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Learn a language as if you had all the time in the world

You may be wondering what I’m talking about with this title, because after all, nobody has all the time in the world. Most of us have full time jobs and a whole host of other commitments. We feel that if we are going to learn to speak a language, we need to get there in the shortest time possible, and do it in 6 weeks, or 3 months, working in the most efficient way possible.

The single biggest mistake I made in my language learning

This is exactly the way I used to think. When I was 17 years old, I was very interested in Russian, and worse still, I was preparing for an exam, just one of many others I had to take. I downloaded a list of “most used Russian words” and tried to cram over a thousand words in just a few days for the exam.

Most people who have tried cramming before will know that it does work – a bit. The result was that I did learn a lot of words in a short time, and it did help me to get a good grade. However, there were two problems: 1) I forgot most of the words very quickly afterwards, and 2) I hadn’t learnt them thoroughly – I couldn’t really use the words properly, I didn’t know how to pronounce a lot of them, and I wasn’t really familiar with them. The quicker you learn, the quicker you forget it all again.

Slow and steady wins the race?

One way I could summarise this is by comparing the result of reading a book in two days and in two weeks. You might be able to finish it in two days, and you would get something from it – a few key points and arguments and an impression, but if you read the book more slowly over 2 weeks, you would probably remember a lot more, and be able to apply the contents a lot better.

So, back to my experience. Not only did I not do myself any favours by trying to cram Russian in a few days, but I tried to do the same thing a couple of years later, in a few weeks. Once again, the results weren’t great. I had to learn all the things I had forgotten, and later I went on to forget them again. By having to fill in what I hadn’t learnt properly before, I wasted so much time that could have been put to productive use!

Therefore, while the idea to learn French or Spanish or Chinese in two months may sound good, and might get you through a trip to a foreign country, it’s not going to be productive in the long run. I think that one of the main reasons why I have got so far with Chinese is because I kept going, step by step, over many years, and I’m still working at it.

How I improved my learning

If you just flick through a language textbook, you are not going to know the language. There is only so much that your brain can process in one day or one week. After a certain point, the new information is not going to stick, and you are actually going to learn less in the long run by trying to race ahead.

Here are some tips that can actually help you to learn a language quicker.

  • Take it easy and let your improvement motivate you – instead of focussing on a 3 month ‘finishing line’, enjoy working at a pace. Think about how much you are learning over a week or a month, you will find you can actually progress quite quickly!
  • Do something with the language every day – not 5 hours, 1 day a week, or 8 hours once a month. Doing a little more often will get you better results, I promise!
  • Switch activities often to keep yourself motivated – don’t try to read a whole book in one sitting, read a little, then listen to some audio, try to speak, work on your flashcards, then read some more of the book the next day.
  • Learn at most 10-15 words a day and keep coming back to them – this is what I am doing with my Russian. If you try to memorise pages of vocabulary, it is not going to stick. Go back over flashcards, try to produce phrases from memory, and do more reading, listening and speaking to fix them in your mind.
  • If you get frustrated or demotivated, come back the next day – you wouldn’t try to have an hour conversation with a native speaker after just one month, or read a whole book. Everybody loses steam and needs breaks! Allow yourself to digest what you have learnt, clear your mind and come back.
  • Remember that you are taking time to learn your native language too! – It took you a long time to start speaking your native language as a child, a few years perhaps, and even then you were only having simple conversations at the start. Whatever age you are, you are still learning to use your own language and are learning new things. Take this attitude with foreign languages, and you will go a long way!