How fast can I learn a language?

February 25, 2016 by Leave your thoughts

Last time I explored the “The Secret of Learning Languages” with you and now I’d like to talk about just how fast you can learn a language. This is a frequent question people ask me. It is usually followed by, “it gets easier after each one your learn, right?”. It’s practically impossible to answer these related questions in one way only. Let me explain why…

PCNYCFirstly how quickly you learn a new language really depends on how much work you put in, how much practice you get and how much “free language” you get.

OK, so I think it is clear what we mean it depending on how much time your invest in language learning. Someone with a solid study regime over a long period of time is more likely to make better progress than someone doing an hour a week for three months only. We can look at study regimes in another post though. The key thing here is speed of learning and how it is influenced. So I am going to take it that you are doing at least two active study lessons a week (where you learn new things and train vocab and grammar actively) and do a little passive (or active, if you can) study on the other days of the week, say between 15-60 minutes a day. For me this is a minimum to not tread water or stagnate in my studies and to move ahead in my learning.

From that starting point, you should make progress in your language learning over time, so the question becomes how quickly you can then learn a language. Well, stepping up your study hours could help. More exposure to the language certainly will aid your learning usually too. For sure your passion for the language and desire to learn it are what drive you to learn it well and fast ultimately. Naturally, if you’re not into what you’re doing you’re flogging a dead horse. There are other factors. This is where “language hooks” are helpful to make grammar and vocabulary more memorable, so you learn more quickly. This is what I call “free language” (grammar and/or vocab).

What’s “free language” though?

There are three ways I notice how I get “free language” when I start any new language learning project:

  • Languages that belong to the same language family, like French and Italian all have things that make them similar. Their grammar has shared features in it and they use a lot of similar words too. The same happens with languages like English, Dutch and German. There will always be things that help you learn one, if you speak another one in the same language family.
Montag lundi
Tuesday dinsdag
Dienstag mardi martedì
Wednesday woensdag Mittwoch mercredi mercoledì
Thursday donderdag Donnerstag jeudi giovedi
Friday vrijdag Freitag vendredi venerdì
Saturday zaterdag
Sunday zondag Sonntag dimanche domenica
  • You can get “free language” in other ways though. It’s the basis of the Michel Thomas courses to get you speaking as quickly as possible with what you “already know”. Even for languages like Japanese, you learn that “ice cream” is the same, but with a Japanese spin on it (like アイスクリーム – (aisukurīmu) for ice cream). There are international words to give you hooks into the new language and give you a fast boost to have some basic interactions.
  • The words from your other foreign languages that may not be related, but have shared history and borders. That often means that they use words used in both languages, even if they are not in the same family. Look at this comparison of words below from two unrelated languages:
Monday hétfő pondělí
Tuesday kedd úterý
Wednesday szerda středa
Thursday csütörtök čtvrtek
Friday péntek pátek
Saturday szombat *
sobota *
Sunday vasárnap neděle

Hungarians and Czechs will often be unaware of these similarities. Hungarians often don’t see the roots of where their words for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday come from (all to do with middle day (Wednesday), 4th day (Thursday) and 5th day (Friday). Saturday is a little different as it’s from “שבת” (Shabbat) in Hebrew.

In fact this learning is not unique to the example above. In fact  sometimes learning a new language in a family to help you understand better why and how the first language in the family works. I figured out that Latin languages had days of the week that often ended in “di” (referring to “day”) when I studied Catalan because it was more obvious to me because of where the “di” appears in the days of the week right through the entire week:

Monday lundi dilluns
Tuesday mardi dimarts
Wednesday mercredi dimecres
Thursday jeudi dijous
Friday vendredi divendres
Saturday samedi
Sunday dimanche diumenge

I hope I have explained why it’s impossible to give a precise amount of time for learning a new language. It depends on what you do, how often you do it and what “hooks” you have already and what “free language” you get. Also it’s important to note that sometimes learning lots of similar languages can be confusing too. You can end up speaking a weird mishmash of everything and no one language. For some people the new language even seems to overwrite the ones learnt previously. I’d like to explore this idea in another post with you.

Do let me know if you have any other questions from what I’ve discussed here. I’d love to hear from you.

I explore a lot of topics about language learning at the Polyglot Workshops online and in person. If you want to join me for sessions on how to succeed in language learning for your own situation, get in touch.

If you sign up for italki and buy a coupon for language lessons through them, you can use the Promo Code below at checkout to get $5 OFF your order! So a $10 coupon costs you just $5! Use Promo Code: RICHARD

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This post was written by Richard

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