Learn a language in 6 months

In January I started a series of blog posts on learning languages, speculating how we could learn faster and more effectively. I decided to use these tips in practice to see if I could learn a new language in 6 months, and I chose Portuguese. The 6 months are over now, so I wanted to give a final update on my progress and reflect on what I’ve learned in the process about learning languages.

But first, if you haven’t been following them, I would like to invite you to read the previous posts on the topic, which you can access by clicking on the links below:

  1. “Dispelling 5 language learning myths”
  2. “5 steps to language fluency”
  3. “Be fluent in a language in 6 months – mission impossible?”
  4. “First update – two months on”

So how much have I learnt?

I can’t say I’m completely fluent, but I can have a chat on most familiar topics, understand people and most of what’s said on TV and read  a book. I still make mistakes, my pronunciation is dodgy at times, I find it difficult to understand people speaking very quickly and colloquially, and I sometimes mix Spanish with Portuguese. So there’s a long way to go, on the one hand, but on the other – I’m quite happy where I am and what I’ve achieved.

And even more importantly, I learned many new things about learning languages, and this is what I would like to share with you in this post.

1. Learning new words:words

  • identify chunks (2 – 3 words together) and functional language (e.g. Would you like a…; Do you fancy +ing) and don’t learn isolated words
  • mine reading and listening texts for lexis
  • when you hear somebody use a phrase you don’t know, ask about the meaning and note it down (unless you have a good memory for sounds, you’ll forget it – so I tend to take a small note pad for my language exchanges where I can quickly jot down the new words)
  • choose a lexical set that is relevant, interesting and useful – there’s no point in learning words you’ll never use!
  • use mnemonic devices to boost your learning (anchor the new word to an image/sound, create a pun around it, i.e. le vol is theft in French – imagine lord VOLdemort stealing a magic wand from Hogwarts)
  • 5 a day, keeps the doctor away – even such a small number of words can make a difference
  • avoid the forgetting curve – use spaced-repetition:
  • use Memrise to boost your efficiency and effects – for me memrise.com is an absolute winner; by combining spaced repetition with mnemonic devices it gives your memory an incredible kick – read my post on it here
  • use it or lose it – no matter how many new words you manage to memorize, they’ll be useless unless you put them to good use – so go out there, and make a conscious effort to use the new phrases as soon as you get a chance

2. Grammar:

  • it’s much less important than your teacher would like you to believe – especially at the beginning, the key is new vocabulary, phrases and functional language
  • don’t try to be correct all the time – embrace mistakes: believe me – nobody will laugh at you!
  • pay attention to what people say – listen carefully to what and how your interlocutor speaks, identify the grammar pattern and use it
  • pay attention to your own mistakes – you need to learn to monitor your language to identify the slips (i.e. mistakes with language you already know)
  • focused correction – tell your language buddy to focus on a particular area you’re having problems with, or you’ve recently studied (e.g. past simple), and to correct you – if you ask somebody to correct all your mistakes, you’re likely to end up silent and disillusioned after 5 minutes
  • avoid ‘useless’ grammar – many grammar points have little effect on your fluency, so instead of worrying about the correct article or possessive pronouns, first get a hang of the basic tenses present and past simple, going to and present perfect – this will greatly improve the array of things you can say
  • don’t wait until you know it all – start using the past simple even if you only know some regular verbs and only 1 or 2 irregular ones – people will correct you along the way, you will notice the correct patterns, and learn much more by practising it then by doing gap-fills
  • use it – as with vocabulary, there’s no point in learning something if you’re unlikely to use it, so as soon as possible put the new grammar into use – if you’ve just learned a new pattern, then  make a conscious effort to utilise it as soon as you get the chance

3. The input – reading and listening:

  • immersion – whether you are a beginner or not, you should start listening and reading in the target language from day 1, even if it’s just 5 minutes a day, you’ll soon start to note a difference in how much you understandheadphones 2
  • notice the language – try to pay attention to how the language is used, compare it with how you use it, note down one or two useful phrases, and use them when you get a chance
  • make it fun – choose topics that are interesting for you
  • connect it to vocabulary and speaking – if you’re learning football vocabulary on Memrise, listen and read some World Cup commentaries, and make it the speaking topic of your next language exchange
  • choose texts that are useful and relevant – e.g. if you want to learn every day language, choose texts that reflect it
  • prepare for the text – use the title, the headings, the main photo, etc. to brainstorm vocabulary that is likely to appear in the text – it will make reading/listening much easier
  • main message first – focus on the overall meaning and set yourself a simple task, i.e. how many people are speaking? are they happy or sad?
  • identify the difficulties and tackle them – again read/listen to the parts you found difficult a few times to discover the meaning

4. Speaking:conversation bubbles

  • this is crucial if you’re ever going to make any progress – you must SPEAK!
  • language buddy – find somebody you can talk to in the target language – most cities have regular events when people meet to practise different languages
  • make mistakes – otherwise you’ll never learn! But please do pay attention to the correct version as well
  • relax – most adults find it very stressful to speak in a foreign language they don’t know well: now, please take a deep breath, count to 10, and relax – nobody’s going to laugh at you; actually, most native speakers will be delighted you’re trying to speak their language!
  • simplify your language – your L1 vocabulary is incredibly much more varied than your beginner L2, so a good fluency trick at the beginning is to use simpler constructions and words, which you already know, to express yourself in the target language
  • use fillers – long pauses can be embarrassing, so to avoid them, use phrases such as: well, you know, I mean to fill them in: right away you’ll sound much more natural and fluent
  • describe what you don’t know – if you’re about to stop, because you don’t know a word, don’t – use simpler vocabulary, a synonym, describe the word you’re looking for, point to it or ask how it’s called

5. Motivation:dream away

  • it’s got to be fun – if you’re feeling tired or frustrated with studying, give yourself a break: watch a film instead, have a chat with your language buddy, etc.
  • set yourself achievable, concrete and small goals – otherwise you’re risking disappointment, i.e. I will learn 5 words related to football every day for 10 days, is a much better goal then, I will learn new words
  • ask yourself WHY you’re learning the language – the most effective goals are usually the ones that are intrinsic and personal
  • find something you like – there must be something you enjoy doing, a great hobby you have, e.g. cooking: why not learn how to do it in a new language?
  • start a diary – it’s very easy to underrate your own progress, but if you keep a diary of what you have achieved and learnt, you will be able to clearly see how much you have improved

Good luck! Boa sorte! Bonne chance! Suerte! Viel Gluck! Powodzenia!

Apart from the 4 posts mentioned above, you might find these useful too:

  • learn how to be  a good learner here
  • Lizzy Pinnard tells us how she’s learning Italian in this post
  • Sandy Millin reflects on her language learning experience here

13 thoughts on “Learn a language in 6 months

    1. Thanks for reblogging 🙂 Je espere que vos eleves pouront utiliser ces idees pour apprendre anglais plus facile 🙂 (Sorry for not using the accents, but don’t have a French keyboard)

      1. I hope they will! I’m currently collecting ideas how to keep learning during the summer. Your tips should definitely serve all students well. 🙂 (never mind the accents, the message is clear 😉 )

    1. Vai bem, obrigado! Eu nao tinha muito tempo para practicar nas ultimas semanas, entao me sinto um pouco ‘rusty’. Voce ve a Copa do Mundo? Acha que o Brasil vai ganhar? Vejo Colombia muito forte.

  1. Reblogged this on bespoking and commented:
    There’s obvious scope for getting students to read this post (or some linked to from it) in order to think about / discuss what makes a good language learner and what they can do to develop their proficiency in English over the following 2-3 months. Which of the activities referred to do they currently do? Which do they think they should try?

    For the all-important critical thinking element, can our learners see any ways in which this teacher’s experience might NOT be relevant to their own? They might note that, as a language teacher he may have an advantage when it comes to awareness and noticing, and perhaps more significantly, since he already speaks Spanish, is it such a huge leap to learn a related language like Portuguese? Presumably this is quite a different proposition to a Chinese speaker learning English.

    1. Hi Mark,
      Thanks for reblogging and commenting.
      I definitely feel students could benefit from reading this post (and the others related to it), and I’m planning to discuss these ideas with my students after the summer. It’s also a very good idea to approach these tips with a critical eye, and a healthy discussion of the topic can only benefit the students. However, while it is true that as a language teacher I might have a better awareness of language patterns than an average language students, I think that precisely because of this the student should work on developing it. Often students think that they don’t have the talent for learning languages, but I think that most of them simply don’t know how to do it, which is why we should help them develop such skills like noticing new language.
      Learning a related language definitely has the advantage that a lot of lexis sounds familiar. The grammar patterns are also similar. Still, I think most of the tips I gave here would still be quite useful if I was to start learning Chinese tomorrow.
      What do you think?

      1. Hi Marek. Thanks for responding (and indeed for writing your fascinating series of posts in the first place).

        Yes you’re absolutely right that it’s a good idea to help students – in whatever way works – to develop greater awareness of the patterns and rhythms of the target language, and yes I would hope that you’d benefit hugely from taking the same approach to learning Chinese as you did to Portuguese.

        The old Headway Advanced students book opened with a quiz / discussion about what it takes to be a good language learner. I actually did the exercise myself on my Cert TESOL course and enjoyed it immensely, so I was always keen to do it with learners in the classroom – particularly at the beginning of a new course. It’s been a while since I even thought about those lessons. I grew to hate Headway and its approach to language learning, and Headway Advanced still strikes me as being a particularly inappropriate coursebook for several reasons. But I still look back at those “what makes a good learner” sessions as valid and useful. They certainly got the students thinking about language learning, but they also invariably led to discussions in which genuine critical thinking emerged. One of the questions simply asked “are you male or female?” and students were awarded points for answering “female” because women are better language learners. This always sparked debate, with intelligent objections to the assumption (e.g. perhaps socio-cultural forces push girls towards languages at school and deter boys). Now that I work in HE, I see the importance of nurturing critical thinking in everything we do: even more reason to look back on those Headway Advanced pages fondly (though I’m not suggesting for one second that the aim of the book was to push students to think critically).

        I reblogged your post for a “further exploration” blog I’m putting together for a team of pre-sessional teachers. We’re encouraging students to take a critical stance in relation to everything they read, and I think your post would work very well as a class reading. The subject is relevant to all of them, and the content serves as a kind of framework. They can consider how this framework might be applied in their own lives, but they should also think about differences between themselves and the writer, and consider how suitable that framework is for them. I think this is a kind of microcosm of the kind of thinking they need to do for pretty much all of their future studies.

        No matter how sound any piece of advice is, the fact that it has worked for one person does not, of course, dictate that it will work for another. I’ve seen teachers struggle to teach students “the best way to take notes”, but surely the “best way” is whatever works for any particular student. Of course, with note-taking, as with language learning, we sometimes have to help students to see that what they believe is working for them really ISN’T…which takes us back to critical thinking again…and perhaps the Headway series too!

        1. Hi Mark,
          Thanks for this thoughtful and balanced response.
          I actually can’t remember the Headway quiz you mentioned, but would definitely be interested in taking a look at it.
          To sum up, I definitely agree with you that while there are certain clearly good and bad learning practices, many might be in a “grey” zone, i.e. they’ll work better for some, and worse for others.
          And yes, critical thinking is crucial. I also have a very sceptical mind, and this is actually why I decided to start this series of blog posts – I wanted to find out whether it is possible to learn a language as quickly as people like Benny Lewis claim.
          Let me know what the outcome of the discussion is. Would definitely be interested in finding out.


  2. Great post Marek. If I was going to sum it up in one sentence I’d say “You’ve got to do the work!!”.

    As a language learner, you’ve provided me with a very useful guide, but as language teacher, I have to ask you the following questions:

    1) Did you attend Portuguese classes?
    2) If no, do you think they would have helped?
    3) If yes, how much of a role do you think they played in your learning?
    4) What are the implications of these answers for me (and you!) as language teachers?


    1. Hi James,
      Thanks for commenting.
      To answer your questions:
      1) No.
      2) No.
      3) n/a
      4) I think as teachers our role is to provide learners with tools they can use to become more successful and independent language learners (apart from being the source of language input). Since I already know a lot about learning languages – both from a practical and a theoretical standpoint – I don’t think that I actually need a teacher. Attending a language course could actually be a frustrating experience. In the last couple of years I’ve taken Spanish, French and German classes, and to a lesser or greater extent I’ve come out disappointed. I reckon that the more you know about learning and teaching languages, the less you need a language course or a teacher (this reminds me of Harmer’s post and presentation on BELTA).
      As with any skill, you can learn how to be a better language learner. I don’t think talent has such a great role to play. It took me 10 years to reach C2 in English, but only 2 years to do so in Spanish. One of the main factors was that I was simply better at learning languages. I knew how to do it when I started learning Spanish.
      Having said that, a language learner who is new to the business can really benefit from having classes and a good teacher. In a nutshell, they need a guide who will show them what and how to learn. Somebody who will motivate them.
      To sum up, I think it’s really important we show our learners how to study languages. Still thinking how to introduce it to the regular classroom routine, though. Lizzie Pinnard wrote a series of great post on developing autonomous learner skills.
      What do you think?

      1. Thanks for your answer Marek, I think you’re spot on. As a Spanish learner and a language teacher, I need my teacher not so much for her ability to ‘teach’ me or as a language authority, but more as someone I can practice with comfortably (my level is still too low to try much outside the classroom). So yes, I know what I need to do and I don’t need a teacher for that. What I do need is more free time!

        1. I might have added that I would have considered a language course only for the possibility to practice the language with others. However, I know prefer to do language exchanges. They’re much less formal, you can learn whatever language you think is useful for you, and they’re free! 🙂
          Would that leave us with the only teacher role: the language authority? Well, perhaps one more for those students who know less about learning languages: a guide.
          What do you reckon?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s