The Hard, But Effective Way to Learn a New Language

Since learning French, Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean, I get asked a lot about what’s the best way to learn a language. In this article, I’d like to share what I think works, what I think doesn’t and what I think doesn’t matter to learn a new language from zero to a conversational ability.

Before I start though, here’s three caveats:

  1. This is just my approach. There’s lots of ways to learn languages and plenty of people who’ve learned it not following this advice. So I’m not providing the method, just a method.
  2. The focus is on having conversations. I think conversational ability is the foundation of most languages and the reason most people want to learn them. That doesn’t mean reading novels or watching movies isn’t important, it’s just that’s not the first goal I try to reach.
  3. The focus is on starting from zero, or near-zero, to an intermediate level. Going from conversational to fully fluent is a somewhat different goal and it has different obstacles. I’ve addressed my philosophy on that goal here, but I’m not going to discuss it much in this article.

That being said, here’s what I would do if I wanted to learn a new language and waste as little time as possible.

The Best Strategy

The best strategy, in my mind is simple:

  1. Go to a country that speaks the language.
  2. Grab a phrasebook and learn a few basic expressions.
  3. Commit to only speaking in that language from Day One.
  4. Arm yourself with a dictionary to translate whenever you get stuck.
  5. Hire a local tutor (mostly to pay someone to talk to you while you’re still a beginner)

A mistake many people make in viewing this strategy is not realizing the importance of “Day One” and “Only speaking in the language”. Many people think if they wait a few months to start speaking or speak 50% of the time in the language the process will be comparably effective. Those are not the same, and they are not nearly as effective.

The reasons for why departure from the strictness of these rules isn’t effective are subtle and hard to realize if you haven’t tried this before. The purpose of starting from the day you arrive is that this is the optimal time for designing your environment. If you wait even a few weeks, you’ll have already established an English-speaking environment which will make later immersion much more difficult. This is what happened to me when I went to France.

The reason for only speaking in the language is that if you have a ratio (say you aim to speak half the time) you’ll find half of your speaking situations much harder than the other half. This creates a natural momentum which pulls you towards speaking less and less of the language you’re trying to use. The end result is that aiming for 50/50 usually ends up being only 5-10% in the language. (Note: This effect is mitigated somewhat if you have specific languages for specific people or situations, but 100% immersion is still best.)

Unfortunately, this is not a realistic strategy for most people. Most people can’t afford to travel for extended periods of time. When they do, they often have jobs or other responsibilities that prevent staying 100% immersed.

But just because it’s not possible for everyone, doesn’t mean it won’t work. If you have this option when learning a language, do this. It sounds really hard, but it gets easier fast and you’ll learn the language very quickly. Don’t use a second-best strategy if you have the option to use the best.

The Second-Best Strategies

So let’s consider some alternative scenarios where you can’t do the best strategy: full immersion from Day 1.

Situation #1: You Can’t Travel to Learn

In this situation, you can’t travel to learn the language. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have partial immersion. Here, my suggestion would be to start by picking a friend or partner who also wants to learn the language and have an agreement with them: we have to talk at least once per day, and whenever we do talk it’s always in the target language.

Depending on who your partner is, this could actually add up to quite a bit of immersion. It’s not actually very important that the person be a native speaker or already fluent to practice. Actually, in some cases it’s better if they aren’t. Simply use a dictionary or Google translate whenever you get stuck with words or phrases.

You will need to supplement this with some time speaking with an advanced or native speaker of the language to make sure you’re not learning mistakes. But I think having as little as 10% of your time in this way would still allow you to progress quite quickly.

Note: This situation is the same as one where you can travel, but for some reason can’t do 100% immersion. Pick people or settings where you have to speak in the language you’re trying to learn. The broader a net you cast and the sharper and more clear the situational rules are the better. None of this beats the best strategy, but it can be a useful approximation where the best strategy isn’t possible.

Situation #2: You Can’t Find a Partner

Say you want to learn an obscure language, or you can’t find someone who is willing to commit to only speaking that language with you. Here, the option is pretty simple: hire a tutor. Go onto iTalki.com and find someone who will teach you the language. You can get community tutors there for fairly cheap.

If that’s too expensive, you can also opt for language exchanges with people who want to learn your language. In that case though, you need to be really strict about what time is in each language, or an intermediate speaker might push you to speak a lot more of the language they’re trying to learn.

For tutors, I also recommend explaining to them your immersive approach, in English (or whatever language you speak well) before you start. Many tutors have a different teaching philosophy and may be resistant if they’d rather you do grammar drills or more traditional exercises. Sometimes it takes a couple teachers to find one that will work with you well, so don’t give up.

Situation #3: You Only Have a Few Hours Per Week

This isn’t a problem either. In many cases you do the same as Situation #1 or #2, you just end up studying less.

The important part if you only have a few hours per week is to commit to the time in advance. With 100% immersion, practice is unavoidable. With only a small amount of your week devoted to speaking, you’ll need a lot more effort to push yourself every time to practice.

How Much Preparation Should I Do Before Speaking?

This is a tricky question for two reasons:

  1. Most people wait way too long to start practicing and don’t practice enough when they do start. Speaking a language poorly is uncomfortable and so people avoid it. Waiting until you’re “ready” is a recipe for failure.
  2. If you’re going from zero to 100% immersion, it probably helps to do *some* preparation. Doing too little can make the initial ramp up to speaking so hard as to be almost impossible without tremendous willpower. Therefore, doing some prior preparation is helpful. I found for myself that about 25-50 hours was more than enough for European languages, whereas more like 100 hours was the minimum for harder Asian languages.

This preparation is assuming you’re using the best strategy of 100% immersion. If you’re not traveling to the country and going 100% from Day 1, then the issue of prior preparation isn’t important. You can start with just an hour or two of preparation and use Google Translate in the first conversation if you like.

What Kind of Preparation Should I Do?

What kind of preparation should you do to start speaking a language? This is actually, in my mind, a lot less important than people think. There’s lots of ways you can get a general understanding of the basic words and phrases in a language. Some might be somewhat more effective than others, but fretting over which one to use is silly.

If I was planning on learning a new language from scratch and I wanted to do some preparation before traveling to the country to do 100% immersion, I would probably do about 50% conversation practice through something like iTalki.com, and about 50% of some kind of beginner learning resource like Pimsleur, Duolingo, Teach Yourself, Rosetta Stone, etc.

The key to remember is that the non-speaking parts of learning are to supplement conversation practice, not to replace it. If your goal is to avoid using the language directly in real conversations, you’ve already picked the losing strategy.

How Do I Stick to Speaking the Language With Zero Ability?

This is also easier than it looks. The simplest option is just to open up Google translate, type whatever you want to say in English (or another language) and translate to the language you want to speak and try saying it to the other person.

If they understand you and say something back which you don’t understand, ask them to write it down (a hand gesture of writing with a pen is pretty universally understood for this) and then pop it back into Google Translate and see the result.

Your conversation doesn’t need to be fancy, fast-paced, or even make sense. Sometimes when I’m learning a new language I’ll list off a bunch of almost identical sentences to train up a certain grammatical pattern: “I like to swim.” “I like to run.” “I like to eat.” “I like to travel.” “I like to paint.” “Do you like to swim?” “Do you like to run?” and so on…

As you get to the level where you’ve memorized some basic phrasal patterns for saying “I want” “You want” “Where is?” etc. you can stop translating whole sentences and instead translate specific words. So you’ll look up the word for “chicken” instead of the whole sentence, “Do you like to eat chicken?”

This isn’t actually hard to do at all. The difficulty people have isn’t a mental one, but a social one. Doing these baby-talk sentences feels very awkward and there can be an intense embarrassment as you go from fully fluent adult to barely comprehensible toddler in your linguistic abilities.

The best thing you can do to get through this is to find a tutor or partner who (a) is either in the same boat as you, so therefore you don’t feel weird because their ability is also terrible or (b) understands what you’re trying to do and is supportive of it. If you have a tutor or partner who isn’t supportive, ditch them immediately and find another. Some tutors don’t understand this method of language learning. The problem is with them, not you.

Should I Do Anything Other Than Just Speaking?

When learning a language I don’t spend 100% of my time speaking. However, because the speaking part is the part most people avoid, I have to reemphasize: my strategy doesn’t work if you eliminate the speaking in the language part. Don’t skip over the parts you think are too hard and do the stuff you think is easy, because without the speaking all the other stuff doesn’t work.

However, assuming you actually have followed my advice and are spending at least 50% of your learning time in conversations, the next step of where to invest your time is up to you. I usually focus on aspects of the language that I can’t focus on enough while juggling the mental difficulties of a conversation but are nonetheless important. This may be different for different languages.

In Spanish, for instance, I found the conjugation system a little overwhelming. It was too hard to juggle saying what I meant and also making sure I was remembering the dozens of different forms a verb could take to indicate exactly what I wanted. To fix this, I bought grammar exercise books and worked through conjugation exercises until I had memorized all the major forms regular verbs take (and the most common irregular ones). Then, when I would speak, I could more quickly remember the form I needed.

In Chinese, in contrast, grammar wasn’t a huge issue. Instead I was plagued by pronunciation and vocabulary issues. Pronunciation, especially tones, were brutally hard in the beginning and it was difficult to juggle that with trying to speak. So I would do pronunciation drills to work on my tones. Vocabulary was also difficult because it shares few cognates with English. I felt that learning the characters would be an important mnemonic aid to learn new vocabulary, so I invested my non-speaking time doing a Anki decks which taught these.

These activities were helpful, but they’re a supplement, not a replacement to speaking.

I Don’t Want to Speak Yet, Is There Anything Else I Can Do?

I’ve tried almost every method for learning a language. Immersive practice is by far the most effective. And, yeah, it is scary and hard and you might not think you’re ready to do it. But, if you give it a shot you’ll often find yourself speaking much faster than you realize.

There are other ways to learn a language that are less intense and awkward. I’ve seen people who’ve started with reading or watching movies, and plowed through that until they have high listening comprehension. Other linguists swear by a passive listening approach rather than speaking.

If those methods work for you, then great. I just haven’t found they work very well for me. The reason in my mind is that most media you can learn from is either way too difficult to understand or designed for learners and therefore is boring to sit through. Watching movies without the subtitles on quickly gets frustrating once you’ve sat through a dozen or so hours of media you don’t understand.

The difference with conversation practice is that there’s an automatic difficulty adjustment—a real person. The person you’re speaking with, when they see you don’t understand, will automatically try to simplify to communicate. As a result, you can get into interesting conversation situations much sooner than you can get into interesting media.

It’s my opinion that, despite appearances, a passive studying approach to learning a language is actually a lot more difficult in the long run than just getting over the fear and starting speaking.

Concluding Remarks

The best strategy is to go to the country and opt for 100% immersion from Day 1. Not only does this maximize practice time, but it builds an environment that will support your learning in the future.

The second-best strategies are to find a partner or tutor who you commit to speaking to every day and only in the language you’re practicing. Pull out Google Translate or a dictionary to fill in any gaps. Do practice on your own to fill in your weak points but never more than 50% of your studying time and never as a substitution for actual conversation practice.

This strategy is difficult, mostly because adults can’t stand to not speak fluently. Unfortunately, you have to push through a low level of ability before you can get to a higher one, and so avoiding speaking usually prolongs the learning process.

Have a question about language learning I haven’t answered here? Write in the comments and I’ll do my best to follow-up with everyone!


Back to China: Thoughts on Business, Culture and Language Learning in Beijing

I just got back from a two week trip to Beijing. Well actually I got back yesterday, but it’s 3:36am now and my body has decided sleep is over so I thought I might as well write.

My first trip to China was almost three years ago. In addition to being the third stop in Vat and my language learning project, it was also my favorite place on the trip. I, like a lot of other Westerners, had a somewhat negative perception of China beforehand and ended up falling in love with the country afterward.

Chinese was also the language I had the most interest in improving after our trip was done. I think I enjoyed Spanish equally, but felt more satisfied with what we had accomplished after three months. With Mandarin, I pushed myself to my mental limit over three months and still left feeling like there was a lot further I wanted to go.

I had two major reasons for going to Beijing. First, after continuing to casually work on my Chinese, I really wanted to see whether I would notice a difference when I went back. Would it feel easier, or would it still retain the devilishly frustrating ups and downs I remembered?

Second, China is actually the only place where I’m actually a published author. After the MIT Challenge, a few Chinese bloggers caught wind of the project and a Chinese press wanted to translate and publish paperback editions of my book, Learn More, Study Less. The book has sold fairly well in China. Strangely, it’s true now that most of the people who have read my work haven’t read it in English.

Beijing was therefore an opportunity to meet my publishers face-to-face and do some events for the Chinese readers.

Hutong

Thoughts on Learning Chinese

The biggest contrast I felt was between arriving in China my first and second times. My first time I had only done some minimal preparation, and communicating on the street was brutal. For the first month or two, learning Chinese was two steps forward, one step back. You’d learn how to say something but then find out that locals only understood you perhaps half of the time.

This time in China was completely different. People more or less understood what I was saying—the first time. This was something Vat and I took for granted in Spain, but it was nice to really feel that ability in Chinese.

The first day or two—getting checked in, fixing internet problems, buying a SIM card and sightseeing all went fairly smoothly. Being able to just ask someone where something is or how to do something, understand their response and have a dialog if there is any confusions really makes a big difference.

The test of my Chinese got taken up a notch when I met my publisher for the first time. For the last three years, I’ve used English to communicate with them exclusively via email. However, when we finally met we ended up switching pretty immediately to almost entirely Chinese.

Doing a business meeting with a dozen people in Mandarin would have definitely been outside my ability at the end of my first trip in China, so this was the first real evidence that I had gotten better after getting home.

It turned out that my test wasn’t over however. My publisher had ambitiously prepared media interviews, a live presentation with audience Q&A and two separate one-hour online lectures (including one with over 40,000 live attendees), and decided it was best if I also did these in Mandarin.

These activities were definitely closer to the limits of my ability. Giving a live, spontaneous presentation with Q&A in English can be tricky, so I definitely felt the strain in Chinese. Still, for the first time I saw the path forward to a more complete fluency in Chinese that for most of my learning experience was just an abstract notion that I knew must exist, but had no concrete sense of how I would ever possibly get there.

Speaking in China

Thoughts on Beijing

My first time in the capital, Beijing was quite different from both Kunming and Shanghai, the other two Chinese cities I’ve been to.

The first and most unfortunate aspect you discover on Beijing is the air pollution. The smog was quite bad during my two weeks there. For a short trip, the air quality is a minor nuisance. But I can’t imagine living every day having to breathe the air there and the effect it would have on your body.

On the plus side, while Beijing is a big megacity like Shanghai, it felt much more interesting as a tourist. I was lucky enough to stay in an AirBnB of a traditional Chinese courtyard house in one of the historic hutongs. My trip was also packed with sightseeing, filling almost every spare moment with something new to see or do.

My favorite places in Beijing are also the most popular: The Great Wall (I went to Mutianyu) and the Forbidden City. The Great Wall is breathtaking in scenery and a marvel of architectural construction. The Forbidden City easily trumps the Louvre or Versailles as places of royal opulence.

For activities, I also got my first taste of Peking Opera. Surprisingly cheap (seats were as cheap as $4 for a 3-hour show) there were three separate performances. The first was in classical Chinese and essentially incomprehensible. The second felt more western, with comedic overtones and comprehensibly modern Mandarin. The finale was mostly acrobatics and martial arts.

Above all, Beijing is a city to eat. Chinese food, unfortunately, has a lower quality reputation in the West. However, good Chinese cuisine is on the same level as the finest French food, and the Chinese treat it accordingly.

China has an impressive foodie culture. When you ask what someone likes to do in their spare time, the #1 response I got was, “I like to eat.”

The biggest disadvantage tourists have is that good Chinese food needs several people to eat it. Going alone to restaurants really limits what you can enjoy. Therefore, I was lucky I got to go to many different restaurants with my readers, publishers and friends, sampling Beijing, Yunnan, Hunan, Sichuan, Hubei, Cantonese, Buddhist Vegetarian and Shanghai delicacies.

Street food is also great in China. My first time in a Northern city, it was also my first time eating jianbing, a kind of Chinese crepe. Great to eat on the go when planning a day of sight-seeing. Candied hawthornes on a stick are ubiquitous, and are much better than candied apples in the West.

Overall Beijing is a place I enjoyed a lot, but it’s not without it’s difficulties. On top of air pollution, traffic is an absolute nightmare, so you’re almost always better off taking the subway than trying to get around in a cab. If you like places bursting with culture and sights, and don’t mind a few rough edges, China is a great place to travel to.

Yuyuantan Park

Thoughts on Business in China

The unexpected twist of this trip was how many business meetings I ended up having. A large part of that is due to the sales of my book, and that I was in Beijing, the hub of publishing and entrepreneurship in China.

One of my live online talks, which had over 40,000 attendees, was actually a paid talk. With listeners paying about $0.50 to listen in. Although I didn’t see any of the proceeds from that, it was nonetheless interesting on two fronts. First, that my audience in China is large enough to get 40,000 people to listen to a live talk (my biggest *free* webinars in English have only ever had about 1000 attendees). Second, that micropayments and other unusual pricing innovations are much more developed in China.

My leaving impression on being in China was on both the opportunity there, and also the difficulties. The opportunity is obvious. For whatever reason, my blog and content resonate well with Chinese readers.

The difficulties, however are there too. Although having learned Chinese lowers the barriers somewhat, doing business in China can be a frustrating process. Even getting the paperwork settled to run a course with Cal Newport that crossed the US/Canada border had months of calls with accountants and lawyers, so repeating that process with China would be an order of magnitude more involved.

Chinese business culture is also different than North American. Trust and relationships are paramount. I was lucky that my publishing contract is fairly straightforward. However if I wanted to expand my courses or online offerings to China, that would require a much more involved partner.

The difficulty with getting legal remedies in conflicts also makes doing business in China a challenge. Not to mention norms about communication and collaboration differ (did I mention I didn’t get paid for my talk?). While there’s plenty of unscrupulous businesspeople in the West, I feel like the challenge with China is also cultural—expectations are different so what might feel normal in one place is a violation in another.

I also get the impression that had I not spoken Chinese, my experience would have been very different. Translation is bad in China, and while educated people tend to have strong reading abilities in English, the comfort level with spoken English is low enough that it can present a significant communication barrier.

This trade-off point occurs fairly high though—I’m only now at a point where it makes sense to have business meetings in Chinese. So it would be incorrect to suggest learning a bit of Chinese is a good business investment. I think you need to learn a lot (including being able to read and write) for it to actually be more effective than using English.

I definitely left with the impression of wanting to do more in China, but of needing to go slow and do things the right way—through trusted contacts and building relationships. Actually, in this sense, it’s exactly like how I’ve run my business in Canada.

Me and Chinese blogger Zhansun speaking about learning

Concluding Thoughts

This post is already way too long, so if you’re one of the few patient readers who’ve made it this far, I thank you. But I thought I’d wrap up with some overall thoughts.

First, language learning has the potential to be a great investment. Vat and I often got strange looks when we told people our plan to learn languages by not speaking English. Why ruin a good trip with such an intense constraint, you might ask?

Well aside from the constraint making the trip instead of breaking it, I think the biggest reason is that languages are an investment. Not a great one if you plan to stay at home, but a potential one if you want to do more travel (or business) abroad. I’ve already been to four other Spanish-speaking countries. Knowing the language made travel vastly easier and more accessible.

This trip to China was my first time back, but it opened up in ways that wouldn’t have been possible as an English monolingual.

Second, China is a great place to travel to if you’re a bit more adventurous. It’s beautiful, historic and quite cheap. The language is the greatest barrier, but even when communication fails that can be part of the fun.

If you’re worried about smog or crowds, it’s important to note that most of China isn’t Beijing or Shanghai. I would put the diversity of China on par with the entirety of Europe, so it’s definitely not something you can say to have had experienced just by going to the capital.

Third, you never really know where learning new things will take you. I don’t really learn to maximize the economic benefits. I learn because the world is a curious place and I want to know more about it. But, the great thing about learning new things—be they languages, cultures, subjects or skills—is that they take you places you couldn’t have imagined beforehand.

Great Wall of China


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