Learn a new language—super fast. Here’s how.

According to a man that knows more than 20 languages, the key is to start in the middle.

STEVE KAUFMANN: Is there a trick to fast track new learning? Yes, there is. Start almost in the middle.

Start almost in the middle. Not quite in the middle but start with, for example, what I do now because at LingQ we have what we call the mini stories, 60 stories with a lot of high-frequency verbs, a lot of conjunctions – because, although, on the other hand, however. I listen to these many, many times. Each story repeats the same vocabulary and the same structures about four or five times. And so I start right into everyday, common – I got up, had a cup of coffee, went to the store, whatever it might be, went to work. It's real situations. It's not going through customs like they like to have in language learning books. You just start into it, you do a lot of listening and reading, you let the language come at you, let the brain get a sense of the language, listen and then read the same content, look up the words. I always start on iPhone, iPad tutor so I can quickly look up words, save them for review and at first it's all noise, and eventually it becomes meaning because you're going over the same stuff over and over again. So that's I would say the initial three months to get a toehold in the language.

And then you have to very quickly push yourself away from beginner content, learner content written for a language learner, and go after the real stuff – newspaper articles, Netflix movies. And there's all kinds of ways of doing that. I think the key is to get a toehold in the language with lots of repetition and not worry too much about trying to memorize the grammar because if you haven't had enough exposure to the language, enough experience with the language, the grammar explanations are difficult to understand, difficult to remember and almost impossible to apply. You can't be thinking of them as you're trying to speak. You have to develop habits. And that's best done through this massive exposure initially with a lot of repetition and then eventually as soon as possible moving on to things of genuine interest.

When we start in a new language typically we're motivated. Now some people start and quit right away so those people were never really very motivated. But if you are motivated, the first two or three months is the honeymoon period. It's a steep climb because at first everything is noise, you know nothing. But in a very short period of time you actually know something. You understand something. You can say something. There's a great sense of achievement. And, of course, you're dealing with typically a lot of high frequency words so they come up all the time in the content you're listening to and you're listening to it more than once hopefully. And so I have a sense of achievement. Then you reach a point where frequency drops off very quickly in any language so very soon you're trying to learn words that don't show up that often, so that become a little frustrating.

So you've gone up the steep part of the hockey stick, and how you're on the shaft of the hockey stick and it looks like you're not getting anywhere. You just feel that you're forever facing more and more new words. You're listening again and again and you don't understand. You have the sense that you're not making progress whereas in the first three months you're going from zero, climbing a steep hill of that hockey stick, but you have a sense that you're doing something. Whereas the long shaft of the hockey stick is the difficult part and you just have to stay the course.

Hopefully you can move to content of interest to you, which in my case is history. And so you're not deliberately trying to learn the language, you are listening to and reading things of interest to you and learning these things and learning about these things, about the country or maybe you're into Netflix or whatever, songs, anime for Japanese. So you're enjoying all of that and without realizing it you're learning a language. But that's how you continue on that path, that long, long path which is the longer sort of shaft of the hockey stick.

  • Canadian polyglot Steve Kaufmann says there is indeed a fast track to learning a new language. It involves doubling down on your listening and reading.
  • By taking the focus off grammar rules that are difficult to understand and even more difficult to remember, you can instead develop habits by greater exposure to the language. Kaufmann likens the learning process to a hockey stick.
  • In the beginning you make major progress as you climb the steep hill of the hockey stick, whereas the long shaft of the stick is the difficult part. Because you're not seeing day-to-day changes, you might lose motivation. So, stay the course by consuming content that interests you.

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