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Learning a Second Language Fast

Updated on May 7, 2015

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When Learning a New Language: More Pressure Means More Progress

There are several reasons why people would like to learn a second language. Some do it because they are going to work in an environment in which the target language is predominantly used. Others want to learn so as to create more opportunities for themselves. Others want it simply for fun. Those who are obliged to learn due to circumstances such as the first one stated above are likely to make better progress since they have no choice but to learn. The other two categories are left to their own self motivation to either acquire the language or not. Many in the last category rarely learn beyond the greetings and introductions.

However, it is possible to learn a language from scratch no matter how old you are. Of course the younger you are the faster you make advancement in learning. This is because children regard the acquisition of language as a natural process they are involved in while adults tend to feel embarrassed when they make mistakes speaking a new language. Secondly, the first language already acquired by the adult tends to interfere with the second language being learned. However, apart from these, there is no scientific evidence to show that anyone who already knows one language cannot learn a new language and use it fluently.

Pitfalls of Second Language Learning

The main obstacle to learning a new language is the attitude of the learner himself. This is exhibited by what I call the excitement-disillusionment curve. I came up with this observation in 4 years of teaching English to students who had fled from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The first time they joined the class they were excited and did everything I asked of them, even though they had to help me give instructions, since I was using French, a language in which I had made little progress myself.

Soon enough the going would get tougher and the curve of excitement would come down. The enthusiasm for doing assignments dwindled and the students had a harder time understanding my smattering of French, where they had understood it beautifully before. The next stage was the turnover rate. 2 of the 8 students had dropped out after one month citing lack of fees. I was well aware that they were fully sponsored as refugees to undertake the studies. The others stayed on but missed classes regularly, except for 1 student who trudged on, attended religiously and did all the homework on time. In three months flat he was speaking fluent English and got a job a month later as an English-French interpreter for a church in France. This inspired the other students who had only a smattering of the language to return in full force, including those who had deregistered. However, they soon left for their country where some calm had been restored.

This anecdote explains quite well how I came up with the term excitement-disillusionment curve. When the curve was up, the excitement and concentration was at a maximum. When the curve went down, learning almost grounded to a halt for everyone except one total diehard who defied all odds to become fluent in three straight months. Most linguists predict that it would take about 6 years to learn a language fairly fluently. Three months was a record that stunned even me. I learned a number of lessons from his experience which I wish to share with you today. So how can you as a learner be the diehard high achiever and not the lazy, disillusioned crowd?

Mastering a Language Quick

This is beginning to sound like one of those adverts luring you to enroll for some online course. However, the reality is that learning a language, any language, is a lifelong process. That is why you keep on learning new words and phrases in the mother-tongue you have spoken for as long as you have lived. Mastering a language here, only means acquiring a level of confidence that can enable you communicate with native speakers of that language fluently and without too many noticeable inhibitions. Be under no illusions, this calls for hard work. However, if you strictly follow the procedure below, and maybe throw in a few tricks of your own (don’t begin wondering what these tricks are, they will come along as you learn); you could master that new language you crave in 6 months flat. The advice below applies only to the extent of the effort you make on your own to master a language.

Learning a New Language Step 1: Plan to Speak First, Reading and Writing Will Follow

This sounds very strange, most language classes introduce you straight to the written word. Before you know it you are deep into studying the grammar and literature of that language as if you are some Harvard scholar chasing a degree. If you have joined a language class already, then some of your free time will go into doing the assignments you carry with you from the classroom. However, the time you curve out on your own will be used for learning to converse, not to write dissertations. Get me right, I have been a language teacher for long, and the oldest trick in the book of language teaching is to teach the grammar of that language. This process involves all the four basics of language that are taught simultaneously: listening, speaking, reading and writing. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that, it is the most comprehensive way of learning a language. So the teachers handling your language lessons know exactly what they are doing. Remember what happened to those who walked out of my class, so if you have joined a class already, don’t walk out. Just do what I am about to explain during your own free time to speed up your mastery of the language.

The rationale for this approach is very simple. There are thousands of people who speak English for example but they can never pass any grammar exam. There are even speakers who are totally unable to read or write. If you want to learn fast, then join this group. Think of the reading and writing bit, which is very important unless you want to be unable to even read a newspaper in that acquired language, or to embarrass yourself by asking others to read your SMS. What is quite clear is that learning only to listen and speak will enable you to move faster than when you have to move with all the four skills together. Moreover, learning to read and write a language you can already speak is a lot easier since you are only translating sounds to symbols and back to sounds; sounds which you are already quite familiar with.

Learning a New Language Step 2: Create the Right Environment

Even if you wanted to speak, where would you start? How would you speak a language you do not know? How do you get the translations if you cannot even use a dictionary? This method is simply not workable right; dead wrong. The best case scenario is to have an environment full of speakers of the language you wish to learn. You cannot however speak with them immediately, so get some items in that language. The items in question are videos. Videos have the advantage of communicating to you through sound and vision. Sound gives you the words you wish to learn. Vision gives you the non-verbal communication which accompanies the words so that you can decipher some meanings. We may have many different verbal languages, but non-verbal communication is still universal. Many videos these days come with subtitles, which will help you understand what is happening in your own language.

The videos should be in the form of films, music, cartoons and recorded reality events. You will be surprised at how similar church proceedings are for instance, irrespective of which language they are presented in. Public events such as award ceremonies are also similar worldwide with very little variation if any. Proceedings in the British House of Commons are similar to those in the French parliament, except for the language used. So just because it is coming from another language, does not mean that it is so different from what you are familiar with.

Learning a New Language Step 3: Get to Work

Armed with these videos, lock yourself in your room and start practicing. The first time watch the whole thing without undue interruptions. Then watch it again and try to see which words you can make out. Then watch – pause - repeat what has just been said as best as you can - then play on. Shout them, whisper them, sing them, repeat them and repeat and repeat. Just behave like you have gone crazy, after all this is your private abode. Soon some words and their meanings will begin to become familiar. It is stunning that in every 1000 words we speak, about 800 are repeated at least once. The majority of the words we use in a day, a movie or a church sermon are just the same words over and over again. Just look at this article and try to notice how many words I have repeated; in this paragraph alone “words” has appeared 6 times.

Nothing aids learning a language more than repetition. The more a word or phrase is repeated, the more it becomes familiar. Soon you will be able to speak the words as fluently as those in the video themselves. You will sing along with the musicians and deliver an entire sermon with the preachers. The beauty of it is that most of the words in the sermon will also be in the songs and the movies as well. If their translations are coming in through subtitles, you will be somewhere in about a month. Just try to go through as many of these videos as possible. It is important to note that the vocabulary of any particular individual is limited, even the script writer.

If you are in an environment in which there are people speaking the language you are learning, and your own language as well, then you can ask them what a certain expression (which you have picked up) means. You can also confirm the ones you already know. If you are not in such an environment then you can now register for a class. Your own practice must continue though. At this point you must begin speaking with other people who already know the language, ( your teacher if there is no one else). You will find that there are many simple things you can’t say, but you will also notice that there are some expressions you have learned which even you teacher or the native speaker doesn’t know. There is no way you can do this consistently for six months and not be able to speak that language.


As stated in the beginning of this piece, your main undoing will be your own embarrassment, reluctance, disillusionment and laziness. However, if you are motivated enough you can keep this up and be able to communicate within the stipulated period. Somewhere, along the way, you will formally register for an actual class, or one of those ‘learn a new language in a month’ online tutorials. These will give you the depth, but you will already have the basics. Your brain can never let you down.


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