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Learn to speak a foreign language in three months

gareth By gareth Published on May 20, 2017
This article was updated on October 11, 2017

Most people have at least a few bad memories from their school days. Mine mostly involved French lessons. From an early age I was fascinated by foreign languages and was eager to start to learn to speak one.  Unfortunately within a week of my first French lesson I was already lost as my teacher spewed out complicated grammatical terms (complicated for an 11 year old at least) and didn't seem to stop to check that everyone was keeping up.  The next five years of French education mostly revolved around failing exams due to misunderstanding how an adjective agreed with it's noun or mixing up my verb conjugations.


At the end of my French education I managed to scrape through the final exam, but on a subsequent trip to France I realised that I was completely incapable of even basic communication with the locals.


However a few years later, in preparation for another visit I succeeded in mastering the necessary vocabulary for basic conversation within 3 months.


Many people have similar memories of language learning at school but learning to speak a foreign language doesn't have to be difficult, and can in fact be easy and fun. How do I know this? I'm currently learning my 4th foreign language (Arabic) after having mastered French, and learnt enough Spanish and German to have a reasonable conversation. And it turns out that people who are good at learning languages, that is people who can speak 4 or 5 languages fluently, invariably use a collection of similar methods, that are easy to apply to your own language learning attempts.


But first, lets look at why most peoples' first experience of foreign language learning is unsuccessful, which will probably have been at the age of 10 or 11, give or take a few years. One of the reasons why learning a foreign language at school is generally such an unpleasant experience and the reason why people generally can't communicate in a foreign language even after several years of study is because at school, you're not being taught how to communicate in a foreign language, you're actually being taught testable facts, like the irregular forms of the imperfect of the subjunctive or complicated rules about German word order, in order for you to pass an exam at the end of the year.


So if we're thinking of learning a foreign language, we need to ask ourselves what our aim is. Is it to pass exams, or is it to be able to read books, watch films and actually talk with people in their native language, maybe when visiting another country? I'd guess that most people are more interested in understanding and using a foreign language, rather than passing exams, so lets look at what we need to learn in order to be fluent in a foreign language.


Vocabulary - what to learn?

Taking French as an example, lets look at how many words there are in the French language. Depending how you define a word, there are around 100 000 words in French,  so it looks like we've got a massive task ahead of us.


However the concept of coverage can help us here. Coverage is the percentage of a language you can understand with your vocabulary.


An average native speaker has a vocabulary of around 20 000 words, and a coverage of 98%. That means that with a vocabulary of 20 000 words you will understand around 98% of everything you read and hear in your language. This percentage varies depending on the language, but as a rough guide the figures below show that you can start to understand a considerable amount of a foreign language with a relatively small vocabulary :


20 000 words: 98%

4000 words: 90%

2000 words: 84%

1000 words: 77%

100 words: 53%

10 words: 24%


(See http://nflrc.hawaii.edu/rfl/April2005/chujo/chujo.html)


So how do we decide which words we need to learn ? Obviously we want to learn the 10 most common words first !


There is more good news, The average newspaper uses a vocabulary of approximately 4000 words, and people engaging in everyday conversation will make use of about 3000 words. That means to successfully be able to communicate in a foreign language you need to learn around 3000 words in your target language. A quick calculation makes it clear that learning 30 words a day, we can get to a stage where we can take part in an every day conversation in a foreign language in around 3 months.


Armed with this knowledge, now we just need to know which words to learn. Frequency dictionaries are word lists ordered by frequency of use.  There are several good ones available and linked at the bottom of this page, and you can also find plenty of good sources of words on the internet:

https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Frequency_lists


So once we've got a list of the 3000 words we need to learn, what is the best way of learning them ?


Effective learning techniques

Spaced repetition is generally considered one of the most effective ways to learn new information. This technique is based on studies of how the brain retains information. This graph shows the percentage of retention of new information over time, and we can see that as time progresses we can recall less.


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Spaced repetition relies on the fact that if we review the information a second time we will recall it for longer than the first time we learned it. And as we review several times and the information is committed into long term memory, we can increase the time between reviews.


Useful Tools

So this theory is fine, but in practice how do we do this? There are several tools that put this theory into practice. One of the most popular ways is with a program called Anki. Anki allows you to create your own list of words to learn, or download a ready-made list from the internet. You then learn words as a series of flashcards, and Anki will automatically show you words less often as you commit them to long term memory. This image shows an example flashcard, with the answer displayed.

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You can see here for every word you learn, you can let Anki know if you know the word well or not at all by clicking on the buttons at the bottom of the screen, and Anki will help you learn more efficiently by repeating more frequently the words you're having trouble learning. In this example, if you dont know the word (red button), anki will test you again in 10 minutes.


Another popular tool is Memrise, which has a huge catalogue of dictionaries to learn, along with a fun app similar to DuoLingo. Memrise includes multiple choice questions and other games to make the learning process more fun.


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Anki and Memrise both have mobile apps available so it's easy to learn a few words whilst waiting for the bus on your morning commute.


But Endless Anki or Memrise sessions can become boring, so once you have a vocabulary of about 400 words, that's after about 2 weeks, you can move on to something more fun. Graded readers are books with a simplified vocabulary, meaning you could be reading Charles Dickens or Cervantes within the first month of learning your foreign language. I have linked several books below, and you can find many more searching on Bookwitty.


Conversation

From here you can move on to the next stage which is actively using your new language.


Unless you are living in a foreign country, you're going to have to find someone who's willing to talk to you in your chosen language. Luckily that's really easy with sites like Conversation Exchange, which enable you to meet up with people who speak your language and spend an hour a week or more chatting over a coffee or a beer.


Finally...

If you know of any useful books for language learners, link them to this article to help other learners, and I'd love to know what language you are learning, and how it's going. Leave a message in the comments.


Let's finish with a tip for anyone who is speaking to a foreign language learner, Whether its during a conversation exchange or in any other situation. You might think that it's useful for the language learner for you to correct their errors when they make a mistake. Perhaps you imagine that people would want to be corrected so they can learn from their errors, but it's important to do this in the correct way. If you interrupt a conversation to point out an error, it can destroy someone's confidence as well as putting a stop to a conversation. But its possible to help someone learn from their errors in a way that reinforces their learning, its called recasting, and basically you note the error and use the correct word later in the conversation. Imagine the following conversation :


Language learner: "I'm going swumming this afternoon."


Incorrect reply: " I think you mean swimming. Swam is the past participle bla bla bla..."


Correct reply: "It sounds like you enjoy swimming. I like to swim too, and I swam at my local pool last week"



Cover photo copyright Quinn Dombrowski - https://www.flickr.com/photos/quinnanya/5889720469



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