How to LEARN a language FAST

Whether for a new skill or for practical reasons we might need to learn a new language. What’s the best way to learn? Is it possible to learn a new language fast? The answer is yes, and I’ll explain how below.

I did a lot of research about learning a new language and am putting that research into action. I’m seeing the results. I’m currently learning Vietnamese as I plan to live in Vietnam next year. Vietnamese is tricky to learn as it’s a tonal language, utterly different to English, but this method is working wonders.

Think like a baby

The method I’m using is to acquire the language, not “learn” it. Put simply: I’m acquiring it like a toddler acquires a language, by looking at stuff and hearing what it is.

When a toddler is acquiring a language they’ll repeat the words and phrases they know over and over and over. For example they’ll point to a chair and say “it’s a chair, it’s a chair, it’s a chair” and the adult will say “yeah, it’s a chair”. If the toddler says something wrong the adult will simply repeat the word or phrase the right way.

This acquiring method is what we can do if we want to speak a new language: we find a teacher, throw the alphabet, grammar and spelling out the window, look at pictures and listen and repeat.

Dan of the World learning Vietnamese
Me acquiring Vietnamese by looking at pictures with my teacher.

Why learning grammar and the alphabet is old-school

There’s one big reason why learning grammar, rules and the alphabet is old-school: it’s boring. It doesn’t matter how many games or ways to spruce it up we use, learning flashcards is boring, learning the sounds of letter groupings is boring. Learning that when we use have or has in a sentence we need to use the past participle of the verb is boring.

No wonder it’s so difficult and so time consuming to learn a new language! We’re too busy thinking about whether the word uses the masculine or feminine preposition, or if the verb goes before or after the noun to even get a sentence out.

Proof that learning grammar and rules isn’t needed

I’ve had the utter pleasure of seeing how my nephew’s language has been progressing. He’s two and speaks in small sentences, he’ll repeat them over and over during the course of a day.

A game we like to play is he’ll throw something away, shout “where’d it go?” and I’ll point to it and say “there it is!” and we both rush over and grab it. If we break down that sentence we can see it’s actually quite complex:

“Where’d” – a ‘wh’ question using a contraction of the adverb where and the verb do used in the past tense.
“it” – a pronoun used to describe something already mentioned.
“go” – a verb to show something has travelled or moved.

Do you think my nephew has any idea of all that grammar crap? No. Do you think he realizes that “w” and “h” together makes a ‘wuh’ sound? No, he doesn’t care. All he knows is that “where’d it go?” means where’d it go?

Why should adults learn any differently? Do you want to learn all the letter pairings and rules of the new language? Or simply acquire the language and get to all the rules later if you want to know them? Toddlers are the best at acquiring a language, so it makes sense we should use their model.

Dan of the World learning Vietnamese
Me and Tu refreshing numbers in Vietnamese via our Skype lesson.

How do we acquire a language?

1. Find a language partner / teacher

This is anyone who speaks the language at a native level. A native level means it’s the first language they spoke. You can explain to them that you simply want to look at pictures and know what the word is for the thing you’re pointing at on the picture. The pictures can be anything you’re interested in.

Explain that you want the lesson 90% in the target language, only using English in emergencies. You don’t want corrections, you simply want them to say the word again the right way. Think about it, when a toddler is speaking and they say “abble” instead of “apple”, do you say to them “we don’t say abble, that’s not right, we say apple“. No, we just say the word again correctly. We remember how it’s meant to sound, not the corrections.

2. Learn what’s relevant to you

If you’re going to be a tourist in a country you’re probably going to want to know how to say please and thank you. You’ll want to know the names of food and drinks, how to say “how much?” or “which way?”.

When you start acquiring a language you’ll focus on those things and build from there. We’re much more motivated when we’re interested in it. That’s what I’m doing. In my first lesson I understood how to say one man, men, one woman, women, four people, four people are happy, are you happy? I am happy. All in Vietnamese. The second lesson I understood how to say all that plus bananas, oranges, apples, how much money does it cost?

In two lessons I can already go to a market and buy two bananas and three apples. Sure my speaking is horribly slow, and I do need to think about what I’m saying, but isn’t that a lot more fun and useful than learning all twelve vowels of the Vietnamese alphabet? I think so.

Dan of the World learning Vietnamese
I want to learn food first, so that’s what we’re doing.

3. Practice everyday

Yes, you still need to work on it, you won’t just magically learn a new language. You need to practice everyday for at least an hour. If you record your Skype lessons you can rewatch them, or you can ask your teacher to send you recordings of them speaking the new words.

4. If it feels weird and your jaw is aching, you’re doing it right

Quite often another language will use the mouth in a different way. For example English is all spoken on the tip of the tongue, whereas Vietnamese is all in the back of the throat. This will get muscles working harder that don’t normally have to work hard when you speak.

Similarly if the word you’re saying sounds like a grunt, or clearing your throat, but you’re saying it correctly in the target language, it’ll feel extremely weird, but it’ll be right. Throw away everything you know about speaking and concentrate on the target language. If it feels weird and your jaw is aching, you’re doing it right.

Good luck with your language acquisition!

I have a great deal more life hacks on my self development page. You might be interested in where to find friends in another country, three things you need to know about using your money overseas. Or the truth about life in another country.

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