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How can I learn a language fast? It’s the one question I can’t get away from. I see it asked on Quora, in tweets, Google suggested searches, blog comments, and beyond.
Short answer: you can’t. Learning a language takes time. But you can learn a language faster with the right approach. Many sources will cite immersion as the fastest way to learn a language. But for the busy professional, immersion is often costly, disruptive, or unfeasible. You don’t need to move to France or quit your day job to learn French.
Learning a language faster really comes down to learning more efficiently and effectively. You can spend hours on end studying, but that doesn’t guarantee you really understand what you’re reading or hearing, nor that you’ll remember it when your study bender is over. With the idea of efficiency and effectiveness in mind, here are a few unusual tips to improve your routine.
It’s not the advice you’d expect when trying to do something as fast as possible. But, as it turns out, “prolonged attention to a single task actually hinders performance.” If a stimulus doesn’t change over time, the brain stops registering it and you to lose focus.
We recommend studying in short, consistent bursts. Start with 30 minutes a day, every day. Otherwise, you risk burning out or spending time studying when your brain is elsewhere. If you choose to study in longer blocks—such as in a formal classroom setting—take breaks!
Don’t just take any old break, though. You can do better than a low efficiency break like eating chips and scrolling Instagram. Aim for high efficiency breaks like a short walk or yoga routine. Breaks that get you moving will physically re-energize your body and refresh your mind.
When trying to accomplish something in record time, it usually doesn’t make sense to backtrack or repeat yourself. But when it comes to learning a language—au contraire. Charge forward in your studies, but don’t forget to review what you’ve learned. Otherwise, you haven’t really learned it at all.
Of course, you don’t want to waste time reviewing things you know well, or missing those you don’t. That’s where spaced repetition comes in. It’s a fancy way of describing the process of periodically reviewing words and phrases over time. If you’re supremely organized, you can attempt to do it manually with flashcards, or you can rely on a spaced repetition algorithm like the one in Transparent Language Online. We keep track of what you’ve learned, how much difficulty you had learning it, and spiral it back into your studies at spaced intervals to make sure it stays fresh!
Nope, this is not a cutesy “exercise your brain” tip. I literally mean get sweaty. Doing cardio gets your heart pumping and your blood flowing. “All that extra blood bathes your brain cells in oxygen and glucose, which they need to function. The more they get, the better they perform.” A quick jog or a HITT workout can literally help you feel better (thanks, dopamine) and focus better (thank you too, norepinephrine).
Sweating it out can also help you learn faster: “after just 30 minutes of doing an easy half-hour bike ride, subjects completed a cognitive test faster than they did before exercising… and just as accurately.” If you’re short on time, you can make this tip work double duty for you by learning while you exercise. The stationary bike, treadmill, or stair machine is the perfect place to learn with an app, read a book, or listen to a podcast in the target language.
Of course you’ll need to interact with others to be conversant in a language. But if you’re really trying to drill vocabulary, master those pesky irregular verb conjugations, or figure out when the heck you use the imperfect vs. the subjunctive—try flying solo.
Studying with friends or joining a conversation group is the best way to put your skills to use and build your confidence in a language. But it can also be a massive distraction. You’ll only make as much progress as the least focused person in the group. When it comes to learning quickly, distractions are costly. According to one study, it took an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for workers to get back to the task at hand after an interruption. That’s a lot of wasted time.
Create a safe solo space to study, free of distractions from other people—physically or electronically. Silence your phone, stay away from Facebook. You know how it goes: you hear one email slide into your inbox and suddenly you’re 20 minutes deep into the Outlook rabbit hole.
Sometimes, you shouldn’t go it alone. Getting feedback on your pronunciation, word choice, and so on is crucial to making progress without backtracking. The longer you continue making mistakes without realizing it, the more ingrained they will become and the longer it will take to break those bad habits.
This feedback can come from others or from self-assessment. Practice speaking with a native speaker who can correct your silly mistakes and explain why they’re wrong. Take practice tests or language assessments to find out your problem areas—you may think you know which prepositions to use when, but the sooner you confirm that, the better. Be open to feedback from any source and use it to propel yourself forward, not dwell on past mistakes.
Teaching yourself is hard enough, but it can help you raise the stakes. You don’t actually have to teach anyone else, but pretend you do. Studies have shown that “expecting to teach enhances learning and organization of knowledge.”
Along the same vein as reviewing what you’ve learned, if you learn it to the point where you can teach it to someone else, you know you’ve learned it. Preparing a lesson plan of sorts also ensures you’re not rushing through the material, missing important patterns or irregularities (of which there are many in most languages). Stop and process a new grammar rule or tense; thinking about how you would explain it to others will help you internalize the material yourself.