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5 Tricks to Learn a Foreign Language Way Faster

Learning a second language is great for your brain and your business. Here’s how to speed up the process.

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BY Jessica Stillman - 04 Jul 2017

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Science shows that learning a second language can help you solve problems more critically, focus more intensely, and even keep your brain sharp as you age. And that's not even mentioning the practical benefits in business and in life of being able to talk to more people and travel more widely.

But while the benefits of learning another language are clear (if you're curious which ones offer the biggest payoff, a business school professor actually ranked them), it's also true that gaining proficiency requires a lot of work.

Take it from someone who has been trying to master a second language for years: unless you have an ear for languages or a survival level need to learn quickly, it's entirely possible to study a language for more than a decade without becoming fluent.

How can you avoid this fate? There are a ton of suggestions on how to speed up learning, but one of the best and most complete lists of ideas I've yet come across is from Mark Manson, a veteran traveler and author of the awesomely titled bestseller The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life. It's a massive compilation of 22 methods to speed up language learning, but here is a small sample to give you a flavor of his advice:

1. Intensity of study trumps length of study.

This means an intensive course of four hours a day for a week beats one hour a week for 20 weeks by a long shot. "It's better to allot a particular period of your life, even if it's only 1-2 weeks, and really go at it 100 percent, than to half ass it over the course of months or even years," concludes Manson.

2. Start with the 100 most common words.

This is common sense but totally bears repeating: "Not all vocabulary is made the same. Some gives you a better return on investment than others," insists Manson. Spending time on learning obscure animals and kitchen utensils isn't going to help you much. (At least initially, though take it from an expat, at some point you're really going to be desperate for the word for spatula or wasp).

"Start with the 100 most common words and then make sentences with them over and over again. Learn just enough grammar to be able to do this and do it until you feel pretty comfortable with all of them," suggests Manson.

3. Keep practicing in your head.

You don't need a teacher or even a conversation partner to practice your language skills. "Challenge yourself to think in the new language. We all have monologues running in our head, and typically they run in our native tongue. You can continue to practice and construct sentences and fake conversations in your head in a new language," explains Manson. "This sort of visualization leads to much easier conversations when you actually have them."

My Greek tutor (who is in no way to blame for my slow progress. I'm not always the most dedicated student) is currently studying Turkish, and swears by this technique. Whenever he goes for a run, he challenges himself to describe what he sees around him in Turkish. Not only does this stave off exercise boredom but it also rapidly builds his skills in the new language.

4. You're going to say a lot of stupid things. Accept it.

In my opinion this is the single most important piece of language learning advice you can ever get. Take it to heart.

Ask anyone who's lived abroad and they'll have absolutely mortifying language screw ups to share. (Manson relates a few doozies and I could tell you about the time I accidentally asked a taxi driver if he was single rather than whether his cab was available. In my defense, it's only one letter difference in Greek, but he howled with laughter and made uncomfortable jokes the whole ride nonetheless.) You can avoid these stumbles without also avoiding learning.

5. One-on-one tutoring is the best and most efficient use of time.

Another essential truth in my experience. "It's also usually the most expensive use of time," concedes Manson, "but if you have the money, grabbing a solid tutor and sitting with him or her for a few hours every day is the fastest way to learn a new language."

Do any polyglots out there want to share any other good language learning tips?

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