A 12-Week Guide to Mastering a Foreign Language

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If you're anxious about traveling to a country where you don't speak the language, there's an easy solution to your fears — learn it. Sure you can get by with hand gestures and pointing at images in books, but your experience will be much richer if you can communicate, even a little, locally. It's not as hard as it sounds, if you give yourself time. Three months will do it, says language expert Benny Lewis and author of, yes, Fluent in 3 MonthsHere are his broad guidelines. 

Week 1–3: Listen, Learn, Translate, Repeat
To learn a language quickly you have to immerse fully in vocabulary, grammar, tone, and sometimes a whole new alphabet in a short amount of time. Your first step should be to buy a book and audio files in your language of choice. Try to complete at least one lesson every day so that you have a grasp of the basic language foundation and also keep the momentum of your learning going. The most important thing in this step is to listen to the audio, repeat what you hear, translate it into English mentally or in writing, then translate back into the language you are learning. This circular approach will help you commit it to memory. "The best philosophy a beginner can have is to embrace the fact that you'll sound a little like Tarzan, and have fun with it," says Lewis.


Week 4–6: Speak to a Real Person
Now that you have an overview of several phrases, start using them in conversation. Don't have a native language speaker to learn from in your social circle? The Internet is the perfect resource. "Use Hellotalk or Mixxer for quick casual free chats with native speakers, or sites like italki to connect with teachers," says Lewis. You'll improve a lot on what you've learned from your book, and should be spending upwards of 4 hours a week with this technique. Sign up on the first day of week three so that you can connect right then or later that day. Use the phrases you have learned so far but also try to get a sense of everyday phrases and colloquialisms. 

Week 7–8: Use Apps
Once you've had a few conversations in your desired language, an app like Duolingo can be a great resource to further deepen your knowledge. Duolingo provides short, straightforward lessons in which you translate phrases into English, translate English phrases into your language of choice, and practice vocabulary. It's a great supplement to your language learning as it's fun, easy to use, and reinforces what you have already learned. Additionally it's great on the go during the time you're not at home to practice with your book or audio. "Like anything else, Duolingo is a tool, and how you use it will determine your success," says Lewis. Aim to spend 30 minutes to an hour a day practicing your language of choice on an app.

Week 9–10: Watch Foreign Movies
Movies and radio can help your listening comprehension and the ability to pick up on commonly used phrases. Just don't get frustrated by the pace of the native speakers and be aware that you will not be able to understand everything. This is a way to familiarize yourself with tone and inflection so that you can emulate the sound of the language more easily. Also turn on subtitles so you can familiarize yourself with words in writing and can recognize them once you get to your destination. You can make listening to the foreign language radio part of your daily commute, and you should aim to watch at least two movies per week.

Week 11–12: Test Yourself on 100 Common Words
Now you should have a solid foundation in the language you want to learn, but make sure to know the 100 most common words, so that you can use them at your leisure. The website 101 Languages is a great resource and provides this list in 35 languages. Since these are commonly used words, they will be fairly simple, but you should use them to test yourself. Can you form phrases by using each of these words correctly? If so, you're on the path to a solid conversational knowledge.