Brits are the worst language learners in Europe, with 62% only able to speak English. However, it looks like many people are keen to do something about this embarrassing reality. One in five UK adults planned to learn a language in 2018, with Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Japanese the five most popular amongst budding bilinguists.
Learning a language is an extraordinary achievement and an extremely useful skill, making travelling more convenient, increasing job prospects, and allowing you to communicate with people you wouldn’t otherwise be able to. But it’s also no easy endeavour, typically requiring a lot of time and patience before you see results. Though it’s important to be realistic about how long it will take to pick up this new expertise, there are a few hacks you can make to speed up the process.
Talk to native speakers
Learning a new language can be daunting, and you should expect to make your fair share of mistakes along the way, which is why you might feel more comfortable trying to teach yourself. This is fine for reading and writing, but your speaking and listening skills are bound to suffer without hearing others speak your chosen language. If you want to become bilingual fast, your best bet will be to get a native speaker involved in your studies. For example, if you’re learning French, many words will not sound how you expect. Take the words homme (man) and hôtel (hotel). You would naturally pronounce the ‘h’ in both instances, however, the French language drops it entirely. But how could you know that without a native speaker there to correct you?
If you have no relevant contacts, use the internet to help you reach out. Online lessons are becoming particularly popular, allowing students to learn everything they need to know about a language via video chat, at their own pace. And, as Verbal Planet note, online language tutors “can help students work towards formal exams and qualifications”, even on a remote basis. Or, you could try and find yourself a local language conversation partner, a native speaker who helps you learn their language in return for you teaching them English. As with online tutors, they can be easily found online.
Focus on the most common phrases
According to the Pareto principle, most things in life are not distributed evenly, with approximately 20% of causes leading to 80% of the effects. This theory can be applied to business, software, and also language. So if you get to grips with at least 20% of a language’s total vocabulary, you’ll theoretically be able to converse in it in most situations.
Prioritising basic vocabulary and focussing on the most frequently used phrases will help speed up the learning process—especially if you tailor your personal lexicon to your life, background, and interests. Writing for The Guardian, Joshua Foer explained that memorising the 1,000 most common words in Lingala (spoken in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Republic of the Congo) was not enough to make him a fluent speaker. However, this vocabulary acted as “a scaffolding to which you can attach other words as you hear them”. He was also able to identify the relationships between words, and pick up grammatical patterns, which are less important to get right for conversational use. Of course, you’ll need to get your head around word order and basic verb conjugation, but as you continue to improve your verbal skills, correct grammar will start to come naturally.
Your teachers were right when they told you not to cram the night before an exam. Trying to memorise loads of new information in one go could send your brain into overdrive, leaving it unlikely that you’ll retain much of this vocabulary. Little and often is the best way to go, and regularly reviewing all your previous lessons will keep the language fresher in your mind and, therefore, help you pick it up faster.
You might find it useful to apply some study hacks. One of the most common is spaced repetition, which boosts the likeliness of long-term learning. This involves reviewing words at regular intervals, but frequently revisiting those you find hardest to remember. Making flashcards is the best way to put this into practice, though if you’d prefer some technological assistance, invest in some spaced repetition software (SRS). SRS generates flashcards based on an algorithm determining the time intervals between each card. As the easier ones will appear less frequently, you can focus your efforts on the trickiest content until you’ve finally mastered it.
Other tactics you could explore include the Pomodoro Technique, which breaks your study sessions into 25-minute blocks to improve your focus. Or you could try creating mnemonics—patterns of letters, words, or ideas which help jog your memory. For example, you could use MAAP to remember the Spanish words for family members—mama, abuelo, abuela, papa.
Immerse yourself in the language
Supplement everything you’re learning by immersing yourself in the culture associated with your chosen language. This could mean swapping your favourite box set for a German television show, spending a few hours a week watching Russian films, or creating a Spotify playlist full of Portuguese tunes. This easy engagement can help you notice how native speakers sound and structure their sentences without even trying. It’ll also demonstrate how context can affect things like speed and intonation, and perhaps expose certain quirks and idioms specific to the language.
You could take this further by relying on the language while going about your day-to-day activities. Good ways to do this include updating the language setting on your phone, adding translation labels to every item in your house, or when eating out, simply requesting a menu in the native tongue.
Prioritise fluency—not accuracy
Accuracy is obviously crucial when learning a new language. If you’re misspelling words or making major pronunciation mistakes, the person you’re attempting to communicate with could be left very confused. However, it’s still possible to be fluent without being 100% correct all the time.
It’s important to consider the differences between fluency and accuracy when identifying your particular goal with a new language. For example, accuracy matters if you’re planning to write essays at an international university, where your language skills must be advanced in order to do well. However, in the early stages of learning a language, conversation is probably your top priority. And as in English, even with the odd mispronunciation or grammatical error, chances are you’ll still be able to talk with, and be understood by, another person. Focus on getting comfortable with the words, and allowing every sentence to flow, and you should be at conversational level in no time.