How to learn a language fast

Focus on language that is specific to your needs right now

According to experts, if you are determined enough, you can learn basic communication skills of any language in a few weeks and get a good grasp of the basics of a foreign language in a few months.   This doesn’t mean that you will be able to read the works of Cervantes or Goethe but it is enough time to quickly focus on language that is specific to your needs, whether you are buying a house in Spain or going on a business trip to Berlin. It genuinely won’t take you long.  If you think you can be fluent in two months, you will be disappointed.  But if you want to master the basics of a language in that time, that’s entirely possible.

I’m too scared!

The biggest barrier that most people face and this is a big barrier, is lack of confidence.  If you are going to make progress, you need the courage to speak in a foreign language.   That was certainly the barrier for me when I first started learning German at the age of 11 and one that I see every day in my classes.   Yes, it may mean putting your reputation on the line, but it is a very common problem that must be overcome.

There’s even a medical term for it:  xenoglossophobia – ‘the feeling of unease, worry, nervousness and apprehension experienced when learning or using a second or foreign language’ – and trust me, I’ve been there! Yes, it’s intimidating at the beginning – I used to spend hours in front of books and notes, learning a lot, but when it came to a conversation, the words couldn’t come out.

My problem was that I wanted to speak perfectly straight away and I was actually scared of making mistakes!  But you will never speak a language fluently without making mistakes first! At the beginning you will say things like “Me – want – buy – this ” but this is normal and all part of the learning process.   All your hard work learning the vocabulary and grammar will not be wasted,  it just won’t be useful to you until you need it and this may not be at the very beginning.   Once you conquer your fear of speaking, you will make progress fast.   And there is no better feeling than being understood in a foreign language and getting to the end of a very successful conversation.

So how did I overcome my fear of speaking?  

When I arrived as an Erasmus student in Germany 18 years ago, I had 3 days to find accommodation as Heidelberg University would not provide it. I only discovered this when I arrived!  So I was left with no option but to find accommodation myself.  This is when my survival instinct kicked in.  Faced with being homeless after three days, I had no choice but to buy the local newspapers and phone up people offering a spare room from a phone box.  I must have phoned dozens of locals…and did I care about making mistakes or embarrassing myself at that point? Definitely not! Did I understand everything? No! Yes it was scary at first but I just didn’t care – I had to find somewhere to live urgently!

That was the breaking point for me and I haven’t stopped speaking since! As they say in German, Übung macht den Meister  – practice makes perfect. The best compliment I ever had was when I was mistaken for a German in Berlin a couple of years ago.  I was buying some German cheese from a farmers’ market and the German stallholder asked where exactly in Bavaria I was from! Being understood is the goal but being mistaken for a native is the dream!

Immerse yourself in the culture

Not everyone can spend a long period of time in a foreign country but thanks to today’s rise in technology, it is still possible to immerse yourself in a foreign language without moving from your sofa.  The more you immerse yourself in the foreign language — by reading, listening to smartphone apps, speaking to people, watching familiar films in a foreign language — the quicker you will make progress.

It’s a commitment and you have to invest yourself wholeheartedly if you want to speak well. It’s also good to get feedback from other people.  This is possible if you attend language lessons or know a native speaker, but not so easy if you are learning on your own through the Internet or from CDs.  It helps to have someone keep you on track, correct your pronunciation and grammar.  However, you shouldn’t worry about your grammar in the early stages – communicating clearly comes first.

So, in a nutshell, what should you do if you want to learn a language fast?

• Take risks and speak the language whenever you can – on holiday,  with someone you know who speaks the language or find a conversation partner online – try https://www.italki.com/home
• Watch films in a foreign language (with subtitles – Netflix has a fairly good range)
• Make use of free smartphone apps and foreign language podcasts
• Make mistakes!
• Get feedback from native speakers if you can
• Learn about the culture – read books, watch documentaries, cook something from that country, listen to music

Remember, you need patience when learning a language. Rome wasn’t built in a day.  Languages have taken 1000s of years to evolve so don’t expect to become proficient overnight. Learning a language is like learning to play the piano. Both require repetition and practice.  You need patience and persistence at first, and the rewards will increase the better you get – travelling will be more fun, it will build your self-confidence, boost your creativity, you’ll meet more people and employers will love it!  Speaking another language will open doors to you around the world, so why not make it your goal to start learning a language this summer!

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Elena Roveglia

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elena Roveglia
Elena is a professional translator and educator and was born and bred in Carmarthenshire, Wales, UK. She is bilingual in Welsh and English. As an avid linguist, she also speaks Spanish, German and Italian fluently. Elena is a Chartered Linguist, is a GCSE examiner for one of the main UK exam boards, and was Head of Languages in independent and state schools across the UK for over 15 years. She is the founder of Roveglia Language Services which offers translation, proofreading, editing and online language tuition to companies worldwide. Elena has a special interest in teaching Business English. When she's not at her desk, Elena enjoys travelling with her Italian husband Elkana, running, baking cakes and learning languages! She also loves throwing on a pair of welly boots and spending time on her parents' farm in Carmarthenshire.

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