You may think that learning a foreign language takes time. And you would be right. But it probably takes less time than you think. All you need is some discipline. It starts with a clear vision of what you want to achieve. Then you have to spend time every week, or even everyday, practicing your target language to get closer to your goal. One step at a time.
Define a goal
The first step is to define your goal. You need to have a clear vision of why you are learning a foreign language, and where you want to go.
In our situation, a goal is a precise statement of the level you want to reach.
I’m not talking about some fake motivational vision here. The point is not to motivate or inspire you. It’s much more practical than that: In order to go somewhere, you have to know what « somewhere » means. When you need food, you don’t just go out, wander, and hope for the best. No, you know where you have to go to get food. You know your destination: Wholefoods, In & Out, your grandma’s, … It’s not just « somewhere. »
Precise means crystal clear and quantifiable. « Being fluent » doesn’t mean anything. It’s not quantifiable. It’s vague. To you, fluency means being able to order a beer in German during Oktoberfest. But to your neighbor, it means understanding Spanish comments when he’s watching Real Madrid games.
Forget about fluency. Focus on what you want.
Why are you learning a foreign language?
In what kind of situations are you going to use your new language?
Be specific. And make your goal quantifiable. You need to measure your progress in order to track it.
Ordering a beer in German and watching soccer games in Spanish are both precise goals. But you also have to make them quantifiable in order to know what to do. For example, instead of « ordering a beer in German », you can say « having a 2-minute interaction with a German where I ask for a beer and I understand the answer (what kind of beer? price? credit card, cash?). » And instead of « watching soccer in Spanish »: « Listening to two people (or more) talking fast in Spanish about soccer during 90 minutes. »
Maybe you just want to learn a new language to travel and communicate with people. Maybe you don’t have any specific situation in mind. In this case, I recommend you to choose a medium (audio, video, or conversation) to track your progress.
A while back, I discovered a Brazilian Youtuber (Dani Russo). And I loved her! (Even though I couldn’t understand a word of what she was saying.) So, when I started learning Brazilian Portuguese, I chose her videos to set a goal. I didn’t have anything specific in mind, I just wanted to be able to communicate fluidly when visiting Brazil. And I chose to understand ~75% of her videos (to avoid confusion: I wanted to understand 75% of what she says in each one of her videos) as my goal. I used videos here as my medium to track my progress.
If you aim at mastery (being mistaken for a native speaker of your target language), your goal can be: « Understanding 99% of Dani Russo’s videos. » Or if you just want to be able to get by, without being very proficient, it can be only 25 or 50%.
That’s just one example. You can use songs (e.g., understanding 50% of songs by an artist of your choice), or conversations (e.g., holding a 15-minute conversation without using English).
How to set your goal
Ask yourself « why am I learning this language? » School, travel, love, family, … ?
Ask yourself « what kind of interactions I will have? » At a bar, work, hostel, with a host family, … ?
Be crystal clear.
Make it quantifiable. Use numbers to define your goal.
Motivation: I want to take an Italian cooking class in Italy.
—> Quantifiable goal: Understand 99% of the videos of an Italian online cooking show.
Motivation: I’m backpacking through Thailand.
—> Quantifiable goal: Understand (and sing along) 75% of Thai mainstream pop songs.
Motivation: I want to taste wines in French wineries.
—> Quantifiable goal: Hold a 10-minute conversation exclusively in French talking about wines.
Now that you have a quantifiable goal, you can break it into sub-goals. That’s how you will track your progress.
Back to my example with Portuguese. Before understanding 75% of Dani Russo’s videos, I needed to understand 50%. And before understanding 50%, I needed to understand 25%. So my first goal was to reach this threshold of 25%.
Of course, it’s only an estimation. I don’t count words or anything like that. That’s why I’m using numbers such as 25, 50, 75, or 99. There’s no way I could precisely measure 66% for example. Judge by yourself, and see how much you can understand, approximately.
At first, I didn’t use Dani’s videos to learn Portuguese. I was only using them to track my progress. So I would watch one of her videos every Sunday, and see how much I could understand. And it would be a different video each Sunday. There’s no point in using the same video to track your progress. Since you get used to this video, your evaluation would then be biased.
Dominate your schedule
If you think you don’t have time to learn a foreign language, think again!
I’m sure you have time to go to Facebook, or Netflix. Nothing wrong with that, and I don’t want to be a Debbie Downer. But if you really want to make progress with your target language, then you have to dedicate a serious amount of time to practice. There’s no way around it. Treat language learning like a sport. Schedule your sessions. It’s like running, or going to the gym.
We’re all different. Some of us learn fast and some of us need more time. So I can’t tell you practice four times a week for two hours and you will be fluent in three weeks. Plus, if your native language is Italian and you are learning Spanish, then you will go way faster than a French learning Finnish. But, just like working out, practice regularly. Be consistent. For me, the best way to get started is to practice for 15-30 minutes at least five days a week.
When you’re comfortable, you can then build up from that, and invest more time if you want. As long as you’re having fun, it’s all good.
Choose a daily or weekly schedule. And stick to it!