5 steps to learn a new language in under a year

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As we travel around the world, Christine and I regularly have encounters that illustrate the opportunities that are unlocked by speaking more than one language. In Turkey, Christine wrote about an encounter with a restaurant owner that turned a simple meal into a wonderful evening of singing and learning about the lives of people in Cappadocia once we discovered he could speak German. A similar thing happened in Mongolia with the manager of a Ger camp we stayed in who similarly could speak German but not English.

I think most of us appreciate how powerful it is to speak more than one language. And yet, so few of us do (more than 75% of Australians and Americans only speak one language [1]). Why is this? My guess is that many of us believe that learning a new language is hard and takes years to achieve. I know that’s how I felt a year ago when I started to learn German. But now I know that this is not the case. In under a year, I’ve been able to get to a level of proficiency where I can watch many German TV shows, have conversations with my mother-in-law and spend 80% of my time with my wife speaking only German.

I firmly believe anyone can get proficient in a language in under a year and it only requires around 30 minutes of practice a day along with some creative ways to incorporate your new language into your day-to-day life. Here are 5 tips that were most useful for me in learning a new language. I’ve had the opportunity to test and refine these concepts with many multi-lingual travelers that we’ve met. Fortunately, each of these concepts resonated and they seem to be broadly applicable, regardless of background or language being learned.

1. Start with Duolingo:

Duolingo (www.duolingo.com) was the primary tool I used to learn German. And it is AWESOME. Most days I spent 30 minutes practicing (or perhaps maybe a more apt verb would be “playing”) with it. Almost every multi-lingual traveler I’ve met not only uses it, but like me, cannot help but sing its praises. To summarize why Duolingo is so great: a) there is a ton of science in the learning method. For example, it draws on research that learning sentences rather than words is more effective; it uses repetition at variably spaced intervals, which is also widely recognized as effective in learning; and it comprehensively covers reading, listening, writing and speaking; b) it’s personalized, identifying areas of weakness to provide greater content in those areas; c) it’s gamified and social which makes learning fun and motivating. ; d) it has a great mobile app which is one of the primary devices in which I used Duolingo (e.g. on the train to work); e) it’s entirely FREE thanks to one of the most ingenius business models.

2. Speak from day 1:

I remember in the early days of learning German that I didn’t feel like I was ready to speak. For example, when my fiancé and I spoke with her parents on Skype I spoke very little, embarrassed that I only knew a few words and afraid I would get things wrong. I had to push myself to get over this. Knowing words and phrases in your new language is great, but speaking them in real world situations is a whole other skill. It requires a level of quick recall and muscle memory that you can only develop by practicing to speak the language.

There are a range of ways you can find opportunities to practice speaking. You can find language meetups in your local town, sign up to websites (e.g. italki.com) that pair people learning new languages, or even just go out in public and spark up conversation with strangers who speak your language like these guys.

However, the best way to practice speaking is to…

3. …find a “Language Parent”:

Have you ever listened to how a parent speaks to their infant while she is learning to speak? What you hear is the parent speaking in simple phrases on a variety of topics, carefully listening when the child speaks, interpreting from broken phrases what the child means and often repeating back what they’ve heard in complete and correct sentences. The child feels completely safe to say whatever they want and to take risks in using their new language. This is probably the best environment possible to learn a language. And that is what your language parent will help you do.

A “language parent” is a term I heard coined in a TED talk by Chris LonsdaleIt refers to someone who is fluent in the language you are learning, who you feel very comfortable around to make mistakes, and who is obviously willing to be patient with you. In my case, my language parent is my wonderful and very patient wife. As soon as I began to learn, we started speaking German together and I was amazed at how quickly we were able to get to a place where the majority of our conversations were in German.

While not everyone may have a significant other to be their language parent, there are other ways to find one. In Turkey I met a woman who intentionally found a roommate that could speak English in order to practice her English. No doubt you’ll be able to find a friend (or befriend) someone fluent in your new language. See if you can make them your language parent!

4. Hammer through the grammar:

A couple of months into learning German, primarily using Duolingo, my language learning hit a brick wall. I was finding that no matter how much I practiced that I wasn’t really learning effectively or understanding the rules and constructs of German sentences. I ended up engaging a tutor for an hour a week for 10-weeks to intensively learn grammar. My time with the tutor essentially consisted of getting a grammar textbook and laboriously going through each exercise until we had gone through the book. It made the world of difference. While for some languages there aren’t as many new rules to learn, for most languages there are some grammatical differences you’ll need to get your head around so I encourage you to bite the bullet, buy a grammar textbook and hammer your way through it. I’d be interested to hear if other people have better (or more fun) ways to learn grammar, but this method worked well for me.

5. Immerse yourself:

One of the most impactful things I did in learning German was using my 3-weeks annual leave to go to Vienna and immerse myself, speaking only German with Christine’s parents and going to German classes each day. I highly recommend this type of experience. That said, even if this isn’t workable in your life there are other ways for you to immerse yourself in your new language. Read children’s books in your new language (and for European languages you may be able to find the CEFR level of the book to assist in matching the book to your level). Watch movies and TV shows (tip: turn on the subtitles for the language you are learning. Often having the words both spoken and written will help you understand what’s going on). Listen to songs and learn the lyrics. Read the world news in your new language. Change your phone settings to be in your new language (warning: there will no doubt be times where this decision will frustrate you, but it’s worth it). These are just a few ways to incorporate your new language into your day-to-day life, and there are surely many others. You just need to get creative.

I’d love to hear from others and their experiences in language learning. I hope these concepts resonate, or better still, are helpful in your current language learning. For those of you who are considering learning a new language, I hope that this encourages you to give it a go!


[1] Quote from US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan in 2010 and 2011 Australian Census

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