t use a second-best strategy if you have the option to use the best.
The Second-Best Strategies
So let’s consider some alternative scenarios where you can’t do the best strategy: full immersion from Day 1.
Situation #1: You Can’t Travel to Learn
In this situation, you can’t travel to learn the language. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have partial immersion. Here, my suggestion would be to start by picking a friend or partner who also wants to learn the language and have an agreement with them: we have to talk at least once per day, and whenever we do talk it’s always in the target language.
Depending on who your partner is, this could actually add up to quite a bit of immersion. It’s not actually very important that the person be a native speaker or already fluent to practice. Actually, in some cases it’s better if they aren’t. Simply use a dictionary or Google translate whenever you get stuck with words or phrases.
You will need to supplement this with some time speaking with an advanced or native speaker of the language to make sure you’re not learning mistakes. But I think having as little as 10% of your time in this way would still allow you to progress quite quickly.
Note: This situation is the same as one where you can travel, but for some reason can’t do 100% immersion. Pick people or settings where you have to speak in the language you’re trying to learn. The broader a net you cast and the sharper and more clear the situational rules are the better. None of this beats the best strategy, but it can be a useful approximation where the best strategy isn’t possible.
Situation #2: You Can’t Find a Partner
Say you want to learn an obscure language, or you can’t find someone who is willing to commit to only speaking that language with you. Here, the option is pretty simple: hire a tutor. Go onto iTalki.com and find someone who will teach you the language. You can get community tutors there for fairly cheap.
If that’s too expensive, you can also opt for language exchanges with people who want to learn your language. In that case though, you need to be really strict about what time is in each language, or an intermediate speaker might push you to speak a lot more of the language they’re trying to learn.
For tutors, I also recommend explaining to them your immersive approach, in English (or whatever language you speak well) before you start. Many tutors have a different teaching philosophy and may be resistant if they’d rather you do grammar drills or more traditional exercises. Sometimes it takes a couple teachers to find one that will work with you well, so don’t give up.
Situation #3: You Only Have a Few Hours Per Week
This isn’t a problem either. In many cases you do the same as Situation #1 or #2, you just end up studying less.
The important part if you only have a few hours per week is to commit to the time in advance. With 100% immersion, practice is unavoidable. With only a small amount of your week devoted to speaking, you’ll need a lot more effort to push yourself every time to practice.
How Much Preparation Should I Do Before Speaking?
This is a tricky question for two reasons:
- Most people wait way too long to start practicing and don’t practice enough when they do start. Speaking a language poorly is uncomfortable and so people avoid it. Waiting until you’re “ready” is a recipe for failure.
- If you’re going from zero to 100% immersion, it probably helps to do *some* preparation. Doing too little can make the initial ramp up to speaking so hard as to be almost impossible without tremendous willpower. Therefore, doing some prior preparation is helpful. I found for myself that about 25-50 hours was more than enough for European languages, whereas more like 100 hours was the minimum for harder Asian languages.
This preparation is assuming you’re using the best strategy of 100% immersion. If you’re not traveling to the country and going 100% from Day 1, then the issue of prior preparation isn’t important. You can start with just an hour or two of preparation and use Google Translate in the first conversation if you like.
What Kind of Preparation Should I Do?
What kind of preparation should you do to start speaking a language? This is actually, in my mind, a lot less important than people think. There’s lots of ways you can get a general understanding of the basic words and phrases in a language. Some might be somewhat more effective than others, but fretting over which one to use is silly.
If I was planning on learning a new language from scratch and I wanted to do some preparation before traveling to the country to do 100% immersion, I would probably do about 50% conversation practice through something like iTalki.com, and about 50% of some kind of beginner learning resource like Pimsleur, Duolingo, Teach Yourself, Rosetta Stone, etc.
The key to remember is that the non-speaking parts of learning are to supplement conversation practice, not to replace it. If your goal is to avoid using the language directly in real conversations, you’ve already picked the losing strategy.
How Do I Stick to Speaking the Language With Zero Ability?
This is also easier than it looks. The simplest option is just to open up Google translate, type whatever you want to say in English (or another language) and translate to the language you want to speak and try saying it to the other person.
If they understand you and say something back which you don’t understand, ask them to write it down (a hand gesture of writing with a pen is pretty universally understood for this) and then pop it back into Google Translate and see the result.
Your conversation doesn’t need to be fancy, fast-paced, or even make sense. Sometimes when I’m learning a new language I’ll list off a bunch of almost identical sentences to train up a certain grammatical pattern: “I like to swim.” “I like to run.” “I like to eat.” “I like to travel.” “I like to paint.” “Do you like to swim?” “Do you like to run?” and so on…
As you get to the level where you’ve memorized some basic phrasal patterns for saying “I want” “You want” “Where is?” etc. you can stop translating whole sentences and instead translate specific words. So you’ll look up the word for “chicken” instead of the whole sentence, “Do you like to eat chicken?”
This isn’t actually hard to do at all. The difficulty people have isn’t a mental one, but a social one. Doing these baby-talk sentences feels very awkward and there can be an intense embarrassment as you go from fully fluent adult to barely comprehensible toddler in your linguistic abilities.
The best thing you can do to get through this is to find a tutor or partner who (a) is either in the same boat as you, so therefore you don’t feel weird because their ability is also terrible or (b) understands what you’re trying to do and is supportive of it. If you have a tutor or partner who isn’t supportive, ditch them immediately and find another. Some tutors don’t understand this method of language learning. The problem is with them, not you.
Should I Do Anything Other Than Just Speaking?
When learning a language I don’t spend 100% of my time speaking. However, because the speaking part is the part most people avoid, I have to reemphasize: my strategy doesn’t work if you eliminate the speaking in the language part. Don’t skip over the parts you think are too hard and do the stuff you think is easy, because without the speaking all the other stuff doesn’t work.
However, assuming you actually have followed my advice and are spending at least 50% of your learning time in conversations, the next step of where to invest your time is up to you. I usually focus on aspects of the language that I can’t focus on enough while juggling the mental difficulties of a conversation but are nonetheless important. This may be different for different languages.
In Spanish, for instance, I found the conjugation system a little overwhelming. It was too hard to juggle saying what I meant and also making sure I was remembering the dozens of different forms a verb could take to indicate exactly what I wanted. To fix this, I bought grammar exercise books and worked through conjugation exercises until I had memorized all the major forms regular verbs take (and the most common irregular ones). Then, when I would speak, I could more quickly remember the form I needed.
In Chinese, in contrast, grammar wasn’t a huge issue. Instead I was plagued by pronunciation and vocabulary issues. Pronunciation, especially tones, were brutally hard in the beginning and it was difficult to juggle that with trying to speak. So I would do pronunciation drills to work on my tones. Vocabulary was also difficult because it shares few cognates with English. I felt that learning the characters would be an important mnemonic aid to learn new vocabulary, so I invested my non-speaking time doing a Anki decks which taught these.
These activities were helpful, but they’re a supplement, not a replacement to speaking.
I Don’t Want to Speak Yet, Is There Anything Else I Can Do?
I’ve tried almost every method for learning a language. Immersive practice is by far the most effective. And, yeah, it is scary and hard and you might not think you’re ready to do it. But, if you give it a shot you’ll often find yourself speaking much faster than you realize.
There are other ways to learn a language that are less intense and awkward. I’ve seen people who’ve started with reading or watching movies, and plowed through that until they have high listening comprehension. Other linguists swear by a passive listening approach rather than speaking.
If those methods work for you, then great. I just haven’t found they work very well for me. The reason in my mind is that most media you can learn from is either way too difficult to understand or designed for learners and therefore is boring to sit through. Watching movies without the subtitles on quickly gets frustrating once you’ve sat through a dozen or so hours of media you don’t understand.
The difference with conversation practice is that there’s an automatic difficulty adjustment—a real person. The person you’re speaking with, when they see you don’t understand, will automatically try to simplify to communicate. As a result, you can get into interesting conversation situations much sooner than you can get into interesting media.
It’s my opinion that, despite appearances, a passive studying approach to learning a language is actually a lot more difficult in the long run than just getting over the fear and starting speaking.
The best strategy is to go to the country and opt for 100% immersion from Day 1. Not only does this maximize practice time, but it builds an environment that will support your learning in the future.
The second-best strategies are to find a partner or tutor who you commit to speaking to every day and only in the language you’re practicing. Pull out Google Translate or a dictionary to fill in any gaps. Do practice on your own to fill in your weak points but never more than 50% of your studying time and never as a substitution for actual conversation practice.
This strategy is difficult, mostly because adults can’t stand to not speak fluently. Unfortunately, you have to push through a low level of ability before you can get to a higher one, and so avoiding speaking usually prolongs the learning process.