Whether you’re learning a new language with the aim of traveling or working abroad, communicating with new friends and colleagues, or enhancing your enjoyment of foreign films, books, and music, you’re probably eager to learn as quickly as possible.
You may also be contemplating how long it actually takes to learn a new language and why. And according to the FSI, some languages will take a shorter amount of time for English speakers to learn, and others can take longer to master.
However, no matter what language you're learning, one of the most important aspects of language-learning is having the patience to stick with it over a longer period of time. There are certainly a few things you can do to speed up the process.
So what’s the secret on how to learn a language fast? We’ve lined up some of the most important findings from research to help you use your time as efficiently as possible.
Be consistent and space out your study sessions
Like any new venture, learning a foreign language takes dedication, and the more you use it, the more likely it is to stick. How you study matters too, though, and research shows that it’s better to aim for short study sessions spaced out over a longer period of time than to spend hours at a time memorizing new vocabulary.
This method is known as ‘spaced’ or ‘distributed’ practice, and research shows that it’s superior for long-term learning and retention.
Why? When you intensively cram in a large volume of information, chances are that most of it will be forgotten within a day or two. On the other hand, if you space out your learning activities by practicing something new for, say, 30 minutes two times a day, you’ll have more opportunity to process important concepts and review information you may have forgotten.
Immerse yourself in the language
Research has shown that when students are exposed to a new language in an immersive way, they exhibit higher levels of fluency, particularly when their motivation to learn and absorb the new language is high.
If you can, plan a trip abroad so you can experience the language and culture firsthand. This will allow you to put your new skills to the test in real world situations, whether it’s ordering food in a restaurant or asking for specific items at the grocery store.
With that said, though, even if you can’t spend time learning a language abroad, there are things you can do to immerse yourself in it at home. For example, you could try changing the language settings on your phone and social media or start enjoying more foreign-language music, foreign films with subtitles, or even children’s books and comics.
Add some context
Another way to retain more of what you learn over a longer period of time is to add some context, rather than just memorizing lists of vocabulary. Research shows that context is important in language comprehension, although how much of an effect it will have depends on certain factors such as the learner’s age, literacy and language skills.
So how can you apply this in your own language learning? The best way to add context to your learning is to find ways to connect the subject of each lesson to something in your own life.
For example, if you’re learning vocabulary related to holidays, think about your last holiday and how you would tell someone about it using the words you’ve just learned. You can also try to think of real world situations in which you might use the specific words you’re learning, such as ordering food at a restaurant or asking for directions.
Focus on pronunciation first
Although we have a tendency to gravitate towards memorizing vocabulary when learning a new language, a number of studies have found that adult learners might be better off focusing on pronunciation first.
Why? Research shows that while babies and younger children have the ability to distinguish between sounds in all languages, even unfamiliar ones, we tend to lose this ability as we become more skilled at speaking our native language.
With this in mind, it’s worth spending some time familiarizing yourself with the pronunciation of a language before anything else. This will help you train your brain to recognize the unfamiliar tones of a new language and eventually help you reproduce them yourself.
Sleep on it
In the same way that spacing out your study sessions can help you retain new information, a study from University of California Berkeley found that taking an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brainpower.
Why? Research shows that the longer we stay awake, the more sluggish our brain becomes. In fact, sleep deprivation can decrease our ability to retain new information by nearly 40%.
Because fact-based memories are temporarily stored in the hippocampus before being moved to the prefrontal cortex, sleep is necessary to clear the brain’s short-term memory storage and free up space for new information.
Find people to practice with
Repetition and consistency are valuable tools for learning, but it’s also important to receive feedback in real time, whether from a teacher or a native speaker. While all feedback is valuable, research shows that immediate feedback results in significantly larger performance gains.
If you don’t personally know anyone who speaks the language you’re interested in learning, it’s worth looking for language exchange groups in your local area or online.
Our Total Immersion program is also a great way to receive guidance from trained instructors in one-on-one, face-to-face interactions using learning methods that suit you. Practicing in a group setting can also be beneficial, as it allows you to converse with your peers and take note of any areas you still need to improve in.
Break big goals into smaller ones
Setting goals for your language learning is a great way to track your progress and stay motivated, but only if the goals seem achievable.
This is known as SMART goal setting. In order to promote learning and improve performance, your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
So rather than just making it your goal to learn Spanish, German or French, you should initially set some smaller goals that you can tick off your list. For example, it could be your goal to practice for a minimum of 20 minutes each day, learn and use at least two new words each day, or work on being able to carry a 5-minute conversation about a topic you have an interest in.
Don’t aim for perfection
All too often, we try to memorize long lists of vocabulary, and it can be a bit frustrating when things don’t flow naturally right away. But, when learning a new language, perfection shouldn’t be your primary goal.
You’ve probably heard it said that we learn more from our mistakes than our successes, and research shows that there’s a good deal of truth to this adage. One study from Baycrest’s Rotman Research Institute in Toronto found that when learners make mistakes that are a near miss, they learn new information better than if they made no errors at all.
So rather than worrying about getting things wrong, why not look at every interaction you have while trying to speak your new language as an opportunity to learn? Most of the time, people will appreciate your efforts to learn their language and will go out of their way to help you correct any mistakes you make along the way.
How to learn a language fast? The ultimate tip
Finally, the best way to learn a new language fast is to have fun with it and look for ways to enjoy the learning process. Findings from the British Cohort Study, which followed the lives of around 17,000 people born in England, Scotland, and Wales in 1970, show that reading for fun can improve a person’s language skills and even their proficiency in math.
This is because activities we view as ‘fun’ not only introduce us to new ideas and concepts but are also more engaging. This in turn, encourages us to delve deeper into a topic in order to fill the gaps in our working knowledge.
With this in mind, try to view your new language endeavor as an opportunity to become a lifelong learner and keep building on your existing skills. And when you're considering the best ideas on how to learn a language fast, keep all of these science-backed ideas in mind to help inspire and motivate you to achieve your personal goals.