Many of us dream of going to a foreign country and learning some of the local language so we can at least make conversation. But we don't want to spend years doing it. Is there any way to learn a language in a week or two, the way those ads on the internet promise? It's hard to believe, but in some cases, the answer is yes.
For a long time, American educators believed that some people just had an aptitude for learning foreign languages, while others seemed to have a learning disability when it came to French class. But as evidence mounted, this idea fell out of favor. In 2006, education researcher Richard Sparks wrote an oft-cited paper called "Is There A "Disability" for Learning a Foreign Language?". After going over many studies of students who had problems learning foreign languages, he concluded that there is no compelling evidence that some students have an innate problem or gift when it comes to learning foreign languages. Some students struggle more than others, of course, but that probably has more to do with learning strategies than a disability.
The good news is that pretty much anybody can learn a foreign language quickly. You just have to pick the right language, and the right learning technique.
When it comes to learning a language fast, the most tried-and-true method is the immersion technique, commonly associated with the Berlitz language schools. What Berlitz educators found in the 1950s and 60s was that their students learned more quickly if they stopped using grammar textbooks and just started speaking the language on the very first day of class. In a Berlitz school, students learn a language through intensive exposure to it in a context that makes sense. So, for example, you and your classmates might sit down to dinner and start talking about it in Arabic. It is easier to learn the language quickly if your teacher hands you plates and food items while describing them. The idea is that you pick up key phrases and words first, and then learn the grammar almost unconsciously in the process.
Though this sounds common-sensical to us now, it was fairly revolutionary at the time the Berlitz schools pioneered it. Now, most language schools aimed at teaching languages quickly use some version of the immersion method.
Tim Ferriss, the master of all things quick and dirty, points out on his "4 Hour Workweek" blog that before you try to master a language in a few weeks, you should "deconstruct" it to see how similar it is to your native language(s). The closer it is to yours grammatically, the faster you'll learn the language. For example, English speakers will find Japanese and Mandarin harder to learn than Spanish and German. And everybody will find Finnish hard to learn. (Seriously, people, WTF is up with Finnish?)
So before you invest in immersion classes to learn another language fast, be sure that you've picked a language that isn't extremely different from others that you know. It's not that you can't learn those other languages, by the way. It's just that most people won't be able to learn them in a few weeks.
One of the most famous language learners alive today is Alexander Arguelles, a linguist who has learned over 50 languages (some of them dead, admittedly) and has developed a couple of techniques that he shares with people online. You can learn all about his techniques on his website — he makes instructional videos available for free — and a lot of people swear by them.
Here's his famous "shadowing technique," where students listen to the language with simultaneously speaking it out loud and reading along with it in a book. Arguelles describes it like this:
The videos I have made about Shadowing demonstrate and discuss the proper form for using my technique of shadowing or listening to and simultaneously echoing a recording of foreign language audio that accompanies a manual of bilingual texts . . . In order to shadow most effectively, it is important to observe three points:
1. Walk outdoors as swiftly as possible.
2. Maintain perfectly upright posture.
3. Articulate thoroughly in a loud, clear voice.
He also recommends his "scriptorium technique," where students write the language while simultaneously speaking it out loud. He writes:
In order to do this properly, you should:
1. Read a sentence aloud.
2. Say each word aloud again as you write it.
3. Read the sentence aloud as you have written it.
The whole purpose of this exercise is to force yourself to slow down and pay attention to detail. This is the stage at which you should check all unknowns in grammars or dictionaries, although that would have been too tedious to show in the video.
So if you want to learn a foreign language quickly, there are three things to keep in mind. One, you need to pick a language that is reasonable to expect you could master in a few weeks. Two, you need to immerse yourself in it, whether through language classes or discussion groups. And three, try a few tricks where you simultaneously listen to the language and speak it aloud while reading it.
The main thing to keep in mind is that nothing is stopping you from learning a new language. Your brain is ready. You just have to train it right.