How to Learn a New Language Fast: A Step-by-Step Guide

how to learn a new language feature imageIf you’re looking for how to learn a new language fast, chances are your emotions are getting yanked around. 

On the one hand, you’re filled with tremendous excitement!

You can almost taste the triumph as fluent sentences pour from your mouth. 

On the other hand, you’ve heard that your target language is really hard…

And you’re worried about memorizing thousands of words and the billions of potential sentences you’ll need to master.

Let’s put a stop to all those worries right now.

How?

With a small set of practical strategies. And let’s amplify the wonder, excitement and truly miraculous experiences you can expect by treating the language learning journey for what it should be:

A journey, not a destination. 

This mindset is really important because not one amongst us is truly fluent in our mother tongue. It’s not even a remote possibility when you look at the Oxford English Dictionary (if English is your mother tongue).

Yet, when you set proper goals based on L.U.C.K., the fastest way to learn a language can be yours.

What is L.U.C.K.?

It stands for “learn using correct knowledge.”

And that’s exactly what you’ll get on this page. Keep reading each and every word so that you know exactly how fun and easy learning any language can be. 

How To Learn A Language Fast: 15 Tips

Step One: Learn How to Teach Yourself A Language First

Even if you find the best teacher on the planet for your target language, they can only take you so far. You have to be able to teach yourself too. 

To do that, you’ll want to learn the “meta learning” skills that make learning a language possible. These can be broken down into what I like to call The Big 5 Of Language Learning:

Graphic illustration of the Big Five of Learning

These five elements are based on a scientific principle called the levels of processing. They mean that you need to learn how to combine:

  • Memory
  • Reading
  • Writing
  • Listening
  • Speaking

It’s not a question of which one is most important. It’s the holistic combination of all them that matters in the end.

That said, there are ways to combine listening and reading, for example. You can do that by combining certain tools, like the story narration program I feature on my best language learning software post.

You can also get great writing practice at the same time you speak, by repeating what you put on the page verbally either before or after putting it down on paper. 

language learning class

Both writing and speaking are very important for learning a language. By reading aloud what you’ve written, you double-down on the benefits and learn faster.

Any decent language learning class will make you go through these steps, but if you don’t also get yourself to do it on your own, you’ll struggle to learn your language. 

Step Two: Develop A Positive Mindset

So many people ask, How hard is it to learn a new language? 

What if this is the wrong question?

What if a better question is: what are the mental strength resources I need to keep consistent over the long term? 

When it comes to language learning, you’ll want to develop skills with: 

  • Setting realistic goals
    • For example, if your language has a character set or new alphabet you need to learn, this might be your first goal
    • If you already know the alphabet, then your first goal might be how to introduce yourself, plus fifty new words related to some of your interests
  • Creating a practical schedule
  • Showing up consistently
  • Managing your expectations
  • Understanding the different types of motivation when learning languages
  • Accept that mistakes will be made and be willing to learn from them
  • Exploring and acquiring the best language learning materials
  • Developing the courage to speak the language
Woman writing in a journal.

Use a journal to set your goals. It will help you gain clarity on what really matters because you can see your intentions more objectively.

Some people will need to spend more time learning these skills than others. But they can all be learned and improved as you go.

Step Three: Choose The Best Possible Language Learning Materials

This step is tricky, but also very doable. 

First, just accept that some risk is involved. You might end up buying a book or course that just doesn’t suit you.

This circles back to mindset, particularly managing your expectations.

Personally, I treat it all as research and don’t get emotionally involved.

In fact, I allow myself to be open to revisiting any resource I’ve purchased again in the future, because we as humans can be tremendously fickle. It might not be that the book or course is bad. It’s entirely possible that we were either not ready for it yet, or just having a bad day, week, month or year. 

A subset of choosing the best materials for learning a language is to limit the amount of sources. When learning a language, we do want tons of input – but that doesn’t mean you want it from dozens of sources. 

woman selecting books from a shelf

There is an overwhelming amount of language learning material to choose from. Set limits and focus on completing just one book at a time.

Instead, I suggest you take a tip I’ve benefited from. It comes from my friend and language learning expert Olly Richards, who advises that we pick at maximum: 

  • One book
  • One video or audio program 
  • One teacher

By doing this, we give ourselves ample opportunity to experience the levels of processing effect while not overwhelming ourselves with materials. Embracing limits helps us maximize our investment in the materials and enjoy the benefits of thoroughness. 

Again, you might find you acquire materials that simply don’t work. It happens. But overall, limiting what you bring into your learning life and maximizing your thoroughness with those materials will pay off soon. 

woman giving the thumbs up

Setting limits leads to success!

My personal rule of thumb is to stick with something for at least 90 days. When I was learning Chinese, I did this with just one audio program, one book and one teacher and am confident it helped me be much more successful than I would have been by constantly throwing new “shiny new textbooks” in my path. 

Step Four: Learn To Use Memory Techniques

Some people object that adding mnemonics for language learning only adds one more thing they have to learn. 

I understand the objection.

But it’s ultimately illogical.

It’s kind of like saying learning to write the alphabet adds just one more thing to the goal of writing words and sentences.

Or it’s like saying you have to learn how to build airplanes before you build an airport. All of these examples make a kind of sense, but they still aren’t valid objections. 

airport

Learning mnemonics can feel like having to build an airport before you can fly a plane. But the rewards are worth it and just as profound as the miracle of international travel.

In reality, learning to use memory techniques for language learning well is one of the best ways to rapidly accelerate your practice. They help because:

  • The Memory Palace technique allows you to rapidly scale the number of words and phrases you can remember
  • Effective association through multi-sensory visualization makes words and meanings incredibly “sticky”
  • Using the method of loci mentally replicates spaced repetition software without sacrificing the benefits of active recall

In fact, the memory techniques optimize how you practice recalling information in a way that strengthens your memory overall. 

Step Five: Immerse Yourself With Sensible Input And Strategic Challenges

In the beginning, you might not understand anything. But as you learn, your pattern recognition will go up. 

There are a number of ways to keep increasing your sensible input. These include:

  • Meet regularly with a native speaker
    • Be sure to bring a picture-based magazine. Learn to ask, “What is that?” and keep pointing at pictures. Record the sessions with your smart phone and listen back, trying to guess what you were looking at in the magazine. 
  • Watch movies with subtitles
    • When you find vocabulary and phrases you want to learn, write them down and memorize them. I recommend you create your own flashcards by hand using drawings and colors, like this:
flashcards with mnemonic examples for Mandarin Chinese by Anthony Metivier

It’s fun and easy to create your own mnemonic devices on flash cards. It’s also generally much more effective than using language learning apps.

  • Complete courses and textbooks thoroughly
    • These will help increase the amount of patterns you’ll recognize as you continue your exposure to the language you’re learning.
  • Read short stories and news articles
    • You can do this by just reading or by creating your own translations as you go. My friend Luca Lampariello shares a number of tips on how to use translation to increase your fluency.
  • Take a course
    • Strictly speaking, taking a course isn’t necessary. I’ve done it both as a beginner and as a more established student and find saving it for later much more useful. 
    • If you take a course, make sure the teacher uses the target language primarily. You’re not there to improve your mother tongue or teach it to them.
  • Speak with natives online
    • Tools like italki and the Tandem app are great sources for finding people to speak with during dedicated sessions or in small doses by sending and receiving audio texts.
      • As a rule of thumb, I like to give new people 2-3 sessions before deciding if they are a fit or not.
  • Follow instagram and other social media accounts in your target language.
  • Learn songs in your target language.

With all of these activities, you need to use your judgment. If you go for something too advanced, you’ll just get frustrated.

By the same token, if you aren’t challenged, you’ll quickly get bored. Get out of your comfort zone. It’s where you’ll find the treasure you seek.

Step Six: Invest Enough Time For Daily Practice (But Not Too Much)

time for learning a language

People think you have to spend five to six hours a day while learning a language. This just isn’t true.

By the same token, you’re not going to get very far with just 5 minutes a day. 

That said, if you’re strategic about it, you can learn a lot in 15-30 minutes a day. The trick is in breaking up the activities and making sure you’re getting in enough practice of all The Big 5. A schedule like this can work wonders:

  • Mornings: 15 minutes memorizing vocabulary
  • Afternoons: 15 minutes of reading and listening using narrated short stories or news articles
  • Evenings: 15 minutes watching a movie (or the whole movie with about 15 minutes spent capturing words and phrases you find interesting)

Then, the next morning, you can memorize the new vocabulary you’ve gathered from the day before.

The exact amount of time you spend is not nearly as important as the consistency and focus you bring to each learning session. 

Also, vary the routine. If the routine I suggested is something you use on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, do this on Tuesdays and Thursdays:

  • 30 minutes in discussion with a native speaker
  • 30 minutes reviewing the discussion recording

It’s also important to schedule breaks. Taking a week off once in a while actually does your brain good when you’re learning. 

a woman with a horse on the forest path

Scheduling breaks is important, as is learning how to get back on the horse when you fall from your plan.

The trick is making sure you don’t take off too long and then struggle to get back on the horse.

Here’s a simple tip:

Make sure your language learning sessions with speaking partners are booked in advance. That way, you’re taking some highly beneficial time off, but not with a dangerous open end.

Step Seven: Build Your Own Vocabulary And Phrase Lists

Many people ask, “How long does it take to learn a new language?” I believe the answer should be that the journey never ends. 

But for those who are in a hurry, they often come across the idea of “frequency lists.” These are compilations of words that are used the most often in any given language. If you’re learning Spanish, these lists can be especially seductive.

And they definitely can be useful. In some cases, they will accelerate how quickly you can get started learning the language.

However, they’re also incredibly limited.

Why?

Because no maker of such lists can know what contexts you’ll find yourself in or what you’re going to want to talk about.

That’s why when you’re reading news stories and translating them, it’s important to focus on information that’s interesting and relevant to you. 

jeans with a piece of paper for writing a list in the pocket

Making your own lists of words and phrases to learn is incredibly important. Be prepared with paper or a journal to capture what you want and need to learn.

You’ll move along so much faster if you let yourself be informed by word lists, but also always take care to build your own. There are no “right” words to focus on and true fluency comes from being able to accomplish missions. 

Step Eight: Focus On Systems As Much As, If Not More Than Goals

Goals are important. But even more important are the systems that help ensure that you actually accomplish your language learning goals. 

Let’s say your goal is to learn 50 new words by the end of the week. Great! That’s perfectly realistic.

But it’s also meaningless if you haven’t sat down and charted out a systematic means of getting yourself to accomplish the memorization of those words. 

I suggest developing an if-this-then-that language learning habit stack. 

For example, let’s say you’ve developed a Memory Palace strategy and you’ve spent some time gathering the words you want to memorize. Your habit stack might look like this:

  • If I wake up, I go immediately to my learning place.
  • If I go to my learning place, I open my Memory Journal to the list of words I’ve prepared. 
  • If I have my list, I start with the first word and memorize it using Station One of the Memory Palace.
  • If I have memorized one word, I move on to the next. 
  • If I have memorized 10 words, I put my Memory Journal away and start mentally reviewing the words. 
  • If I have reviewed my words 3-5 times during the day, I test by writing them out by hand and speak them out loud. 

language learning habit

This is a little system that drives you towards completing the goal. And if you do something like this every day, by the end of the week, you will have memorized 50 words.

You might think even something as tight as this set of steps will take a long time. But nothing could be further from the truth. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder how you ever lived without such a simple and elegant system. 

Step Nine: Use The Language Every Day

Have you learned only one word so far?

No problem. Use it. 

Or do you have only a few hundred words?

The principle is the same. Use what you’ve got. 

Talk to yourself as you’re walking down the street.

Tell other people about the phrases you’ve learned and repeat them.

Sing songs in the language you’re learning.

Make your shopping lists in the language you’re learning instead of in your mother tongue. 

a couple singing to one another

Learning songs in a foreign language is a great way to learn vocabulary and phrases.

You need to get the words into the muscle memory of your mouth and your mind.

If you dedicate yourself, everything from brushing your teeth to tying your shoes and kissing your loved ones to sleep at night are excellent opportunities to practice.

Step Ten: Use History And Culture As Your “Secret Weapons”

As I’ve been learning German, Chinese and Sanskrit, I’ve made sure to not stop at the language itself. 

Reading novels, books of history and philosophy from the cultures not only gives you more exposure to the language. It helps you understand the historical and cultural forces that shaped it throughout history and continue to exert an influence.

I would also include serious study of geography and topics like social science.

Knowing about the region can help you understand a lot about how the language developed, and understanding issues related to psychographics can help you fall in love with certain matters of grammar.

This latter point is important because a lot of people waste time trying to understand the “why” of grammar instead of simply accepting it for what it is. 

grammar

That said, John McWhorter has shared some compelling reasons to believe that our language differences don’t distinguish us psychologically as much as we might believe.

 

These are interesting points to consider, and all arrive at the same benefits for you:

When you immerse yourself in the culture and its history, you’ll have more things to talk about with native speakers.

This point is especially important if you’re introverted or generally shy. But read widely and you’ll never be at a loss for conversation topics. 

Step Eleven: Don’t Take Yourself Too Seriously

A lot of people get hung up on little things when learning languages. They become perfectionists, without realizing that you need to make mistakes in order to learn. 

Develop the ability to laugh at yourself. If you struggle with self criticism, learn these Two Easily Remembered Questions That Silence Negative Thoughts. I’ve learned them in both English and Sanskrit, and that has been tremendously useful. 

A teacher giving corrections

Being able to give and receive criticism is a powerful skill when learning languages.

Also, don’t be afraid to give criticism.

For example, if a teacher is frustrating you by correcting you too often, ask them to scale it down.

When I submit writing to language teachers, I ask them to please point out just three errors. That way I can keep things light and fun and focus on the biggest aspects to improve without overwhelm. 

But if you meet people who can’t help you or make the journey too serious and destroy all the fun, find someone else. There are plenty of fish in the sea. 

Step Twelve: Be A Stickler About Pronunciation

Let me be honest with you:

Pronunciation has always been my biggest struggle when learning languages. It could be genetics. I’ve been tone deaf my entire life.

Yet, I have managed to learn to play multiple musical instruments and a few languages. 

Time and time again, I always wish I focused more on pronunciation. 

Enter a concept called “chorusing” that I learned from my friends at Outlier Linguistics.

Woman with headphones

“Chorusing” is a great way to improve your pronunciation.

In brief, this technique is the audio version of using flash cards.

Using recording software like Audacity, you record a native speaker speaking a word or phrase. Then you copy and paste it multiple times so you can hear it repeated and really dig into the nuances. 

Next, you record yourself speaking it on a separate track.

Since a good audio recorder will let you see the sound waves, you can try to make your voice match certain characteristics visually.

But the more important aspect with this technique is you are training your ear to hear yourself and correct your pronunciation through direct comparison. 

The time investment on this technique is admittedly intense. But it’s well worth the effort, especially if this is a weak point for you as it is for me. 

Step Thirteen: Use Cognates But Beware Of False Friends

Many languages have words that are the same or very similar.

In Spanish, for example, you’ll find thousands of words that are very close in sound and meaning to their English equivalents. You might also see these words referred to as “loan words.” 

spanish words

However, there are also a number of false cognates that mean very different things.

Always check so that you don’t wind up creating foundational errors that may be difficult to correct later. 

Step Fourteen: Add Another Language After You’ve Earned The First One

It’s normal to want to be a polyglot, or someone who speaks 3-5 languages well. But as far as I can tell, all the successful polyglots got there by being willing to establish mastery in just one language at a time. 

Once you’ve done that, you will be very well-versed in the meta learning skills that will help you proceed in leaps and bounds towards substantial speaking and understanding abilities. 

And then you can do cool things like what my friend Benny Lewis calls “laddering.” This technique is when you pick a textbook or course in a language you’ve already learned to start covering the next one.

For example, most of my sources of material for learning Chinese have been from books written in German. 

Chinese Character TextbookI love laddering, but am very glad I stuck with German long enough to enjoy great confidence speaking it before moving on. 

One exception to this suggestion that some people find useful is to spend some time learning Esperanto.

The reasoning here suggests that Esperanto is especially suited to helping learners understand more about how different languages work.

Frankly, I’m not convinced you have to become a grammarian or linguist in order to become fluent in a language. If anything, the world is packed with people who are experts in those topics who can’t even speak one other language. 

But if you’re still stuck, it might be worth looking into Esperanto for these reasons.

Or, you could look at a root language to see if it helps wake up your brain.

For example, a small amount of time learning Latin can open up Spanish or Italian for you to an incredible degree.

However, at the end of the day, the old saying that the hunter who chases two rabbits rarely catches either stands up here. Split your attention between more than one language only at great risk. 

Step Fifteen: Travel If You Can, But Don’t Make It A Must

I’ve been lucky and was able to spend years of my life in Germany. During that time, I made sure to live with people who spoke little or no English to make “total immersion” something from which I could not escape.

But I didn’t have the luxury of living in China when I first started learning the language. And it was absolutely not necessary.

In fact, after less than 3 months of studying the language, my time in the country was so distracting, I didn’t have time to study it at all. And that is typically what happens when you try to combine tourism with immersion. 

get to travel

Instead, use the tips on this page to create proper goals and the effective systems that will place you in the company of your target language each and every day.

Then, when you do get to travel, you can relax and focus on speaking and understanding much more around you. You’ll have earned it. 

The Best Ways To Learn A Language Begin And End With You And Your Strategy

A lot of people think that kids have some special advantage when it comes to learning a language. This couldn’t be further from the truth. 

In reality, kids take years to speak proper sentences, and many more to read and write at a sophisticated level.

But because adults have all kinds of skills in their mother language, impulse control and the levels of discipline needed to make it on the job market, you have a distinct advantage. 

You really just need to bring everything you know about being a mature and responsible adult to the process of learning a language. But that doesn’t mean you don’t bring childlike curiosity and fun to the game. 

The benefits of speaking a language are immense, ranging from higher salary to the brain health benefits of bilingualism. 

So what do you say? What language do you want to learn and are you feeling empowered now that you have these 15 power tips for learning it?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy