Being able to speak the language of the land is invaluable. As Americans we don’t really see the need to learn a second or third language because even in the most remote areas of the world somebody always seems to know some English. This is convenient for US citizens and native English speakers but to truly meet people, make friends, and understand a culture learning their language can do wonders.
I for one, am best at sucking at Spanish but always doing a good enough job to get my point across. I always notice Americans tend to overestimate their language abilities while other nations don’t give themselves enough credit. I’ve always wanted to perfect my Spanish but it never seemed that important to me until just recently when I was in Central Mexico (away from all the resort towns). I was traveling solo and hanging out with locals. They all had to speak English around me and were all very good at it. This is really motivated me to perfect their language which is why I am going to dedicate myself to getting better, a lot better.
How to Learn a Language in 90 Days
Maneesh Sethi of Hack the System has traveled the world and learned 5 languages using these methods. Here is how it works.
Why You Should Want to be Bilingual
The coolest thing about learning your second language is that it makes learning a third, fourth, or fifth language much easier. The challenge isn’t in learning a new language, but rather learning how to learn a language. Once you know the techniques, you’ll be able to apply the same grammatical patterns and language techniques in every new language you learn. It’s for this reason that, while Italian took me 3 or so months to master, Spanish took only 2 months and Portuguese took just a few weeks.
Where to Start
1. Get the right resources for learning: Grammar books, memorization software, books and movies
2. Get a private tutor or work with a native speaker you know. Work with them a few hours a day if you can for a few weeks. This will take some serious dedication if you want to get really good.
3. Attempt to speak and think only in the new language. Practice vocabulary daily as well.
4. Find friends and language partners to practice with. This can be someone different than your tutor but you will need to find someone to practice with. Group classes are also an option and cheaper than tutors. You can practice over Skype for free with people you have met abroad. Eventually, just stop speaking English.
If 4+ hours a day is too intense it is better to practice daily for 20-30 minutes than to practice twice a week for 5 hours. Get your work in daily. The more the better.
Grammar Book: Maneesh Sethi recommends Dover’s Essential Grammar series. Read it all the time when you have a moment. Just study it and practice.
Phrase Book: This will help you memorize full sentences and phrases. You will learn individual words as you learn full phrases.
Online Dictionary: Maneesh Sethi recommends wordreference.com for most languages. Use it sparingly.
A Memorization App: For Macs check out Genius and for PCs check out Anki which both help with language memorization.
A Private Tutor: This can’t be stressed enough. Practicing over Skype is acceptable for daily work but you need an in-person tutor to get the most out of it. If you must go online check out Edufire.com where you can take private and group classes online.
Language Partners: Use The Mixxer to find partners to connect with over Skype. You can find people from all over the world. Online partners are awesome for learning a new language and there are a lot of sites you can find people to chat with on. Couchsurfing.org is another great way to meet new people from any city in the world. It’s not just a site for finding places to sleep because you will meet a lot of new people on there. Check out this article on how useful it can be for learning a new language.
Maneesh Sethi doesn’t recommend Rosetta Stone simply because it moves very slow. Personally, I like Rosetta Stone for learning new vocabulary and brushing up but he is right it does move very slow from one lesson to the next.
The 90 Day Plan
The first 30 days are critical to learning your new language. Immerse yourself in it as much as you can. Of course, moving to the country that speaks the language is the #1 way to learn it but that is not always an option. When moving is not an option try to interact with native speakers at home as much as possible. Spend the first month with your private tutor and not group classes. This will help you become an active learner. When you encounter words and phrases you don’t know enter them into your language memorization apps to study.
Study 30 New Words and Phrases a Day
Why? Because 30 a day for 30 days means you have learned 80% of a language.
the 75 most common words make up 40% of occurrences
the 200 most common words make up 50% of occurrences
the 524 most common words make up 60% of occurrences
the 1257 most common words make up 70% of occurrences
the 2925 most common words make up 80% of occurrences
the 7444 most common words make up 90% of occurrences
the 13374 most common words make up 95% of occurrences
the 25508 most common words make up 99% of occurrences
This shows you that 3000 words is about 80% of the words you need to know.
In the second month you need to start exposing yourself to the language as much as you can. You can switch to group classes now if you find your tutor too expensive. You will also meet new people who are trying to learn the language. Speak only the new language with them and do not speak English!
Use The Mixxer and Couchsurfing to find native speakers online.
Start reading simple books.
You will even want to start thinking in the new language. If you can’t express yourself how you would like to, find the word, write it down, and practice it.
At this point you have learned a lot and have a strong understanding of the language. Practice is key now so don’t stop practicing. Work with your language partners and have deeper conversations everyday.
Continue studying 30 words a day, even the ones you already have learned from the first month. And even start watching movies without the sub-titles. If you need them it is ok to turn them on. This is one of favorite ways to practice. You will find listening and following a movie is a lot different than interacting in the language in-person.
Continue practicing for a few hours a day. You will find you learn a lot in just 90 days if you follow this guide.
This takes serious dedication but 90 days is not a lot to ask to learn something as complex as a new language. You will be rewarded greatly the next time you are traveling and able to fully interact with the locals.
Big thanks to Maneesh Sethi from Hack the System. If you want to get the videos from Zen Habits readers to demonstrate how to learn a new language rapidly you can here.
Photo via Lonely Planet