We all know language learning takes time and effort – but what’s the quickest, most effective way to learn a language?
How are we supposed to figure out what apps to use and how much to study? How can we possibly sort through the myriad blogs, books and channels? Our lives are already busy and we’re all inundated with information – a lot of us simply don’t have a ton of extra time to figure out what really works.
If you have one hour to study every day, how should you spend it? In this article we will give you a simple, easy-to-follow language learning strategy you can use to get the most out of your study time. To make things simple and straightforward, we’ve outlined a simple framework based on three pillars that target the absolute essentials.
Table of Contents
- Pillar 1: Grammar Mastery
- Pillar 2: Constant Vocab Building
- Pillar 3: Everyday Speech
- Two essential tips for language learners
- TL;DR for busy people who skipped to the end of the article
Pillar 1: Grammar Mastery
Make a checklist of grammar topics and work your way through them. Take time to master the grammar concepts of your target language. If you’re learning Spanish or Portuguese these will be topics such as “conjugating verbs in the past preterite tense” or “knowing when to use ‘por’ vs. ‘para.’”
Grammar is a daunting task for many learners, but we’ve found it helps to think of grammar as a checklist: there are a certain number of concepts you simply have to learn. You can usually find lists of topics online, such as the one featured below from Russian from the Heart.
To find a grammar checklist for your target language just search Google for “[language] grammar checklist” and you should be able to find one somewhat easily. Work your way through each topic and review the old topics over time so they stay fresh.
Pillar 2: Constant Vocab Building
Always be learning new vocabulary. To reach what most people would reasonably describe as “everyday fluency” (around B2 on the CEFR scale) you’ll need to learn about 4000 words. That means you need to spend a certain percentage of your daily study time memorizing new words and reviewing material you’ve previously learned.
If you’re just getting started with your target language everything will feel very new and strange – you may find it tough to remember any of the words you learn. Don’t stress, this is completely normal! It gets much easier as you expand your vocabulary and begin to understand how words function in your target language.
If you’re at elementary proficiency we’d recommend you choose 3-5 new words to memorize every day. Once you’re more familiar with the language you’ll find it easier to remember the new words you come across. At intermediate and advanced levels you might be able to memorize 10-15 new words per day.
Keep in mind, however, that it’s not enough to simply memorize something and expect to keep it forever. Our brains rapidly begin to forget newly learned information so you’ll need to review your vocabulary over time, ideally with the help of a spaced repetition system.
We prefer to use Anki to learn and review vocabulary. Anki is a flashcard program we use to add vocabulary words, attach computer-generated audio pronunciation and review every day. When we were reviewing our French for a certification exam, we spent about 30 minutes per day learning 10 new cards and reviewing 75 old ones. Russian, on the other hand, is much more difficult and we’re still at a lower level, so we learn 5 new cards and review 40 or 50 old ones per day.
If you’re new to Anki and would like to learn more, we have a guide you can read below.
Pillar 3: Everyday Speech
Focus on everyday speech. As a beginner, spend time learning everyday phrases and parts of phrases – things you find yourself saying a lot, like “I don’t understand” or “Sorry, can you repeat that?”
Pimsleur is one of the best resources for learning everyday phrases. The lessons are audio-based and follow a listen-and-repeat approach to help you learn useful conversational dialogues.
When you reach intermediate level and begin to understand more, you can start having basic conversations and work your way up to deeper, longer discussions. We prefer to work with a language tutor once or twice per week via video call. Preply (read our review here) makes it really easy to find competent and affordable language tutors.
It can be a bit tough when you first start having conversations with your tutor – you’ll make a lot of mistakes and encounter so many different phrases you’ve never heard before. But don’t worry! Making mistakes is an essential part of the language learning process. It may feel frustrating but you’ll improve very quickly. We always ask our tutors to make notes of the new words we run into or mistakes they’ve corrected.
Whenever you encounter a new word or phrase with your tutor, add it to your flashcard deck so you can memorize it later. We were recently on a call with our Russian tutor when we sneezed – our tutor immediately said “Будь здоров! [bud’ zdarov!] (Bless you!)” We added it to our vocabulary list and later made an Anki flashcard so we could memorize the phrase and review it over time.
By focusing some of your daily study time on useful conversational phrases you’ll feel a bit more motivated – especially on days when you’re learning a particularly boring grammar topic. Once you reach an intermediate or advanced level in your target language you can begin using those phrases when you speak with people, thus enabling you to learn even more phrases.
Our French conversation buddy, Charly, used to always tell us, “plus tu parles, plus tu vas améliorer (the more you speak, the more you’re going to improve)” and it cannot be more true. It takes determination and a lot of patience, but if you focus your efforts on everyday speech (phrases at first, then actual conversations) you’ll make massive improvements.
Two essential tips for language learners
In addition to the three pillars that are key to language learning success, we’d also like to give you two bits of advice to help you on your journey to fluency.
First, be wary of anyone that makes unrealistic claims about language learning. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
Second, stay organized and focus on the short term. Study every day and focus on goals you can realistically achieve. We’ll cover both of these tips in a bit more detail below.
Beware of exaggerated claims in app advertisements
Language learning apps are notorious for making exaggerated claims about how fast you can learn a language with their apps. Babbel runs ads claiming that millennials are using their app to “learn Spanish in 3 weeks” and Pimsleur ads claim you can learn a language in 30 days. These ads are misleading because learners expect to be able to participate in advanced-level conversations after just a few weeks.
Both apps are good products, however their ads are entirely unrealistic. You can definitely learn a lot in a few weeks and you might be able to have some basic exchanges, but you’ll never realistically reach advanced B2 or C1 level fluency in a few weeks – it’s simply not going to happen.
The reality is that it takes months and months of consistent study in order to become fluent in a new language.
Use a language learning study planner
We highly recommend organizing a language study routine so you can set realistic short term goals and keep track of your study time.
For example, we’ve recently been measuring our Russian language study time in week-long intervals. Our goal is to study for at least 30 minutes every day for the next seven days then measure our progress. Since we’re only focused on the next 7 days, the task of “becoming fluent in Russian” feels a lot less stressful.
Check out our article on language learning study planners for some more information as well as a template you can download and use for your personal language study.
TL;DR for busy people who skipped to the end of the article
If you’re really determined to learn your target language quickly, try to study for at least one hour every day and keep track of your progress with a study planner. If you can manage to study for one hour per day, divide your study time among these three pillars:
Pillar 1 – Grammar Mastery: find yourself a list of all the grammar concepts you’ll need to learn in your target language, then work through them until you have a comprehensive understanding of how to use them. Grammar is a tough beast for many learners but you need to develop a solid foundation in order to achieve real results.
Pillar 2 – Constant Vocab Building: spend time every day learning new vocabulary and reviewing old vocabulary, ideally using a spaced repetition flashcard program. We use Anki to memorize and review vocabulary for 20-30 minutes every day.
Pillar 3 – Everyday Speech: focus some of your efforts on everyday words and phrases. At elementary level, use a program such as Pimsleur or Memrise. For intermediate and advanced learners, we recommend working with a tutor once per week.
If you spend one hour per day studying your target language and divide your time between these three pillars, you’ll be much more likely to stay motivated and achieve real progress.
– written by Drew Grubba for Smarter Language. Drew has ACTFL-certified proficiency in Swedish, German, Portuguese, French and Spanish. He’s also studied Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian and Dutch, and is currently learning Russian.
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