Have you heard of Daniel Tammet?
He is an acclaimed savant who learned Icelandic in a week. Not only that, but he went on Icelandic television after his week of study and spoke the language fluently in a real interview.
Pretty amazing, isn’t it?
Well, Daniel isn’t alone; success stories of polyglots learning new languages in record time are plentiful online.
Whatever your timeline, there are some tried and true steps to learning a new language in record time. In this post, we’ll look at how long it actually takes to learn a language from scratch and how you can get fluent in a new language fast.
How Long Does It Take to Learn a Language?
Even though Daniel Tammet could learn Icelandic in a week, that isn’t exactly realistic for the everyday language learner. So, how long does it actually take to get fluent in a new language fast?
First we have to decide what the word “fluent” means. At its most basic, fluency in a language means you can use the language easily and understand most of what you read and hear.
On a personal level, though, “fluent” can be whatever you want it to be: maybe you want to read books easily in a new language or chat with native speakers online. Fluency is more related to ease of usage rather than how many words or grammar rules you know.
And just like the definition of the word, there are various estimates for how long it takes to actually become “fluent” in a language.
According to the US Foreign Language Institute, English speakers can learn some languages faster than others. For example, languages like Spanish, French and Dutch can be learned in as little as 750 hours of study whereas languages like Japanese, Korean and Arabic can be learned in 2200 hours.
If you study for 25 hours a week, that means you could learn Spanish or French in six or seven months or Japanese in about a year and a half.
The Council of Europe also has the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, and estimates say that learners can reach the C1 (fluent) level of some European languages in around 900 hours of study.
Anecdotal Evidence: How Long It Took to Learn Five Languages
Official estimates aside, language learners who have engaged with the process multiple times can offer unique views into how long it takes to learn a language. For this, I will use my own language learning journey as an example: in my 31 years on Earth, I have studied more than a dozen languages, five of which I would consider myself to be fluent in (including English).
Aside from English, it took me the longest to learn French. I started studying this language in elementary school, but it wasn’t until my third or fourth year of post-secondary education that I would say I felt fluent in the language. I attribute this to ineffective study techniques throughout elementary school and high school as well as a disinterest in learning.
Contrarily, I was able to learn Afrikaans in a little under a year as an adult. This is because I had a strong motivation to learn (my partner and in-laws are native speakers), loads of opportunities to practice, and a steady weekly commitment to learning. Further, Afrikaans itself is very similar to English, and it lacks complicated grammar rules.
Whether the estimates in this section intimidate or excite you, remember: these are just estimates. True timelines will depend on how much time you commit and how effective your learning method is to get fluent in a new language fast.
Speaking of effective learning methods, let’s discuss them now!
How to Get Fluent in a New Language Fast in 10 Steps
Follow these 10 steps for learning a new language in no time!
Step 1: Identify the Motivation & Set a Goal
Believe or not, your mindset and your goals will determine if you get fluent in a new language fast more than the material you are learning from. From my experience, even the best materials in the world won’t help if you don’t have the drive to use them.
Because of that, you need to identify a motivation for learning your target language. This should be your “why”. It could be something as simple as being able to communicate with locals on your next trip or as complex as learning enough to study or work in that country.
After you have identified your motivation, you can set a goal. This goal should be tangible and achievable. Instead of saying, “I want to talk to native speakers when I travel,” you should say, “I want to be able to order food in a restaurant in French when I visit Paris in 6 months.” The latter outlines specifically what you want to achieve and in which timeline you want to do it.
For more general language learning, it is helpful to break goals into smaller, more manageable chunks. These can be related to learning materials, language assessments or performance targets. For example, instead of saying, “I want to become fluent in French,” you could say, “I want to finish my introductory French textbook and pass the CEFR A1 French exam before the end of the year.”
Step 2: Make a Plan
Second to motivation, making a language learning plan is the most effective way to get fluent in a new language fast. This plan will keep you on track and accomplishing your goals in your specified timeline.
Because of this, your plan should include how exactly you plan to get fluent in a new language fast. For example, rather than saying, “I will study vocabulary and grammar,” the following is a more tangible plan: “I will learn 10 new words a day and complete 2 chapters a week in my textbook.”
I have found that keeping plans clear and concise is the best. I also keep my goals small so that they are easily reached. This aids in long-term motivation.
One thing to keep in mind is that you should balance the four language learning skills of reading, writing, listening and speaking. While they may seem unrelated, they are in fact interconnected, so they should be improved equally. So when choosing language materials, it’s better to use comprehensive ones that include all language skills like LingoDeer.
Depending on your preference, you could use a single learning method or multiple methods simultaneously. My advice would be to have a single method with supplementary resources such as a main textbook with additional practice apps, video tutorials and tutoring sessions.
The selection of learning materials is also important here. You should decide whether you will use a textbook, an online course, apps or a combination of all these things. You may also want to know how to spot bad language materials.
Step 3: Focus on High-Frequency Words
The best trick I discovered to get fluent in a new language fast was the concept of “high-frequency words.” Simply stated, each word in a language has a frequency level, and the ones with the highest frequency are those that speakers of a language use most often.
Think of English, for example, some of the highest frequency words include “the,” “a,” “there” and “I,” and it’s not hard to see why.
By learning these high-frequency words, you can bypass words that you won’t use very often. This means you can ignore words such as “pterodactyl,” “inundation” and “typecast” and instead learn the words that you will encounter most often in your target language.
In fact, learning high-frequency words will actually make you fluent faster. According to the Universe of Memory, by learning the most common 5000 words in a language, you can understand 98% of the language. That means if you learn 10 new high frequency words a day, you can understand the vast majority of the language within 18 months.
In the age of the internet, you can access frequency lists easily online. Some language learning apps like Anki even have flashcard decks dedicated to high-frequency words.
Step 4: Train Your Ear to the Language
I mentioned balancing the four major language learning skills earlier in this post, but listening deserves a special shout-out. That is because listening is an underrated but invaluable skill, and language learners tend to overlook how important it is.
Take it from me: I didn’t do much listening when I started learning French, instead relying on my strengths in reading and writing. I was then frustrated that I couldn’t understand French speakers. It wasn’t until I took the plunge to intentionally improve my listening skills that I saw a change.
For starters, regular listening to the language—whether you understand every single word or not—trains your ear to the sound of the language, the flow of sentences, and filler or slang words that traditional learning methods may omit. In this way, even passive listening is extremely helpful.
Don’t underestimate the power of active listening activities, though. Doing things such as listening along to music or audio clips with a transcript, doing listening comprehension activities, and summarizing TV shows or movies are great ways to improve your parsing of the language.
Step 5: Fill Your Dead Time
Do you ever feel like you’re just waiting around for something more interesting or fruitful to happen?
“Dead time” is defined as periods of time in a day when you are doing a menial task that doesn’t necessarily require your full attention. Examples of this include doing dishes or household chores, commuting to and from work or school, and waiting in a doctor’s office.
While you’re stuck in a sort of unproductive purgatory, this is a great time to get fluent in a new language fast, and it’s never been easier with a smartphone!
I recommend downloading language learning apps for bite-sized learning. Some of the most popular and effective include Duolingo, LingoDeer and Babbel. You could also carry around a novel in your target language or an ebook on your phone. I also suggest downloading podcasts or audiobooks in your target language to listen to while your hands are busy.
Step 6: Don’t Ignore Grammar… But Don’t Obsess Either
As a fellow language learner, I can relate: grammar can be a drag.
But never fear! Although grammar is important, don’t obsess over it.
To get fluent in a new language fast, my recommendation is simple. You should learn basic grammar rules and patterns, but don’t memorize everything. Instead, you should focus on learning grammar rules and patterns in context, mostly by accessing real written and audio content in your target language.
The goal should be communication and comprehension, not perfection. If you make a mistake with a grammar rule, it’s not the end of the world. A native speaker will probably be able to understand you either way.
For studying grammar, I suggest having a quick grammar reference, whether it is a textbook, grammar guide, app, or online tutorial. If you encounter a rule or exception that is too complicated, move on: focus on observing grammar in real language rather than memorizing.
Step 7: Get a Speaking Partner
Like listening, speaking is an important skill. To get fluent in a new language fast, you should aim to speak the language as soon as possible. Don’t wait to feel comfortable. In my experience, you’ll learn way more in conversations with native speakers than you will in solo study sessions.
A speaking partner can be an exchange partner or even a tutor or teacher, and these can be found through apps or websites like italki or through MeetUp. You could find someone learning your target language or a native speaker. Be prepared to practice English with a native speaker in return.
In addition to speaking, having an exchange partner correct written work is also a great way to improve.
If you have stress about speaking, I have found that pre-planning things to say on common conversation topics alleviates that pressure. You can even decide on topics with your partner before your conversations to ease some of the anxiety.
Step 8: Consume Media in Your Target Language
Textbooks and courses have a way of simplifying and sanitizing target languages, so consuming real media in the target language allows you to see how the language is actually used by its speakers. In the long run, this will make it easier to understand the language and use natural language yourself.
To get fluent in a new language fast, consume authentic media in your target language like online news, books, blogs and even social media. Further, authentic media for watching and listening can include music, TV shows, movies and audiobooks.
A simple Google search will turn up hundreds if not thousands of options. I have found that using search terms in my target language gives me more variety and has allowed me to keep up with current trends in a particular group of speakers.
Step 9: Immerse Yourself At Home
Remember how we said that the more time you spend with your target language, the faster you’ll become fluent?
Well, short of going to a place where your target language is spoken, immersing yourself in the language in your home is one of the best ways to learn a language. Immersion at home can include academic and leisure materials in the target language that are easily accessible.
You can increasingly amend everyday activities to those that you complete in your target language online. For example, if you like to watch TV or play video games, change that routine so that you only do them in the language you are learning. Do you like exercising, cooking, or yoga? Find tutorials in your target language. Even scrolling social media can be done in a different language to get fluent in a new language fast! Combine language learning with your hobbies and it won’t feel like a chore.
For an added challenge, you can also change the interface of your smartphone or computer into your target language. Keep in mind, though: don’t forget how to change the language back to English in an emergency!
Step 10: Use the Language Actively
Our last step to getting fluent in a language fast has to do with your daily habits.
It can be easy to shy away from active usage of the language (such as speaking or writing). This is because we may be nervous to get something wrong or we don’t feel “ready.” However, the reality is that you will make mistakes and you may never feel ready, so don’t discount how effective speaking and writing can be.
In addition to getting a speaking partner, speaking to yourself in the language is great practice. Take it from me: I may look odd mumbling in a foreign language to myself, but practice is practice! I like to summarize things in my target language or give short lectures as if I’m teaching a class. You can also find your own ways of practicing!
I have also found recording myself effective. This allows me to evaluate my accent, the “naturalness” of my speaking and what next steps I should follow for improvements.
For everyday writing activities, I suggest writing a journal or posting on social media in your target language. You could even begin to write shopping lists or recipes in your target language for more immersive activities. Incorporate your target language into your daily life as much as possible!
Who knew you could achieve greatness in such a short time? With these 10 steps, you’ll get fluent in a new language fast! Are you using some of them? Share your thoughts in the comments!