5 scientific methods to quickly master a new language

how to learn a language faster
Source: Louai Beshara / AFP

There are numerous reasons why learning a second or third language can benefit you. But it is tricky to figure out how to learn a language faster. 

Learning a new language can give you another perspective or insight into a culture and mindset. This makes you more open to new people. Developing cultural awareness like this on a large scale can create a more tolerant and accepting society.  

There are many more reasons why you should learn a new language. Here are some of the main ones: 

  • It is easier to travel as you can converse freely with more people (imagine the friends you can make and stories you can collect as you explore a new city, all because you understand them).
  • It improves your brain power.
  • Some languages can be similar, so learning one is a stepping-stone to another.
  • It enhances your creativity and problem-solving skills. 
  • Employers look favourably at bilingual individuals as it is proof of good communication skills. It also opens you up for high-skilled jobs in foreign countries. 
  • You can enjoy a broader range of entertainment (from movies to music and theatre). 
  • Slow down the effects of ageing: A study shows that learning more than one language can reduce the risk of dementia and delay Alzheimer’s
  • Better academic performance: Research shows that language learners perform better at school across the board
how to learn a language faster

How to learn a language faster can be tricky, but it will benefit you greatly in the long run. Source: Munir uz Zaman / AFP

How to learn a language faster than a child

Why are some people more adept at learning a language?

Many bilingual and trilingual individuals have such a firm grasp of multiple languages because they picked it up the skill as young children. 

“There is evidence that people who are already bilingual are faster and more efficient at learning another language than monolinguals,” says Alissa Ferry, lecturer in the Human Communication, Development & Hearing, University of Manchester.

“This could be because they have more diverse language knowledge to relate to the new language or already have well-developed skills at switching between different languages.”

We’ve all heard that this is because children’s brains are like sponges, making it easier for them.

We assume children know how to learn a language faster, but this is not necessarily true. 

According to Dr Sandra Kuhlman, PhD, a neurobiologist at Carnegie Mellon University, our brains have “gatekeeper circuits,” a type of cell in our brain’s cortical network that is able to regulate the creation of neural connections. 

“It turns out that these gatekeepers are more likely to allow for rewiring to happen in the young,” she tells The New York Times. “The threshold to let them lower their gates is pretty low.”

Unencumbered by life experiences, a child’s cortical cells are able to absorb things more willingly.

“As we get older, these cortical gatekeepers are more restrictive,” Dr. Kuhlman adds. “They’re like, ‘Wait, this isn’t really a new experience. They keep the gate up.”

how to learn a language faster

How you learn can determine how much time you need to spend learning a language. Source: Desiree Martin / AFP

How adults and children learn a language can also differ (which might be the key to how to learn a language faster). 

Children learn through play and daily exposure, whereas adults learn with the rules of the language, trying to nail down the dos and don’ts. 

Dr. Karen Lichtman, who studies the relationship between age and language acquisition at Northern Illinois University, did a study that compared how children and adults learn languages. 

With two separate groups of children and adults, they tried to teach a made-up language called “Sillyspeak.” One group was taught with instructions and grammar rules, and the other practised sentences with toys. 

While the children fared better with play-focused learning, adults performed well in both groups. 

“The adults were more accurate than the kids. The adults were faster than the kids,” says Dr. Lichtman.

“That’s how it is at the beginning stages. It’s the distinction between learning something faster and learning something better, and that’s where people are confused.”

What children might have, which adults lack, is less fear. They tend to care only if they are right and push forward with their learning, unbothered. 

Adults tend to mull over every mistake (So if you learn anything from this story, it should be this: being courageous with your learning can yield better results). 

In other words, relinquishing fear is how to learn a language faster. 

how to learn a language faster

We assume that children know how to learn a language faster than adults. Source: Luis Robayo / AFP

How much time will it take to learn a language?

Unfortunately, this is not very straightforward.

The short answer: it depends. The long answer: there are many variables to consider. 

Some people are more adept at languages, the same way some have a way with numbers. It is how your brain works and how it absorbs knowledge, as well as whether or not you enjoy the process of learning a particular subject. 

The difficulty of the language is also something to keep in mind when you’re thinking about how to learn a language faster. 

How long it would take you to master some of the most challenging languages in the world will undoubtedly take longer to conquer than some of the quick and easy ones

Some schools of thought believe that how to learn a language faster depends on the frequency of study.

For some, half an hour of study a day can yield excellent results, and others prefer a solid two hours every week.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when determining how to learn a language faster:

  • What is the difficulty level of the language?
  • What level of proficiency are you trying to achieve? Reaching a conversational level can happen quicker than formal fluency, for example.
  • In what context do you hope to use this language? Is it for travel and day-to-day conversations, or are you looking to develop a more business or technical vocabulary? 
  • What kind of learning method suits you personally? People have different attention spans, and how they process information can vary. Are you the sort of person who needs long breaks, or does a daily routine benefit you more?
  • How do you hope to keep yourself motivated? 
how to learn a language faster

Methods for learning sign language could be different from spoken language. Source: Inti OCON / AFP

What are five methods to quickly master a new language?

Here are the five best methods on how to learn a language faster:

1. Immerse yourself

Most of us have been to a language class or seen that moment in the movies when the teacher interrupts your sentence with, “non, en français, s’il vous plait” (No, speak in French, please). 

A teacher’s adamance for you to only speak that foreign language in the classroom was not, believe it or not, just a way to make you feel inadequate. 

“A circumstantial-bilingual speaker is someone who, for example, immigrates to a new country and doesn’t speak the language, and for whom learning that language becomes a sink-or-swim issue,” says Emily Sabo, PhD student in Linguistics at the University of Michigan, 

Her research centres on language contact and variation in Spanish-speaking populations. 

“Circumstantial learners tend to pick up the language faster because they have to,” she adds. 

2. Spaced repetition learning

This tried and tested learning technique is a way of memorising information without overwhelming your brain. 

It is, essentially, the opposite of cramming.

Known for improving long-term memory recall, spaced repetition learning encourages you to turn large chunks of information into digestible bite-sized nuggets.

You can use cue cards, an app, or just section your textbook. 

“Spaced repetition…[is] extraordinarily efficient,” says Gabriel Wyner in his book “Fluent Forever: How to Learn Any Language and Never Forget It.” 

“In a four-month period, practising for 30 minutes a day, you can expect to learn and retain 3,600 flashcards with 90% to 95 % accuracy.” 

Each flashcard can be different from the next — one can teach you the alphabet while the next tackles pronunciation, vocabulary or grammar.

“And they can do it without becoming tedious because they’re always challenging enough to remain interesting and fun,” says Wyner.

how to learn a language faster

If you need help from a teacher, online learning can be a cheaper option. Source: Igor Tkachov / AFP

3. Diglot Weave method

The Diglot Weave method is a great way to help you with your vocabulary. 

It involves inserting words from a foreign language into a sentence in a language you already know. 

You can expand this by doing the same for an entire story, swapping out a few words at a time for the language you are trying to learn.

This allows your brain to learn at its own pace rather than overwhelm it all at once. 

Research from 2014 used this method on one group of students and didn’t for the other. The group that used Diglot Weave scored higher test scores, almost double the other group. 

4. Music and movies

Often belting the lyrics to your favourite song comes naturally to us. Imagine singing that same song in a different language. 

There are whole studies dedicated to exploring the relationship between music and language.

Songs are a great way to break up the monotony of regular studying. Getting your body moving, exercising your vocal cords and engaging a more creative side of your brain help a lot. 

As songs often have repetition (especially with the chorus or hook), it is a great way to reinforce vocabulary, and you can better recall the words when you associate them with a tune. 

But picking the right song is essential. A tune with clear words and pronunciation is the way to go. 

Try children’s songs for more accessible vocabulary (Disney music is popular as they have classic songs in multiple languages) or pop culture music with memorable beats and lyrics. 

Shakira’s single “BZRP Music Session #53” is a good choice as it’s clear, catchy and has repeated lines like, “A ti te quedé grande y por eso estás, con una igualita que tú-uh-uh-uh-uh” (which translates to “I’m too good for you and that’s why you’re with someone just like you”).

This method can be a passive way to learn a language in your downtime; play these songs while jogging,  commuting or doing your groceries. 

Apps like Spotify accompany songs with lyrics so you can easily follow along. 

Movies and films are another way to engage with a new language. 

For some, the cold-turkey method of switching off subtitles helps you pay attention to the subtle nuances of the language, from the sounds to gestures that might accompany phrases. 

Others prefer to watch a familiar movie in the language they are trying to learn, banking on the familiarity of the storyline so they can better focus on the words themselves. 

how to learn a language faster

While there are numerous methods of how to learn a language faster, consistency is key. Source: Louai Beshara / AFP

5. Five principles and seven actions

In his TEDxLingnanUniversity talk, Chris Lonsdale explains that anyone can learn a language in six months

His method combines known methods and the necessary skills to master a language quickly. Lonsdale claims that this method can be applied to learning anything. 

There are five principles and seven actions at its core. 

The principles:

  • Focus on language content that is relevant to you
  • Use your new language to communicate from day one
  • When you first understand the message, you will unconsciously acquire the language
  • Physicological training
  • Psychological state matters

The actions:

  • Listen a lot
  • Focus on the meaning first (even before the words)
  • Start mixing (your verbs and nouns)
  • Focus on the core
  • Get a language parent
  • Copy the face
  • Directly connect to mental images