How to learn a new language

Ever since becoming nomadic and wandering around South America, I quickly realized I would need to get up to speed on Spanish if I ever wanted to make the rest of my journey in South America more comfortable. This will be a post about I went about learning to speak Spanish within about 3 months.

Now when I say that I can speak Spanish, it absolute does not mean that I am fluent. I definitely cannot speak Spanish like I can speak English and Korean. Despite going “balls-out” at trying to learn to speak Spanish for about 3 months, I realized that for me, that goal was impossible to achieve. Becoming actually fluent (to a native level) in a spoken language is something that takes years to accomplish, not a few months no matter how much Tim Ferris or Benny Lewis say that you can learn to be fluent.

How good can you actually become in 3 months?

This really depends on a variety of factors like what languages you already know and what language you’re trying to learn, how quickly you can generally learn new things, how dedicated you are, how much time you’re going to put into this endeavor, and etc.

For example, if you’re coming from one of the European Romance languages and you’re trying to learn English, you’re going to have a much easier time than someone coming from an Eastern Asian language like Mandarin or Korean. Same goes for opposite. If you’re trying to learn Japanese, you’re going to have a much easier time if you already speak Korean (apparently Japanese is easy to learn for native Korean speakers and vice versa).

As for me, I went pretty hard in the quest to learn to speak Spanish for 3 months. I even quit my job to do it, enrolled in an immersive class, was living in Colombia (you hear Spanish all day), and basically (and physically) put myself in an environment for success. I also spoke English at a native level which isn’t exactly a disadvantage since so much of vocabulary between English and Spanish are similar. Even under these prerequisites and the amount of effort put in, I was only able to get to a conversationally fluent level where I could have somewhat interesting conversations, go on dates, resolve conflicts in Peru where I got scammed, and etc.

It is important to note that my definition of “fluency” is if I could go to court and defend myself for a crime that I’ve committed. The results of the court ruling doesn’t matter since I’ll probably end up going to prison for life if I ever represented myself in court, but the bar that I set for fluency is if I can say whatever I wanted in court without any hesitation and come across reasonably intelligent. I can do this with English and Korean. With Spanish? The court session will probably end in around 15 minutes.

As for the ability to learn things quickly, I would say that I’m above average when it comes to learn new things quickly. I tend to utilize this ability in my primary profession as a software developer where in many cases I have to learn new technologies quickly to delivery projects on time. You can certainly learn more of a language than me in 3 months, but I would bet that it would be around where I ended up after 3 months.

Resources for Learning

So with the expectation of how much you can actually learn as a native English speaker in 3 months set let’s go over how to go about learning and what resources to pick.

There are many apps out there these days that help you learn new languages. The most popular that comes to mind are Duolingo and Memrise. Duolingo is extremely popular due to its gamification system and making language learning feel like a game. Memrise is essentually a fancy flash card application that helps you drill down vocabulary and sentences into your brain with spaced-repetition techniques similar to Anki flashcards. I’m pretty sure that there are way many more out there, but for the sake of simplicity, I’m going to stick with Duolingo and Memrise.

Having tried both extensively, I much prefer Memrise due to its focus on drilling down as many vocabulary as possible into your brain in a short period of time. I find this important because when trying to speak or even understand someone speaking in a different language, even if your grammar is terrible and you can’t pronounce words, if you recognize words due to extensive memorization exercises, you can somewhat understand what the speaker is saying. In contrast, I found Duolingo to be terrible for actually learning and memorizing new words that you would need to be able to understand the spoken language.

Tim Ferris tends to preach the Pareto Principle a lot, which is the famous 80/20 rule that states 80 percent of the results will come from 20 percent of the effort. This is true in language learning. If you really think about it, how many words do you really use on a daily basis in every day conversations? The truth is not many. For example, the words in English I use on a daily basis are words like “this, “that”, “is”, “book”, “food”, “let’s go”, “this is delicious”, and etc. I will almost never say, unless I’m feeling I want to sound sophisticated, use the words like “scrumptious” to describe how good my lunch was.

So to be effective in language learning for the purposes of being able to converse casually, you want to pick your battles carefully. Thankfully, Memrise does an excellent job at this. All you have to do is enroll in Memrise’s Spanish course and zoom through them as fast as possible. As far as Spanish goes, they seem to have a Mexican version and Spain version these days, but it really doesn’t matter which one you go with.

So go through all of the courses in Memrise, drilling down as many words as possible, while trying to figure out the grammatical pattern of the language while using the app.

Learning from teachers

The following few sentences in the next paragraph will seem a bit random but I promise that it’s relevant. Programming bootcamps are extremely popular these days. These are accelerated courses that are designed to train people who have no formal training in software development to become professional software developers. These schools tend to be pretty expensive averaging around $10,000 – $15,000 for around 3 months of instruction and are pretty controversial in the tech community for their effectiveness at training up new developers.

The software development community tends to have this toxic attitude against programming bootcamps in that you don’t need to pay a lot of money to learn something since all resources are available for free online. This is actually true, you don’t need to pay anything to learn to become a developer. But, the advantage of hiring a professional teacher to teach you is that you’ll cut through a lot of bullshit material online and be taught by someone who not already has extensive knowledge on the subject you’re trying to learn but has been through the learning process him/herself.

Learning new languages is no different. Sure, you could heavily utilize free resources online and immerse yourself in a country where the language you want to learn is spoken, but if you want to learn faster, hiring a professional teacher can speed up the progress a lot for you.

I attended an immersive Spanish school called ColombiaImmersion for 2 months and I have to say that it sped up my learning process a lot. For example, if I had a question, I didn’t have to spend 30 minutes or so Googling trying to find the right answer, and then wondering if the information was correct or not. If I had a question, I could just ask the teacher directly and the teacher would give me the correct answer and I would learn that way. I would say that it cut my learning process by at least 3 months. Some people would look at the price of some of these classes and say that it’s too expensive, but if you think about how much longer you’ll take to learn the same material if you went alone and tried to learn it yourself, and if you’re a person who values his/her time, it’s actually a cost-saving maneuver to find a good teacher and pay them good money.

Consistency and taking action

I think that having goals with a target date is stupid. First, it basically sets you up for failure since if you don’t achieve your goals by a certain date, you’ve essentially failed. Second, it’s nearly impossible to predict how long it’s going to take you to achieve a goal that you’ve never attempted before.

The most important thing that you can do when trying to achieve a new goal is to figure out what actions you need to take on a daily basis that will get you close to your goals, and then execute on those actions consistently every single day. If you do this, you’ll find that one day, you’ve achieved your goal.

Learning languages is the same. I learned English after Korean, and I remember really struggling with English when my family first immigrated to the United States. It was to a point where I hated the fact that we had to move to the United States. Not being able to express your thoughts due to language limitations is one of the most frustrating experiences you can have. And then a few years later in high school, I remember one day when I had a realization that, “wait a minute…, I haven’t struggled with English for years, in fact, I can’t remember when I’ve stopped struggling with it”. I was able to get to this point because I was practicing every single day without really thinking about it due growing up in the United States. And one day without me realizing it, my English was at a native level.

If you want to learn a new language, you need to figure out what you need to do on a daily basis and take consistent action every single day. If I want to get my Spanish to a native level, what I’ll probably have to do is put myself in an environment where I’m constantly practicing speaking Spanish throughout the day.

My advice if you want to learn a new language would be to forget the whole 3 months to fluency bullshit marketed and sold by the likes of Tim Ferris and Benny Lewis and just be consistent in your efforts every day. One day, you’ll wake up and realize that, “wait, I speak this new language on a native level now”.

About the Author Chris Jeon

Software developer currently focusing on Android development.