12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time — The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

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Preface by Tim Ferriss

I’ve written about how I learned to speak, read, and write Japanese, Mandarin, and Spanish. I’ve also covered my experiments with German, Indonesian, Arabic, Norwegian, Turkish, and perhaps a dozen others.

There are only few language learners who dazzle me, and Benny Lewis is one of them.

This definitive guest post by Benny will teach you:

  • How to speak your target language today.
  • How to reach fluency and exceed it within a few months.
  • How to pass yourself off as a native speaker.
  • And finally, how to tackle multiple languages to become a “polyglot”—all within a few years, perhaps as little as 1-2.

It contains TONS of amazing resources I never even knew existed, including the best free apps and websites for becoming fluent in record time. Want to find a native speaker to help you for $5 per hour? Free resources and memory tricks? It’s all here.

This is a post you all requested, so I hope you enjoy it!

Enter Benny

You are either born with the language-learning gene, or you aren’t. Luck of the draw, right?  At least, that’s what most people believe.

I think you can stack the deck in your favor. Years ago, I was a language learning dud. The worst in my German class in school, only able to speak English into my twenties, and even after six entire months living in Spain, I could barely muster up the courage to ask where the bathroom was in Spanish.

But this is about the point when I had an epiphany, changed my approach, and then succeeded not only in learning Spanish, but in getting a C2 (Mastery) diploma from the Instituto Cervantes, working as a professional translator in the language, and even being interviewed on the radio in Spanish to give travel tips. Since then, I moved on to other languages, and I can now speak more than a dozen languages to varying degrees between conversational and mastery.

It turns out, there is no language-learning gene, but there are tools and tricks for faster learning…

As a “polyglot”—someone who speaks multiple languages—my world has opened up. I have gained access to people and places that I never otherwise could have reached. I’ve made friends on a train in China through Mandarin, discussed politics with a desert dweller in Egyptian Arabic, discovered the wonders of deaf culture through ASL, invited the (female) president of Ireland to dance in Irish (Gaeilge) and talked about it on live Irish radio, interviewed Peruvian fabric makers about how they work in Quechua, interpreted between Hungarian and Portuguese at a social event… and well, had an extremely interesting decade traveling the world.

Such wonderful experiences are well within the reach of many of you.

Since you may be starting from a similar position to where I was (monolingual adult, checkered history with language learning, no idea where to start), I’m going to outline the tips that worked best for me as I went from zero to polyglot.

This very detailed post should give you everything you need to know.

So, let’s get started!

#1 – Learn the right words, the right way.

Starting a new language means learning new words. Lots of them.

Of course, many people cite a bad memory for learning new vocab, so they quit before even getting started.

But–here’s the key–you absolutely do not need to know all the words of a language to speak it (and in fact, you don’t know all the words of your mother tongue either).

As Tim pointed out in his own post on learning any language in 3 months, you can take advantage of the Pareto principle here, and realize that 20% of the effort you spend on acquiring new vocab could ultimately give you 80% comprehension in a language—for instance, in English just 300 words make up 65% of all written material. We use those words a lot, and that’s the case in every other language as well.

You can find pre-made flash card “decks” of these most frequent words (or words themed for a subject you are more likely to talk about) for studying on the Anki app (available for all computer platforms and smartphones) that you can download instantly. Good flashcard methods implement a spaced repetition system (SRS), which Anki automates. This means that rather than go through the same list of vocabulary in the same order every time, you see words at strategically spaced intervals, just before you would forget them.

Tim himself likes to use color-coded physical flashcards; some he purchases from Vis-Ed, others he makes himself. He showed me an example when I interviewed him about how he learns languages in the below video.

Though this entire video can give you great insight into Tim’s language learning approach, the part relevant to this point is at 27:40 (full transcript here).

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#2 – Learn cognates: your friend in every single language.

Believe it or not, you already—right now—have a huge head start in your target language. With language learning you always know at least some words before you ever begin. Starting a language “from scratch” is essentially impossible because of the vast amount of words you know already through cognates.

Cognates are “true friends” of words you recognize from your native language that mean the same thing in another language.

For instance, Romance languages like French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and others have many words in common with English. English initially “borrowed them” from the Norman conquest of England, which lasted several hundreds of years. Action, nation, precipitation, solution, frustration, tradition, communication, extinction, and thousands of other -tion words are spelled exactly the same in French, and you can quickly get used to the different pronunciation. Change that -tion to a -ción and you have the same words in Spanish. Italian is -zione and Portuguese is -ção.

Many languages also have words that share a common (Greek/Latin or other) root, which can be spelled slightly differently, but that you’d have to try hard not to recognize, such as exemple, hélicoptère (Fr), porto, capitano (Italian) astronomía, and Saturno (Spanish). German goes a step further and has many words from English’s past that it shares.

To find common words with the language you are learning, simply search for “[language name] cognates” or “[language name] English loan words” to see words they borrowed from us, and finally “[language name] words in English” to see words we borrowed from them.

That’s all well and good for European languages, but what about more distant ones?…

Well, it turns out that even languages as different as Japanese can have heaps of very familiar vocabulary. To show you what I mean, have a listen to this song (to the tune of Animaniac’s “Nations of the World”), which is sung entirely in Japanese, and yet you should understand pretty much everything that I and the other Japanese learners are singing:

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This is because many languages simply borrow English words and integrate them into the new language with altered pronunciation or stress.

So to make my life easy when I start learning a language, one of the first word lists I try to consume is a list of “cognates,” or “English loan words,” which can be found quickly for pretty much any language.

#3 – Interact in your language daily without traveling.

Another reason (or excuse, depending on how you look at it) people cite for not learning languages is that they can’t visit a country where it’s a native language.  No time, no money, etc.

Take it from me—there is nothing “in the air” in another country that will magically make you able to speak their language.  I’ve done a lot of experiments to prove this (e.g. learning Arabic while living in Brazil).

I’ve met countless expats who lived abroad for years without learning the local language. Living abroad and being immersed is not the same thing. If you need to hear and use a language consistently to be immersed, can’t virtual immersion be just as effective? Of course. Technology makes it possible for immersion to come to you, and you don’t even have to buy a plane ticket.

To hear the language consistently spoken, you can check out TuneIn.com for a vast selection of live-streamed radio from your country of choice. The app (free) also has a list of streamed radio stations ordered by language.

To watch the language consistently, see what’s trending on Youtube in that country right now. Go to that country’s equivalent URL for Amazon or Ebay (amazon.es, amazon.fr, amazon.co.jp, etc.) and buy your favorite TV series dubbed in that language, or get a local equivalent by seeing what’s on the top charts. You may be able to save shipping costs if you can find one locally that includes dubbing in the appropriate language. Various news stations also have plenty of video content online in specific languages, such as France24, Deutsche Welle, CNN Español, and many others.

To read the language consistently, in addition to the news sites listed above, you can find cool blogs and other popular sites on Alexa’s ranking of top sites per country.

And if full-on immersion isn’t your thing yet, there’s even a plugin for Chrome that eases you into the language by translating some parts of the sites you normally read in English, to sprinkle the odd word into your otherwise English reading.

#4 – Skype today for daily spoken practice.

So you’ve been listening to, watching, and even reading in your target language—and all in the comfort of your own home. Now it’s time for the big one: speaking it live with a native.

One of my more controversial pieces of advice, but one that I absolutely insist on when I advise beginners, is that you must speak the language right away if your goals in the target language involve speaking it.

Most traditional approaches or language systems don’t work this way, and I think that’s where they let their students down.  I say, there are seven days in a week and “some day” is not one of them.

Here’s what I suggest instead:

Use the pointers I’ve given above to learn some basic vocabulary, and be aware of some words you already know. Do this for a few hours, and then set up an exchange with a native speaker—someone who has spoken that language their whole life. You only have to learn a little for your first conversation, but if you use it immediately, you’ll see what’s missing and can add on from there. You can’t study in isolation until you are vaguely “ready” for interaction.

In those first few hours, I’d recommend learning some pleasantries such as “Hello,” “Thank you,” “Could you repeat that?” or “I don’t understand,” many of which you will find listed out here for most languages.

But wait—where do you find a native speaker if you aren’t in the country that speaks that language?

No problem! Thousands of native speakers are ready and waiting for you to talk to them right now. You can get private lessons for peanuts by taking advantage of currency differences. My favorite site for finding natives is italki.com (connect with my profile here), where I’ve gotten both Chinese and Japanese one-on-one Skype-based lessons for just $5 an hour.

If you still think you wouldn’t be ready on day one, then consider this: starting on Skype allows you to ease yourself in gently by having another window (or application, like Word) open during your conversation, already loaded with key words that you can use for quick reference until you internalize them. You can even reference Google Translate or a dictionary for that language while you chat, so you can learn new words as you go, when you need them.

Is this “cheating”? No. The goal is to learn to be functional, not to imitate old traditional methods. I’ve used the above shortcuts myself, and after learning Polish for just one hour for a trip to Warsaw to speak at TEDx about language learning, I was able to hold up a conversation (incredibly basic as it was) in Polish for an entire half hour.

I consider that a win.

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#5 – Save your money. The best resources are free.

Other than paying for the undivided attention of a native speaker, I don’t see why you’d need to spend hundreds of dollars on anything in language learning. I’ve tried Rosetta Stone myself and wasn’t impressed.

But there is great stuff out there. A wonderful and completely free course that keeps getting better is DuoLingo – which I highly recommend for its selection of European languages currently on offer, with more on the way. To really get you started on the many options available to help you learn your language without spending a penny, let me offer plenty of other (good) alternatives:

You really do have plenty of options when it comes to free resources, so I suggest you try out several and see which ones work well for you. The aforementioned italki is great for language exchanges and lessons, but My Language Exchange and Interpals are two other options. You can take it offline and see about language related meet-ups in your city through The Polyglot Club, or the meet-ups pages on Couchsurfing, meetup.com, and Internations. These meet-ups are also great opportunities to meet an international crowd of fellow language learning enthusiasts, as well as native speakers of your target language, for practice.

But wait, there’s more. You can get further completely free language help on:

  • The huge database on Forvo, to hear any word or small expression in many languages read aloud by a native of the language
  • Rhinospike to make requests of specific phrases you’d like to hear pronounced by a native speaker. If you can’t find something on either of these sites, Google Translate has a text-to-speech option for many languages.
  • Lang 8 to receive free written corrections.

The possibilities for free practice are endless.

#6 – Realize that adults are actually better language learners than kids.

Now that you’re armed with a ton of resources to get started, let’s tackle the biggest problem. Not grammar, not vocabulary, not a lack of resources, but handicapping misconceptions about your own learning potential.

The most common “I give up” misconception is: I’m too old to become fluent.

I’m glad to be the bearer of good news and tell you that research has confirmed that adults can be better language learners than kids. This study at the University of Haifa has found that under the right circumstances, adults show an intuition for unexplained grammar rules better than their younger counterparts. [Note from Tim: This is corroborated by the book In Other Words and work by Hakuta.]

Also, no study has ever shown any direct correlation between reduced language acquisition skill and increased age. There is only a general downward trend in language acquisition in adults, which is probably more dependent on environmental factors that can be changed (e.g. long job hours that crowd out study time). Something my friend Khatzumoto (alljapaneseallthetime.com) once said that I liked was, “Babies aren’t better language learners than you; they just have no escape routes.”

As adults, the good news is that we can emulate the immersion environment without having to travel, spend a lot of money, or revert back to childhood.

#7 – Expand your vocabulary with mnemonics.

Rote repetition isn’t enough.

And while it’s true that repeated exposure sometimes burns a word into your memory, it can be frustrating to forget a word that you’ve already heard a dozen times.

For this, I suggest coming up with mnemonics about your target word, which helps glue the word to your memory way more effectively. Basically, you tell yourself a funny, silly, or otherwise memorable story to associate with a particular word. You can come up with the mnemonic yourself, but a wonderful (and free) resource that I highly recommend is memrise.com.

For instance, let’s say you are learning Spanish and can’t seem to remember that “caber” means “to fit,” no matter how many times you see it. Why not come up with a clever association like the following one I found on Memrise:

This [caber -> cab, bear -> fitting a bear in a cab] association makes remembering the word a cinch.

It may sound like a lengthy process, but try it a few times, and you’ll quickly realize why it’s so effective. And you’ll only need to recall this hook a couple of times, and then you can ditch it when the word becomes a natural part of your ability to use the language quickly.

#8 – Embrace mistakes.

Over half of the planet speaks more than one language.

This means that monolingualism is a cultural, not a biological, consequence. So when adults (at least in the English speaking world) fail at language learning, it’s not because they don’t have the right genes or other such nonsense. It’s because the system they have used to learn languages is broken.

Traditional teaching methods treat language learning just like any other academic subject, based on an approach that has barely changed since the days when Charles Dickens was learning Latin. The differences between your native language (L1) and your target language (L2) are presented as vocabulary and grammar rules to memorize. The traditional idea: know them “all” and you know the language. It seems logical enough, right?

The problem is that you can’t ever truly “learn” a language, you get used to it. It’s not a thing that you know or don’t know; it’s a means of communication between human beings. Languages should not be acquired by rote alone—they need to be used.

The way you do this as a beginner is to use everything you do know with emphasis on communication rather than on perfection. This is the pivotal difference. Sure, you could wait until you are ready to say “Excuse me kind sir, could you direct me to the nearest bathroom?” but “Bathroom where?” actually conveys the same essential information, only removing superfluous pleasantries. You will be forgiven for this directness, because it’s always obvious that you are a learner.

Don’t worry about upsetting native speakers for being so “bold” as to speak to them in their own language.

One of the best things you can do in the initial stages is not to try to get everything perfect, but to embrace making mistakes. I go out of my way to make at least 200 mistakes a day! This way I know I am truly using and practicing the language.

[TIM: I actually view part of my role as that of comedian or court jester–to make native speakers chuckle at my Tarzan speak. If you make people smile, it will make you popular, which will make you enthusiastic to continue.]

#9 – Create SMART goals.

Another failing of most learning approaches is a poorly defined end-goal.

We tend to have New Year’s Resolutions along the lines of “Learn Spanish,” but how do you know when you’ve succeeded? If this is your goal, how can you know when you’ve reached it?

Vague end goals like this are endless pits (e.g. “I’m not ready yet, because I haven’t learned the entire language”).

S.M.A.R.T. goals on the other hand are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

To start developing your SMART goal in a language, I highly recommend you become somewhat familiar with the European Common Framework that defines language levels. This framework provides you with a way of setting specific language goals and measuring your own progress.

In brief, A means beginner, B means intermediate, and C means advanced, and each level is broken up into lower (1) and upper (2) categories. So an upper beginner speaker is A2, and a lower advanced speaker is C1. As well as being Specific, these levels are absolutely Measurable because officially recognized institutions can test you on them and provide diplomas (no course enrollment necessary) in German, French, Spanish, Irish, and each other official European language. While the same scale is not used, you can also get tested in a similar way in Chinese and Japanese.

So what do you aim for? And what do words like “fluency” and “mastery” mean on a practical level?

I’ve talked to many people to try to pinpoint the never-agreed-upon understanding of “fluency,” and I’ve found that it tends to average out around the B2 level (upper intermediate). This effectively means that you have “social equivalency” with your native language, which means that you can live in your target language in social situations in much the same way that you would in your native language, such as casual chats with friends in a bar, asking what people did over the weekend, sharing your aspirations and relating to people.

Since we are being specific, it’s also important to point out that this does not require that you can work professionally in a language (in my case, as an engineer or public speaker, for instance). That would be mastery level (generally C2).

Though I’ve reached the C2 stage myself in French, Spanish and am close to it in other languages, realistically I only really need to be socially equivalent in a language I want to communicate in. I don’t need to work in other languages.  It’s essential that you keep your priorities clear to avoid frustration.  Most of the time, just target B2.

To make your specific goal Attainable, you can break it down further. For example, I’ve found that the fluency (B2) level can be achieved in a matter of months, as long as you are focused on the spoken aspect.

In phonetic languages (like most European ones), you can actually learn to read along with speaking, so you get this effectively for free. But realistically, we tend to write emails and text messages—not essays—on a day-to-day basis (unless you are a writer by trade, and you may not have those goals with your L2). Focusing on speaking and listening (and maybe reading) makes fluency in a few months much more realistic.

Finally, to make your project Time-bound, I highly recommend a short end-point of a few months.

Keeping it a year or more away is far too distant, and your plans may as well be unbound at that point. Three months has worked great for me, but 6 weeks or 4 months could be your ideal point. Pick a definite point in the not too distant future (summer vacation, your birthday, when a family member will visit), aim to reach your target by this time, and work your ass off to make it happen.

To help you be smarter with your goals, make sure to track your progress and use an app like Lift to track completing daily essential tasks.

You can join the Lift plan for language learning that I wrote for their users here.

#10 – Jump from Conversational (B1) to Mastery (C2).

The way I reach spoken fluency quickly is to get a hell of a lot of spoken practice.

From day one to day 90 (and beyond), I speak at least an hour a day in my L2, and my study time is tailored around the spoken sessions to make sure that my conversation is what’s improving—not just my “general language skills” through some vague list of words I may never use.

So, for instance, I may start a session by asking what my native friend or teacher did over the weekend, and tell them what I did. Then I will share something that is on my mind lately and attempt to express my opinion on it, or allow the native speaker to introduce a new topic. It’s important to take an active role and make sure you are having varied conversations. Have a list of topics you would like to discuss and bring them up (your hobbies, hopes for the future, dislikes, what you will do on your vacation etc.) and make sure the conversation is constantly progressing.

Lots of practice and study to improve those spoken sessions tends to get me to lower intermediate (B1) level, which means I can understand the other person speaking to me fine as long as they are willing to speak clearly and adjust to my level and mistakes. It’s a LOT of work, mind you! On typical learning days I can be filled with frustration or feel like my brain is melting when–in fact–I’m truly making a lot of progress.

But the work is totally worth it when you have your first successful conversation with a native speaker. You’ll be thrilled beyond belief.

To see what this B1 level looks like, check out these videos of me chatting to a native in Arabic (in person with my italki teacher!), and in Mandarin with my friend Yangyang about how she got into working as a TV show host:

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At this level, I still make plenty of mistakes of course, but they don’t hinder communication too much.

But to get over that plateau of just “good enough,” this is the point where I tend to return to academic material and grammar books, to tidy up what I have. I find I understand the grammar much better once I’m already speaking the language. This approach really works for me, but there is no one best language-learning approach. For instance, Tim has had great success by grammatically deconstructing a language right from the start. Your approach will depend entirely on your personality.

After lots of exercises to tidy up my mistakes at the B1 level, I find that I can break into B2.

At the B2 stage you can really have fun in the language! You can socialize and have any typical conversation that you’d like.

To get into the mastery C1/C2 levels though, the requirements are very different. You’ll have to start reading newspapers, technical blog posts, or other articles that won’t exactly be “light reading.”

To get this high-level practice, I’ve subscribed to newspapers on my Kindle that I try to read every day from various major news outlets around the world. Here are the top newspapers in Europe, South America and Asia. After reading up on various topics, I like to get an experienced professional (and ideally pedantic) teacher to grill me on the topic, to force me out of my comfort zone, and make sure I’m using precisely the right words, rather than simply making myself understood.

To show you what a higher level looks like, here is a chat I had with my Quebec Couchsurfer about the fascinating cultural and linguistic differences between Quebec and France (I would have been at a C1 level at this stage):

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Reaching the C2 level can be extremely difficult.

For instance, I sat a C2 exam in German, and managed to hold my ground for the oral component, when I had to talk about deforestation for ten minutes, but I failed the exam on the listening component, showing me that I needed to be focused and pay attention to complicated radio interviews or podcasts at that level if I wanted to pass the exam in future.

#11 – Learn to sound more native.

At C2, you are as good as a native speaker in how you can work and interact in the language, but you may still have an accent and make the odd mistake.

I have been mistaken for a native speaker of my L2 several times (in Spanish, French and Portuguese – including when I was still at the B2/fluent level), and I can say that it’s a lot less related to your language level, and more related to two other factors.

First, your accent/intonation

Accent is obvious; if you can’t roll your R in Spanish you will be recognized as a foreigner instantly.

Your tongue muscles are not set in their ways forever, and you can learn the very few new sounds that your L2 requires that you learn. Time with a native, a good Youtube video explaining the sounds, and practice for a few hours may be all that you need!

What is much more important, but often overlooked, is intonation—the pitch, rise, fall, and stress of your words. When I was writing my book, I interviewed fellow polyglot Luca who is very effective in adapting a convincing accent in his target languages. For this, intonation is pivotal.

Luca trains himself from the very start to mimic the musicality and rhythm of a language’s natives by visualizing the sentences. For instance, if you really listen to it, the word “France” sounds different in “I want to go to France” (downward intonation) and “France is a beautiful country (intonation raising upwards). When you repeat sentences in your L2, you have to mimic the musicality of them.

My own French teacher pointed out a mistake I was making along these same lines.

I was trying to raise my intonation before pauses, which is a feature of French that occurs much more frequently than in English, but I was overdoing it and applying it to the ends of sentences as well. This made my sentences sound incomplete, and when my teacher trained me to stop doing this, I was told that I sounded way more French.

You can make these changes by focusing on the sounds of a language rather than just on the words.

Truly listen to and and mimic audio from natives, have them correct your biggest mistakes and drill the mistakes out of you. I had an accent trainer show me how this worked, and I found out some fascinating differences between my own Irish accent and American accents in the process! To see for yourself how the process works, check out the second half of this post with Soundcloud samples.

Second, walk like an Egyptian

The second factor that influences whether or not you could be confused for a native speaker, involves working on your social and cultural integration. This is often overlooked, but has made a world of difference to me, even in my early stages of speaking several languages.

For instance, when I first arrived in Egypt with lower intermediate Egyptian Arabic, I was disheartened that most people would speak English to me (in Cairo) before I even had a chance for my Arabic to shine. It’s easy to say that I’m too white to ever be confused for an Egyptian, but there’s more to it than that.

They took one look at me, saw how foreign I obviously was, and this overshadowed what language I was actually speaking to them.

To get around this problem, I sat down at a busy pedestrian intersection with a pen and paper and made a note of everything that made Egyptian men about my age different from me. How they walked, how they used their hands, the clothing they wore, their facial expressions, the volume they’d speak at, how they’d groom themselves, and much more. I found that I needed to let some stubble grow out, ditch my bright light clothes for darker and heavy ones (despite the temperature), exchange my trainers for dull black shoes, ditch my hat (I never saw anyone with hats), walk much more confidently, and change my facial expressions.

The transformation was incredible! Every single person for the rest of my time in Egypt would start speaking to me in Arabic, including in touristy parts of town where they spoke excellent English and would be well used to spotting tourists. This transformation allowed me to walk from the Nile to the Pyramids without any hassle from touts and make the experience all about the fascinating people I met.

Try it yourself, and you’ll see what I mean—once you start paying attention, the physical social differences will become easy to spot.

You can observe people directly, or watch videos of natives you’d like to emulate from a target country. Really try to analyze everything that someone of your age and gender is doing, and see if you can mimic it next time you are speaking.

Imitation is, after all, the most sincere form of flattery!

#12 – Become a polyglot.

This post has been an extremely detailed look at starting off and trying to reach mastery in a foreign language (and even passing yourself off as a native of that country).

If your ultimate goal is to speak multiple languages, you can repeat this process over multiple times, but I highly recommend you focus on one language at a time until you reach at least the intermediate level. Take each language one by one, until you reach a stage where you know you can confidently use it. And then you may just be ready for the next ones!

While you can do a lot in a few months, if you want to speak a language for the rest of your life it requires constant practice, improvement, and living your life through it as often as you can. But the good news is — once you reach fluency in a language, it tends to stick with you pretty well.

Also, keep in mind that while the tips in this article are an excellent place to start, there is a huge community of “polyglots” online willing to offer you their own encouragement as well. A bunch of us came together in this remix, “Skype me Maybe.”

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I share several more stories about these polyglots and dive into much greater detail about how to learn languages in my newly released book Fluent in 3 Months. Grab a copy, or check out my site for inspiration to start your adventure in becoming fluent in a new language—or several.

Ganbatte!

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Question of the Day: What tools or approaches have you used for learning languages? Please share in the comments!

Posted on: March 21, 2014.

Please check out Tools of Titans, my new book, which shares the tactics, routines, and habits of billionaires, icons, and world-class performers. It was distilled from more than 10,000 pages of notes, and everything has been vetted and tested in my own life in some fashion. The tips and tricks in Tools of Titans changed my life, and I hope the same for you. Click here for sample chapters, full details, and a Foreword from Arnold Schwarzenegger!

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371 comments on “12 Rules for Learning Foreign Languages in Record Time — The Only Post You’ll Ever Need

  1. One of the best posts I’ve seen on any blog. Great work Tim and Benny!

    A few follow up questions – for #1, what is the ‘right’ number of words to target to achieve 80/20 for a given language? Where do you find the list? Is there such a thing as a ‘correct’ list or are they all pretty much the same?

    Like

    • I’m not one to obsess over counting precisely how many words I learn. “As much as possible” is always the answer I’d give. You can find some “most frequent words” included in the public decks on Anki. Otherwise, you may find it with some googling, depending on the language. Generally, I add to the generic list, since there are too many words relevant to me personally that I never find on that list (blogger, Irish, etc.)

      Like

  2. Benny, vou escrever em português porque é minha língua materna (sou brasileiro). Me sinto realizado em ter entendido tudo neste “post”. Penso que estou em um dos dois níveis intermediários: B1 ou B2 em inglês.

    Agora, deixe-me tentar em inglês: I actualy feel comfortable everytime I had a social conversation in english. This post encourage me to pratice in a daily routine in order to move to a consistent B2 or even a C1 level. Thanks for sharing with us, I am here if you want to practice Brazillian Portuguese in a “carioca” accent.

    Like

  3. Does anyone have a good recommendation on a program that lets you record what you are doing on a computer screen with audio? I used Microsoft Encoder, but its download time is extremely slow. I really need to cut down on my in person training. Any suggestions would be much appreciated.

    Like

  4. Je suis désolé que tu n’ai rencontré que des français arrogants et ne supportant pas que l’on ne parle pas leur langue à 100%. Quand tu passera à Paris, fais moi signe, nous pourrons discuter quel que soit ton niveau de français (qui me semble très bon).
    Bravo pour ton interview de Yangyang. J’essaie d’apprendre lechinois depuis quelques années et jai du mal a comprendre ce qu’elle dit même si j’entends bien qu’elle n’emploie que des mots simples. Mais je persévère et vais suivre tes conseils.
    Amicalement
    Yves

    Like

  5. Another great few tips if you want them are to invite Couchsurfers to stay, particularly from countries whose languages you want to learn. I’ve got a French woman coming to stay next week.

    Also, I haven’t tried it, but it makes sense: Post it notes on everything in your house naming them in another language.

    Like

  6. Benny! Saw this on my Facebook feed – I remember our brief CS interaction, you as my first host in Prague ’09, and sitting down for a few hours to discuss languages! So great to see how your work has progressed – Kudos on this comprehensive overview!! Também parece q a gente tem mais línguas em comum agora! Kk should catch up sometime!

    For those concerned with titles, this sociolinguist approves the above post!

    BRAVO Benny!

    Like

  7. Benny, as an American who lived in Poland for eight years, it was fascinating to watch your first lesson in this devilishly difficult Slavic language. You learned more Polish in a couple hours than I did in 6 months! I arrived in Poland in 1992 not speaking a word of Polish, and with poor language learning skills. No one spoke English, so I was forced to learn very basic Polish words just for everyday activities. The stores back then were leftovers from the Communist era, meaning all items were behind a counter, and if you wanted something, you had to ask for it! I immediately learned how to say “Please” and “Yes.” Now I could point to things & say Please. This created dozens of interactions wherein the shop clerk, invariably female but not always in the best humor, would tap various items until I indicated by hand or other motions which item I needed. This could be funny for a short time if there wasn’t much of a line, but got totally stressful if there was a big line behind me & everyone was waiting for the stupid foreigner to hurry up & buy his milk. I gradually picked up Polish in a slow motion version of your language learning technique. First, I learned the most important words, i.e. numbers, foods, introductions, to be, to have. It was slow going, and for months my daily interaction with the Polish language was limited as I was an English teacher. But, I did interact while shopping. I made lots of mistakes, and decided this didn’t bother me. If I learned 4 words, I’d try to string them together into a phrase, maybe someone would understand. My only goal was speaking. I was surrounded by the language whenever I left the school, and slowly became attuned to the music of Polish. I practiced telling time by walking up to men on the street and saying “Excuse me, sir, what is the time, please?” Occasionally, I’d ask stupid questions of total strangers. One night at a bus stop I asked a man if he liked Lech Walesa, Poland’s then President. With a scowl, he answered “I don’t know, I don’t know him.” I had an argument in 10 words at the local post office when I went to return a letter than was sent from abroad, but was addressed to someone else. Not my address, I kept repeating. To my astonishment, the postal clerk opened up the letter, took a quick look at the contents & threw it into a pile. Shocked at this brazen disregard of privacy, I told everyone about the incident. The Americans were aghast, the Poles just shrugged, censorship had only been lifted a couple years earlier. Getting back to language learning, after 2 years I decided to get serious about Polish & signed up for a year-long course designed to prepare foreign students to study at Polish universities. 6 years into my stay, I started translating contracts & legal opinions. I became a good translator focusing on tax & legal, but if the guys started talking about cars, I couldn’t follow the conversation as I took the bus. Your blog post has inspired me to get serious again about learning another language. This time I’ll try your method instead of the slow, haphazard process of my experience in Poland. My target language is Ukrainian – I’ll check back in a few months & let you know what I’ve accomplished. Thanks!

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  8. Benny, this article was amazing! I came across it from Hacker News and it has truly inspired me to start back into language learning. I have always been very INTERESTED in language, and took 6 years of Spanish in school. I spent a week and a half in Peru back then where I could understand the gist of conversations around me, but froze up when trying to speak, like I was in Freshmen year Public Speakin class again.

    Since those days of college my Spanish has deteriorated, but since reading this post a few days ago and taking notes on it and making lists of the different resource links, I am genuinely inspired and determined to have another go at it, with a different perspective, different methodolgy.

    Thanks man!

    Like

    • I’m going to make one in the next week, since I’ve been getting a lot of requests for this. I’ll announce the link to it on my email list (top-right of the site). Hope that helps!

      Like

  9. Great article-
    You both give me hope for expanding my glotness!
    I wanted to throw a couple additional fun ways to practice language I’ve found:

    1.) There are iPhone Apps by Mindsnacks that have numerous games in every edition that help you work on your vocab and phrases. I promise I have nothing to do with them, just enjoy using the Spanish one right now.

    2.) Another awesome way I found to work on my Spanish is through dating sites. I knew I was going to Colombia for Christmas, so I joined a Colombian dating site. I could chat with the girls on the site in Spanish, and do quick “cut and paste” searches for translations before replying whenever I got lost (in translation 😉 ) Anyway, I got to chat with multiple beautiful women (they grow on trees in Colombia), and even went on a couple of dates once there. My only regrets – not practicing Spanish and Salsa more before I got there.

    Like

  10. wow ur article is awesome.
    especially about the egyptian point.
    they will spot that u are foreigner by the way u dress and walk.
    because ive been there too.
    just like u.
    have basic about arabic but never use with arabs community.
    😀

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  11. I’m currently trying to learn Spanish and I have Rosetta Stone that I got a few years ago. Since I have the program, I’m going to finish it. This article has been enlightening and I will incorporate much of these techniques.

    Like

    • I have Rossetta Stone for Chinese. It’s not good. I imagine Rossetta Stone will work better for Romance Languages Their method for teaching the characters was confusing..

      Like

  12. Really interesting article. Wondering if you have any useful links for Dutch language tools such as flashcards and such? I find lots of free stuff for French, Spanish, Italian , but Dutch seems to be one of the least covered main EU languages out there!

    Like

    • Where do you live!? Because if you are in Montreal there is a library only with languages books (a real paradise). The name is: Librairie Michel Fortin…it’s at sherbrooke station. If you are too far from Montreal, well when you’ll come you’ll know where to go 😉

      Like

  13. Polyglots like Benny never cease to amaze me. I’d be interested in hearing a bit more about how acquiring new language skills have helped others to do business in other countries.

    What would some of you say to a person who maintains that it is probably a better idea to hire a native speaker than to try the DIY route? (Here, I have in mind the idea of someone who wants to do business in China, and aspires to learning Mandarin)

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    • 100% agree that — for business negotiations — it’s better to hire a local, even if you speak perfectly. Better still, negotiate in English (or your native tongue), if you can. I never learn languages for business purposes; it weakens your position, and you can be blamed after-the-fact for “not understanding,” even if you understood perfectly, and they simply chose to breach contract. Caveat emptor.

      Like

      • Cheers, Tim. Can I also add, as one who has been pretty successful in running a business in SE Asia, that we shouldn’t forget that many clients NEED someone whose English is on-point.

        Many successful entrepreneurs there already know how to tap into the indigenous population (that’s why they’re successful!); however, reaching expats and younger generations, both of whom usually have a greater command of English, is a challenge.

        So, by all means, pick up a language, but don’t forget the power of English…most of Asia is only too eager to learn.

        Like

  14. Brilliant synopsis. I say do away with college language classes entirely and force students to study abroad. 2 hours with a single tutor in the morning and then — on your own to explore, meet people, stumble around, buy some beer or bread or a pair of pants, fall in love (for a week or two max), and just get that lumpy gravy brain feeling down. One day you’ll be dreaming in the other language and then you know your brain has added the extra channel. Used to take me a few months, but now two to three weeks depending how patient the locals are with my incoherent ramblings and questions.

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  15. This is one of the most fascinating posts I’ve read on Languages. Simple but effective advice – thinking outside of the box and away from conventional wisdom.

    Thank you for your advice, paying it forward, and enabling others to pay it forward.

    (Same goes to you Tim, thanks for bringing Benny by!)

    Like

  16. Sounding native is what i’m still struggling in English after 7 years of learning and using it — will follow your advise and will see what happens:)

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  17. What I like the most from Benny is that he really doesn’t care about making mistakes and saying what he thinks about everything. I admire him a lot for this! It’s great also how he deals with everything, time management, having fun, helping others, living life on his own terms! That’s awesome! See you in Berlin! 🙂

    Like

  18. Hey, this is a really cool post, it’s given me some great ideas on how to improve my own language learning! Some of the simple things, like just getting TuneIn radio, makes accessing foreign language speakers a lot easier.
    One thing I would say is that where you have written about cognates, there is a key element behind that, and that is being well read in various different types of writing, both in your own language and foreign languages. Having a large English vocabulary makes spotting cognates in other languages so much easier, as it is easier to compare the stems of the words and thus produce that link. I wrote a little about that on our blog recently-check ou the link above and then click blog if you are interested.
    Once again, awesome blog!

    Like

  19. “You can make these changes by focusing on the sounds of a language rather than just on the words.”

    Awesome advice. Tonality and the sounds themselves are often overlooked. When I started learning Spanish I had a lot of serious difficulty until I mastered the sounds.

    Outstanding post.

    Like

  20. I’ve found that for Spanish the quality of the Anki decks is poor. Additionally very few have audio so you’ve go no way to check the correct pronunciation when revising.

    Like

    • If you are learning Spanish from a textbook, I would use the chapter vocabulary to input into Anki. You can create your own Anki. I find that Anki works better, if you are learning vocabulary within the context of a phrase, dialogue or general text. Pulling vocabulary out of the air from a dictionary is the worst approach for vocab memorization.

      Also, I use Google translate for pronunciation, if I don’t have the audio available.

      Like

    • I’d say that Anki is only as good a tool as you make it. When I used it, I used a small public deck of words to start and then added my own. It doesn’t take that long when you get into the routine of doing it, make sure you use the tab button to move down boxes, and it means that you have a reference point to the words, so you know the context with which you have translated them. Typing them up also helps you to remember them!

      Like

      • Agreed – I almost exclusively use my own Anki decks when I’m intensively learning a language. Usually I find someone on oDesk who is affordable, train them in how it’s done, and they create the decks for me based on my notes of what I’ve learned that week. In the last three projects (Arabic, Japanese and Mandarin), I hired a native speaker who added in audio of them speaking the word/phrase too. Well worth the investment!

        In this case, the content of the publicly available decks is irrelevant.

        Like

  21. Wow, this was a great post indeed. I also never believed that there was such a thing as a language-learning gene – I always thought people who said that were just unwilling to get out of their bubble and try a little harder. Language is not like math or science, it requires at least a dose of expressiveness.
    Thank you for taking the time to write this.

    Like

  22. Great list. However, different people have different ways of learning. For example, my friend ( a ploygot) learns languages by listening to music. He learns all the vocabulary from the lyrics. He uses the lyric approach to learning, only after he has learned the grammar basic of the target language. He also goes out of his way to chat with native speakers early on.

    Me? I find myself using textbooks to learn along with television programs and language journals. I only chat with native speakers after I have acquired a certain skill level.

    The key to language learning is about how much time you are willing to spend with the language. Listening to the language daily is especially important to building comprehension.

    Like

  23. Love to see my two favorite bloggers collaborating! This is a great article benny, thanks for all the new resources. By the way, starting your book tomorrow! 🙂

    Like

  24. Wow! I find this article very informative. Superb writing! Communication skills with various languages spoken is as awesome as the writer itself! Touring different countries in the world is every human being’s dream. Bravo!

    Like

  25. Do the rules change if a person is learning a spoken language, but substantially hearing impaired?

    I speak (and can hear) english, know ASL and SEE, but speak with a heavily affected accent.

    Like

  26. What a insightful Article! Benny you are really a language genius! Here I also want to share a few tips for learning Mandarin Chinese:

    1. I’ve been learning Chinese for almost a year now. I had tried stuff like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur etc., unfortunately they didn’t work out for me. Until I found a online Skype tutor [Moderator: Link Removed], I started to feel I’m learning something. They are really professional and patient! The rate is also reasonable, so just check it out!
    2. For me, I’m studying 30 minutes to one hour a day depending on how busy my schedule is, which includes twice a week one hour online tutoring with my tutor.
    3. Also I found self-made flashcards extremely helpful to my learning.

    My teacher also told me vocabulary building is the key to learning a language well. Since Chinese is a pictograph language, she helped building my vocabulary by adapting the radical-teaching approach, in which she introduced different parts(radicals) of a character to help understanding as well as memorizing. Research shows that with 1200 Chinese characters will cover 90% of understanding.

    Like

  27. This is brilliant Benny. This reminds me for the first time I went to Cork from Ireland outside Cork. It took me months to learn Corkonian.

    Like

  28. One of the best post i ever seen on the “learning a language”. I’m french and I’m currently learning spanish in prevision of a long trip to south america at the end of this year. I already downloaded Anki to get started with basic vocabulary ! An italki seems pretty great to get started with speaking.
    Thx Tim and Benny for this amazing post 🙂

    Like

  29. Awesome post. I am headed to Italy for the summer and have been using Pimsluer Approach for several weeks 30 minutes a day and I have to say I have gotten further than I thought. I did just order the flash cards because I want to increase my speed of learning.

    Benny I plan on taking an intensive class when I get to Italy. Would you suggest one on one with a native speaker or a group class for best results?

    Like

    • Definitely one-on-one for best results! If you are in Italy when you do it, you can get an affordable but helpful teacher. Group classes work for some people, but for most people it’s either too fast, too slow, or too boring. The teacher should be catering to YOUR needs, not the crowds needs.

      Like

  30. I’d really appreciate your post! I needed something like this. I speak 6 languages (one mother tongue), and every time is easier for me to learn a new one, but it takes me a lot of time (2 or 3 years). My target was 10 languages before the 50s, but now, I’m really optimistic to reach it in 4 years!

    I’ll be checking your blog!

    Cheers!

    Like

  31. This is quite an interesting topic. I am a teacher of English as a second language and I have learned to speak 4 languages fluently (Russian, English, Spanish and Hebrew). The latest language I learned was Spanish and I learned it while I was taking a teacher’s training course. Some of the advice here I completely back up, like for example when it comes to finding opportunities to practice with native speakers in language clubs and on Skype. But there is an element that is missing in all of this and that’s the functionality of the language that you’re actually learning. Will I be understood? Will people understand me? One of the things I teach my students when I teach English is not just grammar and vocabulary but also how speakers can make what they say to mean what they want it to mean. That is, how what they say will actually be interpreted and how they can use grammar and vocabulary to come across the way they want.

    As far as my own experience with learning Spanish, that kind of language teaching is incredibly difficult to come by. I live in Spain and I have become fluent in Spanish in about 8 months (building on the 16 months that I spent learning prior to that). Most of the people I meet for language exchange purposes are seriously baffled by the kind of questions and observations I make about accurate expression. They are baffled, because they’ve never noticed such important details because no one pointed them out to them before. My conclusion is that, unfortunately, it does take a lot of lost time and searching effort to find what you need in order to improve effective communication. That is, unless you come across a good teacher. There is nothing that can replace that. Fortunately, sometimes that person can sometimes be your own self. In my case, even though my teaching training didn’t teach me Spanish directly, they influenced the methods I was using to teach myself.

    Take that a step further, what interests me, is how effective you have found your method to be. My measure for effective communication is how easy/difficult it is to get by. In terms of my experience, I always want to know why in certain situations, while not using any expressions or terms I don’t know, native speakers of Spanish can get by in a given situation with much less difficulty than I can (and visa versa with English and Russian, in both of which I am perfectly bilingual).

    Question to Mr. Benny Lewis (and Tim Ferris? not sure who the authors are here): What is your measure for how effective your language learning method is? To what degree have you tested you language learning skills? And what difficulties have you come across as far as actually being to take the languages that you’ve learned and make them functional, effective, and get you the communication results that you want? Have you ever actually taught any languages? That is, are there any students for whom you have taken the responsibility of teaching? (If you have, how has your experience been and which of the pieces of advice above did you find to be most useful?)

    Lastly, to the authors, being polyglots have you learned any of the languages I speak fluently as a second language? Would you mind having a brief conversation with me over Skype in that language?

    Like

  32. It’s a very interesting approach to methods of learning. I liked a lot of things in this article and I have to reach the intermediate level of Chinese for september, I think I’ll try a few of your suggestions. Thank you ^^

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  33. Hi Tim. If you are a flashcards type of guy you should try memrise.com . It will make your language learning more efficient.

    Like

    • Great idea David! There are some fun tools to learn languages through music (depends on which language; otherwise Youtubing karaoke and song title does wonders). Keep up the great work!

      Like

  34. I hate the polys ;))))

    Had a client once who was a Turkish jew – Hebrew on the phone with his father, Turkish on the other phone with his brother, Italian with his Italian secretary in Geneva, French with the client and English with me – but all in one breath ;)))) All was well until an East German turned up – who had no English but German and Russian – oh and Serbian electrical team

    Now off to learn mandarin ;))) – there are a dozen or so speakers nearby, and Beijing is obvious ‘common’ word other than gwialo

    Like

  35. Very interesting read as always.
    My better half is Argentinian and speaks english like a native.
    Was amusing on our last holiday in Bariloche, people would hear her speak to me in english, then in spanish to her mother and comment on how good her spanish was.

    It is amazing how some can become flawless in the acquired language and yet others can still have strong accents even after 20 years in a country.

    Looking forward to your upcoming guest post with Gabe, he has been doing some very interesting stuff also.
    cheers

    Like

  36. I enjoyed this a lot…I am writing from my experiences and my recent ways that I have learned how to speak 6 languages and how I worked in 5 of those languages… your ideas have helped me to concrete my process of steps that I am writing for how i learned my 6. thanks…i would like to pick your brain anytime bamtoro6 is my skype. thanks.

    Like

  37. I make my own flashcards for learning new languages by using Slide Show on MS PowerPoint. Make a slide show of 10-20 new words. Fly in the new word, wait a few seconds, fly in the translation. Rotate through as much as you want or have time for. I also break it up into smaller shows using “custom shows” for a few words, then put it all together after the subsections are learned. This procedure really works great and is easy to set up. Thank you for your time.

    Like

  38. This is honestly one of the most entertaining blogs I’ve read on this subject. So many of the other language and translation blogs are just an absolute bore. Thank you!! Seriously good read.

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  39. yes, great article. it is nice to know there is still hope to be bilingual. i am a mother who is raising her children to be bilingual when i am monolingual. i created JINGLE BILINGUAL out of a need to help in raising kids to be bilingual.
    jingle bilingual is a series of animated bilingual jingles ( now in 4 difference languages).. you can view them on YOUTUBE – just do a search for JINGLE BILINGUAL – would love any input!!

    Like

  40. Great summary! Thanks, Tim and Benny!
    I can recommend a language learning method developed by Vera F. Birkenbihl which uses passive listening and is very helpful for getting the language melody right.
    Here a brief summary: http://www.ludwiglingg.ch/MethodEnglish.pdf
    In German, there is also a highly recommendable short book by her with lots of helpful tips called “Sprachen lernen leicht gemacht”.
    I speak six foreign languages, 2 C, 2 B and 2 A. Next goal is to learn Bangla as I am doing a research project in Bangladesh. If anyone has particular advice on this, let me know!
    Cheers,
    Sabine

    Like

  41. Comment peut on enseigner l’anglais et l’espagnol a des jeunes enfants au Quebec dans un contexte ou ces langues ne sont pas parlées par la population en general?

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  42. I really enjoyed your post and I truly believe that the most important things is to go through the breaking point. Before that you are insecure and afraid to speak. Everyone finds his own breaking point, after you go through that stage (hopefully fast) you will start learning much faster and effective.

    I am speaking Mandarin now. Went through my breaking point thanks to my girlfriend who doesn’t speak English.

    I am also using flashcards to memorize vocabulary and try to make sentences with the new words asap instead of writing them down over and over again.

    Any recommendations about Flashcard apps except Anki?

    If you want to learn Bulgarian you can send me email 🙂

    Great job.
    Thanks for the info?

    Like

    • For Chinese specifically, if you want to learn to write it, Skritter is a great app that integrates SRS. I would still use Anki with a pinyin specific deck to speak well first (if that’s your priority).

      Like

  43. duolingo is probably the best app I’ve ever seen in the google play! I’m learning spanish , italian, french and german from it! it is awesome for the beginning! Thank you fou your hepl! I wanna be like you when I grow up lol!!!

    Like

  44. Hi Benny!

    Thanks for this amazing article! I will definitely try this when I will learn Italian!

    I am also a polyglott (7 languages) and I lost my mastery in German. I used to speak and write a C1 level, and I learnt Dutch and it totally confused me.
    Every time I speak German now, I am very frustrated, and annoyed because words don’t come the same way and consequently I speak less of it. I kind of block myself with ” crap, I lost my German” which acts probably as a self-fulling prophecy.

    I guess one starting point could be finding einen Französichlehrenden Deutschen for skype practise in one of the free resources you suggest.

    Any other ideas?
    S

    Like

    • One thing that helped me immensely to not mix up my German and Dutch was to buy a book *in German* ABOUT Dutch. We call this “laddering”, and it’s an effective way to compartmentalize 2 languages – by using both at the same time in a way. By doing this the source language teaching book is also more effective in pointing out the differences between that 2nd language and your third language, without involving your first language.

      Rather than saying you “lost” your German, think of it as just needing the rust removed 😉

      Hope that helps – best of luck!

      Like

  45. I love your site. I was wondering if I can get your advice on something? I love languages I am learning 3 of them fluently and how can I keep up with them if I were to marry somebody who only speaks English?

    Like

  46. One simple thing missed a bit so far: learning ANY new topic, from math to organic chemistry IS learning a new language due to specialized vocabularies, where their letters/words/sentences/paragraphs are in the form of symbols, functions and formulas. The advice here is equally relevant to learning in general, a wonderful set of techniques that can be generalized to great advantage, thank you for a great post!

    Like

  47. And eventually practice will make us a perfect man… learning from mistakes and accepting language related challenges is fun 🙂 Thanks for sharing this brilliant article, this is quite a motivation and I am sure it will be a great help for most of us. Loved it!

    Like

  48. Hey,

    I was wondering if you could help me out. I am Greek but I was born in New Zealand and I never got the chance to learn Greek. I now want to learn it and be able to conversate in Greek with my grandparents by my 21st next year. I am extremely motivated to start learning and I have learn quite a few words and sentences but I can’t find a website or app from which to learn, any advice?

    Like

  49. Thanks for your list of rules to learning foreign languages in record time. It was a helpful article and I have bookmarked it so I can come back and finally learn a new language.

    Are there any other language learners (or web resources in general) that anyone can recommend?

    Cheers!

    Like

  50. This is bullshit. Some people have a knack for languages, most don’t, and will NEVER be fluent in more than one language. The biggest mistake most people make in foreign language acquisition is trying to learn at all.

    Like

    • I happen to disagree with you, because I learned Spanish fluently although I still have a few more words to learn. I had fun doing too, because I tried all kinds of methods to see which ones worked for me. Some of the ones that worked for me are watching DVDs in Spanish, speaking the language and making friends with those who speak Spanish.

      Liked by 1 person

  51. Really awesome blog. The right one as currently I am learning German and sometime I am stuck or feeling lazy to do so 😦
    Your points help and now I need re-strategize my learning. Thanks!

    Like

  52. Hi! Does anybody know where I can find committed paypals from all over the world? I would love to practise my Spanish by writing letters! If anybody here is interested, I can teach you some swedish in exchange (I’m a native speaker) Cheers!

    Like

  53. I can’t agree more about using free resources. I’m learning Spanish using Floating Penguin tools which are selected by a native speaker. Follow the link to translation insights for more info.
    Thank you Tim and Benny for sharing your knowledge!
    G.

    Like

  54. I am one of those people who is almost overwhelmed at the idea of learning a new language. I currently speak English only and am trying to learn Italian, which is embarrassing as everyone tells me its one of the easiest to learn. I’m totally freaked out at the complexity created from the concept of masculine and feminine and conjugations etc. I started trying to learn the grammar rules and it just seemed so difficult it shook my confidence at ever being able to master it. The number of words are so much greater than English depending on who you are speaking to and what you are speaking about. I’m really encouraged by this blog though especially by the idea that you really only need to learn about 300 or so words for most conversations. I’m wondering if a good way to approach it is to start with mixed language sentences ie use Italian words if I know them and English words where I don’t know the Italian. I notice a lot of bilingual speakers even when fluent speak to each other this way, or is this a bad approach for a learner?
    I think the main reason adults don’t learn as well is the fear and embarrassment factor that kids don’t think about. Sometimes I think English as a native language is a curse as its so easy to get away with no other language but I agree its not the same and I hate relying on others to speak my language.

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  55. Benny, I have just spent 2 months travelling across South America and so have picked up some of the basics, greetings, ordering food at a restaurant, asking for the bill and so on. However, I don’t feel like I could hold a conversation with a native Spanish speaker for more than 30 seconds to a minute, let alone an hour. Would you still recommend finding a native speaker to speak to online for an hour straight away or try to learn some more first? I don’t feel like speaking to someone just yet would be of benefit but if you say I should, even after this comment, I’ll get to it straight away. I want to become conversational and then fluent so badly!

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  56. I find learning a particular language is an opportunity. That is to get a chance to interactive to people around the world and get the deepest understanding to their ideals, way of life and culture. And yes, you are correct, most of the resources are free.. 🙂

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  57. Benny and Tim,
    that is possibly the most entertaining inspiring blog or whatever cool imagining you call this, ever.
    Muchas gracias
    merci
    mahalo
    grazie
    Danke
    Mira! yo soy un polyglot! Escucha?
    Shari

    Like

  58. great techniques..
    so if you were to name this approach.. what would it be? like is it associated to connectionism lets say.. or what?

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  59. The child’s brain changes dramatically in the transition from first-language acquisition and second-language acquisition; it is very important when discussing this subject not to conflate the twin stages which comprise First-language acquisition and second-language acquisition. I did listen to the article and read it and I would have left it at that but I was moved to comment as I found it full of bad science and wild assertions that would be good for selling a book but not so for an adult who is truthfully looking for scientifically based studies that deals with second-language acquisition and doesn’t just lump the two stages together and ignores all the peer-reviewed scientific data. The author also created some straw-man arguments, for example when he asserted that adults are better at learning languages than infants! But an adult is also better at dressing himself up as an Egyptian in sandals and fez and going to Egypt to learn Arabic but I would contest that this is costly and time consuming compared to the infant sitting in his high-chair, cosy in his Pampers nappy, drinking from her Tommy Teeppy mug not making the least effort to learn but learning all the same his/her mother tongue in spite of herself!

    It would have been useful and helpful if the author had even mentioned in passing the vast amount of scientific data and peer-reviewed studies that have been made in the study of first-language and second-language acquisition but that is not in the purview of snake-oil salesmen. The posts in this blog by Scott are worth a read and supply many good sources to get an unbiased look at the topic. If in his blog Benny had made some caveats saying that learning a language does require a lot of effort and motivation it would have been more honest. Most of us do not have the time or money to go gallivanting around the world learning languages. To become very proficient in a second language (speaking, reading and writing) takes years not months. Asking for a coffee and croissant is pretty easy but Banny’s blog is not addressing that; he uses examples that pretend to say that you could be acting as an interpreter in Spain in a few months; I notice that now Benny does not advocate going to a foreign country to get immersed in the culture. Did your publisher have a word in your ear about that Benny? Less of that snake-oil salesman pitch Benny son! Some of you maybe thinking that I am a disgruntled second-language learner drop-out but let me say that I that would be far from the truth. I was born in Brazil so my mother tongue is Portuguese. At he age of three I and my sister (4) were adopted by a Scotsman who spoke English of course and had a smattering of Spanish. Even after a few months my sister and I were translating from English to Portuguese and vice versa with consummate ease and fluency. We lived in Scotland for a couple of years and after that were even more fluent. An adult would not have learned as quickly as we did. Why? Because we were still at the first-language acquisition stage. Read the peer-reviewed science on the topic. We then moved back to South America and lived in Peru (I was seven years old) for two years. Lo and behold I became fluent in Spanish with the vocabulary and reading skill of a seven-year old. It was also at this time that I first learned how to read English from the King James Version of the Bible (Elizabethan English!) as that was the only book in the house. We went to live in Scotland when I was ten and at school I learned French for the first time and also did Spanish when I was thirteen. Should I mention the six years of Latin? Why not? It was taught the same way French and any other language was taught, badly! All written or read and seldom spoken! I did Modern Languages at university and became a Modern Languages teacher. I spent a year teaching in France and became fluent for the first time. Ten years into my teaching I retrained in Computing Science and went on to teach it for twenty years learning five more languages; Pascal, BASIC, COBOL, FORTRAN, Visual Basic, COMAL and HTML, LOGO, Machine Code and LISP. So I can claim knowledge and fluency in fourteen languages! What do you mean I can’t count them? Who says? They have their own rules of grammar and syntax and if you say as much you don’t know what you’re talking about it. I wrote a programming book for students so I know what I am talking about – and it was peer-reviewed, ha ha!

    I have been living in Spain for going on ten years and although fluent I learn something new everyday.

    I’ll leave it there. I hope I have not been too harsh on Benny. He means well and I am sure he will give lots of you hope and motivation to learn a new foreign language. It will not be easy but it will be a load of fun and much of his advice and tips will prove useful. Buy his book! He needs to live but remember the caveats I have made, especially those to do with time required and do read the science of second-language acquisition and by no mans confuse and conflate it with first-language acquisition of infants! Really Benny you of all people should know better.

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  60. Of course, this doesn’t provide much help to those trying to learn a rare or a constructed language. Lojban, which is what is my goal to learn, is both.

    The #1 tip probably works for Lojban also. However, I’ve noticed that many use compound words, lujvos, also, and those confuse me since they aren’t found directly in a word list. Well, maybe if I read about them more I’d begin to understand how they work.
    Tip #2 doesn’t work all that well since it’s a language made from pretty much scratch.
    Tip #3 doesn’t work well either since it’s not a natural language and therefore not spoken in a single place. Furthermore, there’s little media written or spoken in it.
    Tip #4 might work. I’m a bit scared to really try it out, though. Also, there are no native Lojban speakers and only a handful of fluent speakers.
    Tip #5 works somewhat. I know at least that Memrise has a fair amount of basic learning material for Lojban.
    #6 Not actually a tip but still that’s new information for me and good to hear.
    #7-#9 should work more or less well. (Yeah, very descriptive.)

    I learned the basics of English in school and advanced my knowledge among by watching movies amongst other media. However, it’s a very rare thing that Lojban is taught in any school and there isn’t that much media that features Lojban.

    Overall, learning Lojban is just a very daunting task because there are just so few options for how to learn it. I still feel it would be nice since it’s such a wonderful language technically.

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  61. Does anyone have specific tips for learning German in about 8 months? I’m going to college there and despite the assurance from my councelor that all classes are conducted in English I would rather be safe than sorry.

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  62. Paying early attention to cognates of your own language in a target language strikes me as very bad advice.

    Looks like an easy route to false confidence to me. Plenty of time for cognates later: mastering the differences seems to me important early on.

    -dlj.

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  63. This post has gotten me pumped to learn a language. How much time do you suggest per day to learn a language and how many times a week? My goal is to learn by May 1st. Thanks in advance.

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  64. thanks for the site and the resources to learn languages. My biggest problem is doing trying to keep learning and finding time and money to learn. What influences did you have to learn a language? What did you do to stay on track to keep learning a language?

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  65. Thanks a Lot for these Great Tips Benny ❤
    I really Love learning new languages and i'm pretty sure that these tips are going to be really Helpful in my process of learning ,
    For the last month , i've been trying to learn Korean as i loved the language from listnening to it from the K-Dramas , and i've got to say that it had been really useful for me to learn many vocabulary words 'only' from watching the Korean Dramas and taking notes for them , and right now as i'm having my class 12 Final Exams , i'll make sure to consider your great tips after i finish my exams , Thanks Again =D

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  66. Hyltenstam 1992 – second language learners older than 6 almost never acquire native proficiency, displaying errors that can be used to distinguish them from native speakers.

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  67. Hola, Merhaba, こんにちは, Hi there.

    So, I hope you’re still reading these comments! If not, I suppose I’ll try email… But I want to know – how do you keep up multiple languages at the same time? I really respect both your opinions.

    Do you put the others on hold to focus on the new one (that’s what I’m doing now)? For how long? Do you do 3 months on, switch back to 3 months of another, and switch back again? Or do you keep the others up a little bit the whole time? What’s best practice?

    I studied Japanese at school, uni, and eventually went on to become a Japanese teacher. But since I left my teaching job, I haven’t spoken a word of Japanese. Instead, I’ve spent time in Spain and studied Spanish, and just recently, moved to Turkey, where I discovered this blog post and have been using your approach (Benny), and Anki (WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE!?) to teach myself Turkish. So far, much success.

    (Just quietly, you’ve changed my hobby-life).

    (There was a bit of Arrente in there somewhere as well, an Australian Aboriginal language, but I didn’t get far due to minimal effort. Shame on me. So many languages, so little time).

    I’m a language lover. Nothing gets me as (mentally) excited as conjugating verbs. Freak, I know. I talk to myself in different languages while I do the housework and walk through the streets. Yeah, I get looks. But it’s a life long passion for me.

    Anyway, you get the picture. I love language study, and your post has me super interested in how I can keep learning more and pick up new ones in the fastest, most effective way.

    An extra note…

    I actually feel ashamed I didn’t know your approach earlier. As a Japanese teacher, I was teaching students the old school way. I even worked in a language centre with 12 other language teachers (between us we taught 6 different languages) but no one knew this approach.

    The work you do is important, Benny. Please keep spreading the word.

    お返事お待ちしております。

    ジョディ

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  68. I’ve been interested in learning one or two more languages and this post has given me a lot of inspiration. I speak English and Afrikaans fluently and I understand and speak Zulu and Dutch (basic conversation).
    Thank you guys for the motivation!

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  69. I live in Israel since i was born, but my father is from Finland. I can speak, read, and write in Hebrew, English, German, Franch, Swidish and Dannish. but my problem is my Finnish. Im going on vications in Finland for 6 times a year, and my finnish never goes better. No matter how hard im trying. Any tips ?

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  70. wow! Just wow. this is exactly the information I was looking for.I need to learn Spanish in 4 months for my honeymoon. I was raised in South Florida which has a high Spanish population, my dad is Cuban and my husband is Cuban, but I never really picked up how to speak it although I can understand a lot. Learning Spanish has always been a goal and I was just lost as to how to actually accomplish it. The resources and links are so freaking helpful. Thank you so much!

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  71. Really nice post!
    I’d also like to recommend to anyone trying to learn a new language a tool I’ve been using for a while.
    Basically it lets you talk with other people in the language you desire, so you can improve you conversational skills and things like that.
    It’s called Coffeestrap. It’s free so it’s worth a try.

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