Fastest Way to Learn a Foreign Language

There is perhaps no one in pop culture at the moment who is as famous for learning languages quickly as Tim Ferriss. The author of three best-selling books, The Four-Hour Work Week, The Four-Hour Body and The Four-Hour Chef, Tim describes his mishaps with learning Japanese in his high school years and how he eventually created a system for himself for learning any language quickly in the latter of these three books. Based on his work and the language-learning secrets of other polyglots, here are six tips for the fastest ways to learn a foreign language.

1. Start by learning only the most frequently used words.

In English, the most commonly spoken words are the small words we use everyday without even realizing it. From “a” and “an” to “that,” “their” and “them,” these simple words form the building blocks of spoken English. Therefore, instead of trying to master a dictionary’s worth of vocabulary words, some of which you may never use, start by learning the most commonly used 100 words. These 100 words will go a long way in helping you to master any language.

2. Next, learn the basic grammatical rules.

Another suggestion from Tim Ferriss is to learn a list of twelve simple sentences that have embedded within them the most frequently used grammatical structures and tenses. Understanding these basic grammatical structures, he states, enables the learner to essentially “plug and play;” that is, once the grammatical rule behind a certain sentence is understood, different words can be plugged into the same grammatical structure to communicate almost anything.

For example, the first sentence that Tim suggests learning is “The apple is red.” Once a language learner understands how to say this sentence, he or she will also be able to say things like, “the car is blue,” “the sky is cloudy,” “the man is here,” “the girl is short” and many other similar sentences. The first sentence, “the apple is red,” teaches a few basic words and how to arrange them properly within the language’s grammatical structure. Once these concepts are understood, many other words can be substituted for “apple” and “red” to convey all sorts of meanings.

3. Use an app to improve.

There are numerous apps for mobile devices, both free and paid, that make learning a language easier. Download one of these apps for the language you would like to learn and improve your skills wherever you are. Whether you have a few minutes to kill while in the doctor’s office or find yourself stranded in an airport for a long layover, you can whip out your smartphone or your tablet and start reviewing flashcards for the language you are trying to learn.

One app that comes highly recommended by its users is AnkiMobile. Anki used to be free but now costs an eye-popping $25. Its developer states that this expensive price has allowed further development of the app. Reviews for this app are overwhelmingly positive; for the serious language learner, this app may prove to be well-worth the price.

4. Read an entire phrasebook.

Reading phrasebooks in their entirety is another way to learn a language quickly. Like the basic vocabulary and grammar rules mentioned above, learning key phrases in a foreign language enable you to insert other words to change the meaning and gain fluency more rapidly.

5. Watch films in the foreign language you are trying to learn with English subtitles.

Sign into your Netflix account and rent a few foreign language movies with English subtitles for the language you are trying to learn. Listening to the film will improve your “ear” for the language and your oral comprehension. After you’ve watched the film once with subtitles, try turning the subtitles off and watching it two or three more times. See how much of the dialogue you can follow.

6. Realize that nothing beats actual conversation.

Although flashcards, apps, online courses and learning basic vocabulary/grammar all go a long way in learning a language, also realize that nothing can actually make up for real-life conversation. When we feel uncertain about a language, speaking the language with a native speaker can be very intimidating. However, nothing exercises the brain in quite the same way as trying to keep up your end of the conversation with a native speaker.

Put your intimidation behind you. Understand that your goal is to learn the language, not to impress others. Be humble. Be ready to accept corrections, possibly many of them. It is only through repeated interaction with native speakers or fluent non-native speakers that your language skills will be able to drastically improve. Furthermore, remember that most native and fluent non-native speakers are happy to help you and be patient with you as you learn. They often take delight in your efforts at learning their language and appreciate the effort that you are going to.

These six tips will go a long way in helping you learn a language as fast as possible. If you think you need more than a free app and a few phrasebooks, try signing up for an online language course. Online courses are another great way to improve your language skills quickly.