I moved to France this year to learn French. In the beginning, I could only say “bonjour”. Now, three months later, I think in French. Speaking is effortless. Conversations feel natural. Learning new words is easy.
Most people say that learning languages is hard. This is wrong.
In this article I'll show you why, and how you can achieve fluency in just three months. You don’t even have to move to another country.
Let’s jump right in!
Effectiveness: Decide what to learn using the 80/20 Principle
So you want to learn a language. Where do you start?
From a practical perspective, it makes sense to begin with what you’ll need the most.
What are the 20% you need to achieve fluency? For every language, you need pronunciation, words, and grammar – in this order.
With pronunciation, you can produce the sounds that make up words. With words, you can speak and listen. By speaking and listening, you can communicate.
Thus, you can only reach fluency if you know what your target language sounds like. You need to learn the sounds first.
How do you learn the sounds?
To get an initial overview, start by searching for “<target language> pronunciation” on YouTube, and watch a few videos on this topic. To get another angle, repeat the search on Google for articles with descriptions. This is to understand the rules for producing sounds.
Every language is made up of a different set of sounds, and most of them will be new to you. I find that I can’t even hear them at first. And because I can’t hear them, I can’t produce them.
To solve this, I train my ear using minimal pairs. Minimal pairs are two words like “three” and “tree” that sound very similar, but that aren’t the same. To practice, you listen to a recording of one of the words, and try to guess which one it was.
You can find training sets in this list of shared Anki decks (more on Anki later), but sadly not for all languages. There are also paid decks available. For those more technically inclined, you can generate your own decks using a command-line tool.
Your goal for this step is to be able to infer the pronunciation from the spelling of a word and vice-versa.
We use some words more often than others. In English, we use the simple word “and” more frequently than the word “happiness”. It thus makes sense to learn the first one much earlier than the latter (although that one is very useful as well).
If you learn the 1000 most used words, you will be able to understand 80% of the language. Learn the next 1000 words, and you will only get to 85% understanding.
With this observation in mind, we can look for the words that are used more often than others. Luckily, there are so-called Word Frequency Lists on the Internet that can guide your efforts.
To get started, take this list of 625 Common Words and learn every one of them. Then, go to the Wiktionary Frequency List Overview and select the language you want to learn. If you can, try to select one related to speaking, as the frequencies differ between speaking and writing.
At a rate of 30 new words every day, you will get to 80% understanding in one month.
You don’t need grammar. At least not to express yourself.
Saying “toilet” in a restaurant with a painful expression on your face will get the waiter to instantly show you where you need to go. Possibly even quicker than if you used a more eloquent expression.
This is not to say that grammar isn’t important. But at the beginning, words are more important. I therefore recommend learning the base vocabulary first, and only then focus on grammar.
Once you've learned the words, begin with three tenses:
- Most used past tense
- Most used future tense
To learn them, I found it helpful to get a beginner’s grammar book. Work through it and stop once you’ve learned the three tenses. Because once you’ve acquired them, it’s enough for basic communication.
During conversations, you’ll develop an intuition for the grammatical constructs you need, even ones you haven’t studied yet. At a later stage, it will be much easier to expand your intuitive knowledge with deliberate practice.
Fluency: The Most Important Communication Skill
Similar to the point I try making above, you don’t need to know every word to start speaking. In fact, right now, you don’t even know every word in your first language.
Ever heard the word Deltiology? No? That’s because you don’t need it.
Instead, you use a skill called fluency.
Fluency is when you walk into an electronics store and ask for “the thing for cleaning the house” instead of the vacuum cleaner.
This skill can only be practiced by getting yourself into challenging situations. And by sticking to your target language no matter what. Among language learners, Falling Back To English is a synonym for cheating and will form a habit you don't want. Because if English were an option – why do you learn a new language in the first place?
This is the secret to becoming fluent. You do this from day one. If you want to learn speaking a language, you have to SPEAK IT.
Your primary goal for learning a language is not being able to read it, or to know a few words. No, you want to actually speak it with other people.
This can be challenging at times. I tend to become terribly self-conscious, and every word I say sounds plain wrong. I'd rather just smile and say nothing, because that would be less embarrassing.
But there’s a trick.
Whenever I speak French (or any other new language), I use a rare dialect called “Tarzan French”. You say whatever you can, even if you sound like Tarzan. The goal is not being “right”, it’s being able to express yourself. The “mistakes” you make lead to fluency.
To make this process as easy as possible, a good environment is important.
Immersion: Soaking in the Lingo
The fastest way to learn a new language is through surrounding yourself with it every day. This way, you will learn even when you are not actively studying.
You can do this by traveling or moving to a country where that language is spoken, and resolving to exclusively speak that language. This is the best way I know to learn a new language. You will pick up pronunciation, grammar, and new words in everyday life.
But thanks to the Internet, you don’t have to move to another country to immerse yourself. There are more options:
- Change the language of your phone and computer. This might sound trivial, but I found it remarkably effective.
- Consume content in your target language like videos, movies, articles, books, and podcasts.
- Search for language learning podcasts in your target language. I can recommend the Duolingo Podcast for training your listening skills (currently in Spanish and French).
- Read a book in your target language and listen to the audiobook at the same time. It helps if you already know the book. I like Harry Potter and made it through the first book using this approach.
- Go to a language exchange Meetup
- Invite Couchsurfers or Couchers to your place
- Meet with a tandem partner. If you can’t find one in your city, look online at italki.com or Tandem.net
- Learn vocabulary every day with Anki
- Take a language learning course. Use it primarily as an opportunity to practice speaking and listening.
You can find many more resources on the Internet.
I hope it became clear that your primary goal for learning a language is not mastering it, but becoming fluent. Don't spend your time learning every word and grammatical construct. Instead, focus on speaking it every day.
You can become fluent in your target language in just three months by
- Deciding what to learn using the 80/20 principles. Start with pronunciation, 1000 words, and three tenses.
- Speaking your target language from day one. Develop fluency by not knowing every word.
- Making a conscious effort to immerse yourself. Surround yourself with your target language wherever you go.
In the upcoming articles, I’ll show you how to apply these principles. Discover the best method to learn new words and grammatical constructs, so you’ll never forget them. Be sure to subscribe to my newsletter below to get notified once they are online.