How To Learn A Language Fast: The 4 Steps To Fluency

How To Learn A Language Fast: The 4 Steps To Fluency post image

The unfortunate reality of language learning is that, simply following an  audio course or enrolling in an evening class will only help you scratch the surface of a language. The problem for most inexperienced language learners is that they don’t have an effective plan to help them reach fluency.

Perhaps you’ve stumbled upon this page because you haven’t yet figured out how you’re going to tackle this problem.  Maybe it’s the first time you’ve tried to teach yourself a new language… Maybe reaching fluency is taking longer than you expected.

This project is all about taking the quickest route from zero to fluent.

Step 1: Grasping The Mechanics (Script & Phonetics)

 

This is the obvious place to start, these are the fundamental tools allow you to go on to acquire the big picture. Although this step is pretty simple, it’s important to take it seriously, as any bad habits picked up at this point will be hard to shake further on. There a great number of resources and tools available to help you master these, the best featured in this first guide.

Read the full guide “Step 1. Grasping The Mechanics; Pronunciation & Script”

Already have great command of the pronunciation and script? Great! Move on to the next step!

Step 2: Extracting The Core Vocabulary & Grammar

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For nearly all languages, just 2000 words cover a whopping 90-93% of spoken language, so it only makes sense that we learn these first! They will help us get very far in the language, very quickly.

Woah hold on! Don’t start making your 2000 world vocabulary list! It’s a terrible idea to learn these 2000 words in list form as the majority of these words have alternative definitions and functions within idioms and phrases. It only makes sense that these words that are appearing so frequently can owe a large amount of their popularity to the very nature of having many different uses/meanings.

By seeing, hearing and using these words in many different scenarios and contexts, it allows us further deepen our understanding of their uses. As a bonus, when we deeply understand how to use a word, we retain that information far longer than if we simply try to attach dictionary definitions to them. The most important step in adding these words to your repertoire will be finding the most ideal language learning resources.

Read the full guide “Step 2. Learning The Core of A Language”.

Step 3: Seek Out The Vocabulary Relevant To Your Life and Personality

So you’ve been focusing on the core of the language and now you understand loads! Perhaps you’re feeling pretty invincible right now and so you feel brave enough to strike up a conversation with a native, why don’t you tell them how passionate you are about collecting transistor radios and making ornamental bird baths. Darn! Your course didn’t teach you those words!

Unfortunately, language courses aren’t designed with the intricacies of your life in mind. This is why you must evaluate your hobbies, interests and lifestyle and then hunt down the relevant vocabulary yourself so that you can use them in your own speech and identify them when exposed to them.

This is the part where it makes sense to use vocabulary lists, flash cards and Anki spaced repetition decks to help you remember these more obscure words with typically only 1 meaning/use.

<Coming Soon> Read the full guide “Step 3. Learning The Vocabulary Relevant To Your Life and Personality”.

Step 4: Turn your Passive Knowledge Into Active Knowledge

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You could passively know every word in the language (that’s to say you could understand the word if you saw or heard it) and still not reach conversational fluency, because you need the practice of using it. As Boris Shekhtman’s book “How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately”  taught me, the biggest key to become fluent in a language is activating your vocabulary. Unless you get the practice in, you’ll be a stop-start wreck, constantly pausing to apply grammar rules and racking your brains to recall the perfect vocabulary. It turns out that when we speak a language fluently, we are generally not applying grammar rules or thinking about individual words at all, in fact we are reproducing ‘collocations ‘ (strings of words) cemented in our brains from past use.

So it’s the practice that will make communicating second-nature, and with it you’ll soon be a smooth-talking language machine!

<Coming Soon> Read the full guide “Step 4. Step Away From The Books And Communicate”

Other Essential Reading

Frequently Asked Questions

What do you mean by ‘fluency’?

I define fluency as being ‘able to comfortably converse in all social situations you would typically expect to find yourself in when using the language’. I think it’s silly to hold yourself to native-levels of vocabulary and grammatical mastery before you call yourself fluent.

How long will it take me to learn a language with this strategy?

When answering this question, there are a couple of factors to consider..

Firstly, it depends on how many hours a day/week you put in. People who learn languages at school or with a tutor over a 7 year period for 1 hour per week are spending as much time with the language as someone that studies 8 hours a day for just 5 weeks and hence should expect to see similar results.

Secondly, it depends on how distant the language is away from your native language or a language that you already speak. For a person that only speaks English, it will take a lot less time to learn closer languages such as French or German than it will to learn exotic languages such as Korean or Finnish.

For me personally, it took me a massive 3 years (at perhaps an average of hour a day, so over ~1100 hours in total) to reach fluency in French (my first language learning experience). Yet after learning from my mistakes, educating myself on language acquisition, and employing a bit more dedication (moving up to 3  hours a day) and strategizing I was able to learn German to conversational fluency in 7 months  and then Spanish in just 6 months. I know that the first exotic language that I attempt to learn to fluency will take much longer however because I will have so much less inherited passive vocabulary and the grammar will be completely alien.

Will this guide work for everyone?

This method is essentially a thoroughly flexible framework, designed to help you reach fluency quickly by choosing the resources and techniques that suit you and avoiding the traps that that language learners commonly fall into. So yes, there’s something here for everyone.

Will this strategy get me quickly to a point where I can read books and watch movies?

This guide assumes that you are like the majority of language learners and are primarily focused on speaking the language with other people. If you are only learning a language for non-social reasons, such as being able to read literature and watch movies then this guide will be less relevant to your needs, but there will still be many tips and tricks for you to learn from.

Books (and to a lesser extent movies) make use of a much wider range of vocabulary than that needed to be conversationally fluent as they are aimed at native speakers. My advice for people with this focus is to grab your dictionary and immerse yourself in native content.

Are you saying you shouldn’t start speaking the language until after steps 1, 2 & 3?

Not at all. I am a huge advocate of speaking the language right from the start of your language learning experience. It’s quite obvious that the brain has a great ability to remember words that you have used in social situations, which is something you should really be taking advantage of as a learning tool. But there comes a time when you it should be your primary focus and that’s what step 4 is all about.


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3 comments… add one

  • Alex July 30, 2015 2:04 am edit

    Hello Oli,

    Spanish was my first foreign language and I have now reached conversational fluency in the language. I learned most of my basics through very traditional classroom settings, and then became conversational through my own practice and an immersion experience.

    I am now attempting to learn French. However, I am starting basically from scratch. My question is this – How important is it to study conjugations? I know I can pick up on vocab from simply using them in context and conversation. However, I don’t know if that applies for verb conjugations. In which of your 4 steps would you recommend learning different verb conjugations?

    Thanks,
    Alex

    Reply
    • Oli August 15, 2015 6:06 am edit

      It’s definitely very important to study conjugations, I consider it an integral portion of the core of the language. The best piece of advice I can give you is to not get caught up on the irregular conjugations. Trying to force memorize all the exceptions and obscurities will only slow you down. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, iron out all the creases later, this will happen naturally.

      Reply
  • Chipo October 3, 2016 7:40 am edit

    Thank you very much Oli for your guide. I think I found it at just the right time. I have been taking a hybrid ( face-to-face and online) class since January however, still when my teacher asks me a random question in French – I look like a deer caught in the headlights

    Reply

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