Tibetan Monks

How long does it usually take to learn how to have conversations in a new language? As you probably know, I am someone who tends to dislike “Learn _____ in 7 Days” methods, because most of the time these approaches just let you barely scratch the surface—in other words, they fail to provide any substantial value to you. This time, however, I want to present to you an approach to quick language learning because I have first-hand evidence of the successful results.

And, by the way, I’m not trying to sell anything here. I just hope this would introduce you to the simple method by which you can learn a new language in the shortest time possible. But if you want to succeed at it, you have to make sure that you follow the core idea given in this post, because without the effort you’ll just be keeping the results on hold. First, though, I’m going to tell you how my girlfriend (I’ll call her T) went from speaking no English to becoming fluent in just one month.

From Zero to Fluent

In April 2007, T couldn’t speak English. This was a huge problem for her because she had just become friends with a group of missionaries that had come to Japan from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, and they couldn’t speak any Japanese either (and she only knew Japanese). She couldn’t even ask where the toilet is, so the only way to communicate was to use primitive gestures. Everything was a hassle, and she couldn’t get any message across without putting great effort into being a mute actress. But thanks to the evolution of the homo sapiens, T felt the urge to adopt a more effective and less time-consuming form of communication: speech.

Whenever T was hanging out with her new friends, she was surrounded only by English speakers who didn’t speak a word of her language. But as she spent more time with them, she began to pick up words and phrases that she found her friends repeating. Using simple gestures, she was then able to learn phrases like “I’m hungry” and “What does _____ mean?” Before long she was able to connect the words and phrases she had learned so far to understand much longer bits of conversation, and construct expressions of her own as well. A few more weeks and she was already having casual conversations with her foreign friends in their language, but in her home country. In the end, it didn’t take any longer than 30 days for her to become fluent in English.

The Power of Immersion

Now, there are a couple of factors that affected her fast development. First, she spent most of the one-month period in the presence of her English-speaking friends, so she was fully immersed in English. Second, she would’ve never been able to revert to speaking her native tongue, simply because her friends couldn’t speak a word of it (yay, +1 to immersion).

It’s so common to hear that many English-speaking expatriates living in a country like Denmark never learn the local language because it’s so easy for them to just keep using English because nearly every Dane speaks good English. That’s fine if you don’t want to learn the language, but if you want to learn a new language, you absolutely need to get out of the comfort zone.

The time it takes for a person to become fluent in a foreign language depends on how much time he or she spends being immersed. In T’s case, she became fluent, and not just able to have easy conversations, because she kept herself immersed nearly 24/7. But to accomplish this, she didn’t even have to leave the country. If you decide to get the most out of this method, I suggest that you get in physical contact with the native soil of the language you want to learn. But even without spending a penny on traveling, it is still possible for you to learn a language through immersion by connecting with the right people in your area (or online).

Key Points

  • Immerse yourself. If you want to learn Tibetan, try to become friends with a group of Tibetan-speaking people who share similar interests as you. Fight the temptation to revert to speaking English. The inconvenience of not being able to understand the language of your friends is your greatest ally in learning the language.
  • Plan B: Use the Web. If meeting people in person is not an option, find people online. Videoconferencing and instant messaging will boost your practical skills as long as you keep focused on staying immersed the whole time. If you want to learn how to read Japanese, by all means, stop chatting in romaji (the Latin alphabet) and start using hiragana and kanji.
  • Imitate the natives. You don’t immediately have to go apply for citizenship, but you should at least observe and try to imitate people’s habits, such as their physical expressions and manners. To become fluent in pronunciation, you also need to pay close attention to intonation, stress, and the differences in vowel and consonant sounds.

If you have any questions for T, I can serve as a mediator, so please post them in the comments below. Good luck in your language pursuits!