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5 Steps to Learn a Language in 3 Months

by Michelle Schusterman Oct 14, 2011
An ESL school I worked for had a massive advertisement that read (roughly translated): “Become fluent in English in 6 months!” I rolled my eyes every time I saw it.

Fluency is tough to define. If you feel it means “speak a language as flawlessly as a native speaker,” then no, I don’t feel it’s possible in six months, much less three. But if your goal is to understand and be understood in most situations, twelve weeks is a doable goal when you take the right approach.

1. Lose the ego

I know this seems like a cop-out, but it’s truly the first and most important step in language learning. Before moving to Brazil, I took five months of Portuguese lessons, and I was a total chicken shit about it. I studied and listened and practiced on my own, but every single time the opportunity arose to put my skills to practical use, I froze.

You will make mistakes. You will sound stupid. And if you tell yourself that you’re waiting until you “have it perfect” before putting yourself out there and trying, then you’ll never learn the language.

2. Deconstruct it

When I taught ESL in Korea, I noticed that memorization of words, and reading a new alphabet, weren’t what tripped up my basic students. Sentence structure and verb tenses were the biggest issues.

Before you start building your vocabulary and studying in earnest, Tim Ferriss recommends taking an hour to deconstruct it. The amount of actual practice time it will take you to learn a new language varies depending on how similar it is to your native language, or any other languages you speak. If English is your mother tongue and you’re trying to learn Mandarin, that’s going to be a bigger challenge than learning, say, German. If you speak a decent amount of Spanish and you want to learn Portuguese, your workload is quite a bit easier.

Translating a few simple sentences with an online translator can tell you tons about your target language. Ferriss gives us these to start with:

  • The apple is red.
  • It is John’s apple
  • I give John the apple.
  • We give him the apple.
  • He gives it to John.
  • She gives it to him.

Going back to my Korean ESL students as an example, words like “apple,” “him,” and “give” wouldn’t have been the problem. Instead, I would have heard sentences like “I the apple him give.” This is because Korean Hangul follows a subject-object-verb word order, whereas English is structured subject-verb-object. Identifying this difference right off the bat can save you tons of frustration as you start to study.

This deconstruction tactic will also give you the basics of verb conjugation in the target language, as well as whether you’ll be dealing with noun cases (i.e. “Le” vs “La” in French, or “Der,” “Das,” and “Die” in German).

3. Collect resources

Language learning programs and books can be pricey, but if you’re on a budget there are still plenty of cheap or free resources. Spare a few bucks to buy a good, thorough phrasebook, and take it around like a kid with a blankie. Get into the habit of pulling it out and referencing it at every opportunity.

If you’ve got some cash to spend, there are quite a few language learning programs aimed at helping you learn quickly. Matador has reviewed both the Rosetta Stone series and the Mango Passport program, both of which are worth looking into.

No cash? That’s okay – the purpose of these programs is to get you to read, write, listen, and speak your target language regularly, something you can do even on the smallest of budgets. Livemocha is an awesome social networking site that offers a range of courses – think of it as Facebook for language learners. BBC Languages offers free guides and fact sheets galore. The Internet Polygot offers free access to all of its language lessons. Benny Lewis offers tons of tips and guides on becoming fluent in three months.

Podcasts are beyond useful, not to mention free. A quick search on Google or in iTunes and you’ll find dozens, if not hundreds, of podcasts in your target language. Load up your iPhone, turn off the Katy Perry (seriously, turn it off), and podcast it up at the grocery, in the car, walking the dog, while you’re cooking, etc.

Movies and TV shows are equal parts education and entertainment. Watch them with the subtitles, then watch them without. The best: soap operas. The storylines are long, unintentionally hilarious, and extremely repetitive – you’ll see the same scene in flashback after flashback.

4. Set Goals

What’s your idea of success? In three months time, do you want to be able to read a novel in German? Watch the latest kung fu movie sans subtitles? Have a successful conversation on politics in Italian? If you think your goal is to simply “learn Russian,” you won’t feel successful after three months, because there’s always more to learn. Write down a specific goal and stick it on your refrigerator (or someplace visible).

Increase the amount of time you spend reading, writing, hearing or speaking your target language every single day, and start high on the first day. You’ve only got ninety days, after all. If you listen to a thirty minute podcast on Tuesday, listen to thirty-five minutes on Wednesday. Follow a 500 word essay with a 750 word essay.

5. Use it

There’s no level you’re required to hit before putting your new language into practice. If all you know is “bonjour” and “s’il vous plait,” you can still strike up a conversation. Granted, there will be a lot of confusion, but chances are you’ll learn something from the experience. Even if it’s just one word, it’s worth it – and besides, it’s a good bet you’ll get a hilarious misinterpretation story out of the ordeal.

Finding opportunities can be challenging depending on where you live. If you’re in NYC and you want to learn Italian – piece of cake. If you’re studying Greek and you live in a small town in Texas, you’re facing more of a challenge – but don’t use that as an excuse.

  • Get online. I had a super gung-ho student in Brazil who organized a Skype chat room with several students from all over the world who were also trying to learn English. Once a week they’d have a conference call. The coolest thing about this was that because they all spoke different native languages, they were forced to stick to English. This also meant that as they were coming at English from different perspectives, they each had unique strengths and weaknesses.Chances are if you’re reading this, English is your native language. You speak a language that millions all over the world are studying right now. With a little effort, you can find a few folks online who speak your target language fluently and will be more then happy to strike some sort of deal. My personal example: I had a deal with my aforementioned Brazilian student in which I kept a blog in Portuguese, he kept one in English, and we critiqued one another in the comments sections.
  • Talk to yourself. If you have issues with this, scroll up and refer to step 1 of this article. When you’re at the bank, the market, a restaurant, wherever, translate what you’re saying and what’s being said to you from English to your target language in your head, and if you dare, aloud. Months before my move to Brazil, I would show up to school for morning duty and spend that 45 minutes describing things in my head or under my breath in Portuguese – what students and teachers were doing, wearing, saying. A few of my students were fluent in Spanish, and we’d have fun trying to carry a Spanish-Portuguese conversation. If opportunities to practice don’t present themselves, make them yourself.

Immersion is arguably the best way to learn a language fast. If you can’t do it by moving to a country where your target language is the language, then you’ll have to be creative and find ways to immerse yourself.

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