Guest Post by Jan van der Aa
As you read this title you might be thinking, is it really possible to learn a language in one month for a normal person? “Without studying?” What does that mean? My interpretation of “studying” is learning from grammar books, learning wordlists and taking classes. Those are often things that many of us do not like to do. The good news is that I can tell you that it is possible to learn a language in one month without studying. In fact, as you will see the video above, I just came back from Brazil where I learnt Portuguese in one month without using any textbooks, neither did I take classes.
As you can see in the video, my Portuguese is far from perfect here but I do manage to hold a spontaneous conversation with a native speaker. I also have to admit that I already spoke some Spanish before I went to Brazil. Let me share my story with you and tell you how you could learn a language in a month as well.
But I am bad at languages!
During an oral English exam in high school in the Netherlands eight years ago, the advice of my English teacher was: “Jan, I notice that you have serious difficulties with English. I advise you to avoid using English for your future jobs.” These days I use English 90% of the time for my job. As you might have noticed, I wrote this article in English as well. Other than English I’ve learnt another 7 languages from which I speak several very confidently, for example, Mandarin Chinese.
SO HOW DID MY APPROACH CHANGE OVER THE YEARS AND HOW IS IT POSSIBLE TO LEARN A LANGUAGE IN ONE MONTH?
The thing that changed the most for me was motivation. If you want to learn a language successfully then motivation is crucial. Let me give you an example: There is a girl who has always had good grades at school. She would like to learn Spanish but has a busy life and doesn’t need Spanish at all for her daily activities. She just thinks it would be nice if you could speak Spanish for one day when she goes to Latin America on vacation. Then there is a guy that was bad in school in languages but he goes to Peru to learn Spanish. His host family only speak Spanish, as well as most of the people he meets. Locals start chatting to him on Facebook chat in Spanish, the girls he likes only speak Spanish and overall he has a fantastic time in Peru.
Who do you think will be the most motivated of the two? If both of then are trying their best learning Spanish I am quite sure that the guy in the example would be more likely to succeed, even if he has never been good at learning languages at school. This example is exactly what I experienced.
In high school, we had to learn English from reading textbooks and novels which I found very boring. These days I learn languages in a way that is much more fun and rewarding. I do that by traveling to the country and using the language as a way to connect with the local people. Is it not possible for you to travel? No worries, as long as you can find ways of learning that are fun you can still do it.
I suggest that you surround yourself with native speakers who are patient and like to speak their native language with you.
It’s important to surround yourself with native speakers who are patient, with whom you feel comfortable and who give you corrections from time to time. By blogging and uploading videos related to language learning I attract an audience with the same interests. These are often people that understand how I prefer to learn a language and are happy to talk with me in their native language. Socialize and practice with person who share your interests in person or via the internet!
If you are in the country of your target language don’t spend too much time (or no time at all) with English speakers. However, in the beginning I would say that it’s ok to speak English with locals (if they speak English) but make sure that you practice the target language from time to time. Several times for 5 minutes for day is enough.
Spectacular view of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Jan van der Aa in São Paulo, Brazil
Unfortunately, I can’t tell you the ideal way to practice speaking for you personally but I can tell you how I did it when I learned Portuguese. After studying methods of fellow polyglots, I know that this way works for many of them as well.
Start with simple but useful sentences. Practice the most important phrases first. I always start with the same phrases: “Hello! How are you? Nice to meet you! How much is it? What time is it?” After this, it’s time to start to make sentences yourself like: “What do you want to eat? What do you want to eat tomorrow? Where are you going? Where do you want to go? Where do you want to with me tomorrow? Do you want to go with me to the city center tomorrow after lunch?” Expand your sentences every time you say something. Learn phrases like these since they are useful and you can use them with almost anyone on any occasion.
If you don’t know how to construct these sentences or you lack vocabulary, ask your friend or language partner. Start with simple and short sentences and add new words every time you practice. Also try out different tenses. Instead of asking “What are you doing today” you can ask a friend “What did you do yesterday?”. If you don’t know how to say this, again, ask! This way you develop a feeling for the language, and once you get the feeling you will learn quicker and quicker.
In case you know a language that is related to your target language, you can also try to use words from that language. For example, you want to say “city” in Portuguese but you only know the Spanish word for it, so you say “ciudad”. Portuguese speakers often understand these words and will ask you if you mean “cidade”. Repeat the word, copy the pronunciation and there you go, you’ve just learnt a new word. Start learning the words that are the easiest for you to remember and are often used. Once you are able to make simple sentences with words that are easy to remember it becomes easier to remember complex words because you can put these in a context.
Always learn new vocabulary in context since it’s much easier to remember words this way. Some people told me in the past: “If you want to learn Cantonese you should forget Mandarin first”. I found this nonsense since my knowledge of Mandarin helped me a lot learning Cantonese. For example, “Dianhua” is Mandarin for telephone, and “dinwaa” in Cantonese. Apparently “Dian” in Mandarin (electricity) becomes “din” in Cantonese. This is good to know when you want to learn the Cantonese word for “dianna” (Mandarin for computer). “Dian” changes to “din” as well in this case, and the Cantonese word becomes “dinnuo”. Although this trick doesn’t work in all cases, it can still help you a lot learning a language that is related to a language you already know. And yes, sometimes I ended up mixing Mandarin and Cantonese but that just meant that I needed to practice a bit more.
Jan van der Aa with Benny Lewis and Conor Clyne in Valencia, Spain
How do I practice speaking?
I understand that it can be difficult and uncomfortable to speak only in your target language with your friends in the country, especially if they speak English well. But because I see them as friends and not as a teachers, I would speak English with them in the beginning. This way you can exchange stories, get to know each other and build a better friendship. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t speak Portuguese at all with them. I would ask them how to say “what did you do today?” and repeat the question in Portuguese. Also, I ask my friends to reply in Portuguese if I speak to them in Portuguese. If you don’t understand what they reply, then just ask! For this reason it’s important that your friend/language partner is patient and is willing to help you at reaching fluency. When you are comfortable in the language you can decide for yourself to only speak in your target language with friends. Once you reach that level your progress goes even faster.
Speaking is uncomfortable in the beginning
Some language learners find it hard not to slip back into English as your friends associate you with that language. I’ve experienced the same problem many times. I speak English with Chinese people that speak worse English than I speak Chinese for that reason. This time when I learnt Portuguese in Brazil I didn’t have this problem because my friends understood my project and also understood the way in which I learn languages and most importantly: they wanted me to succeed! Can’t you find such a person? Hire a teacher on Italki.com, there are very affordable. Try different teachers and continue to work with the one you like the most.
How much do I need to practice?
I would say try at least to practice speaking for 30 minutes per day if you practice via Skype. If you are in the country you can spread the time over the day. When I was in Brazil I practiced Portuguese with native speakers for about 30 minutes a day on average and if I can succeed, you will succeed as well.
Can I learn Mandarin or Russian within one month?
If you don’t already know any languages that are related to Mandarin or Russian, it would be very challenging. Spending 3 to 5 months for such a language would be more feasible in this case, I believe. On the other hand if you speak some Belarusian or a Chinese dialect then it would be possible. For the same reason it is possible to learn Portuguese in one month if you speak Spanish, Dutch when you know German already and maybe Spanish if you speak already French. I am not talking about being able to speak these languages as a native, but you could become very proficient in such a short amount of time by using the tips above.
Everything summarized in four tips:
1. Create an environment in the language, being in the country of the target language helps.
2. Surround yourself with native speakers who are patient and like to speak their native language with you.
3. Practice the words phrases that are the easiest to remember and the most useful for you.
4. Try out new words, structures and listen to your feedback.
So where are you waiting for? What will be your next language?
Jan van der Aa