If you’ve spent any time learning a foreign language, you’ve probably seen an extraordinary claim. It seems like everywhere you go, people are talking about achieving fluency in just 3 months. Is this really possible? Or is it just a myth? The answer is neither and both. Here’s a story that illustrates what I mean: In December of 2015, I published an article to my blog about Matteo Ricci, a polyglot Italian missionary who’d traveled to China in the late 1500s. Ricci also had a highly trained mind thanks to using a technique called the Roman Room or Memory Palace.
Just over a year later, a school in Guilin, China reached out about this article and invited me to recreate Ricci’s journey. The school, run by two American brothers, specialized in teaching English native speakers Chinese quickly while living in the country.
Caption: Anthony Metivier helping Chinese teachers learn memory techniques in Guilin, China
CLI (Chinese Language Institute) thought it would be a nice benefit for their teachers if they could master some memory techniques to pass on to their students. Although I had no particular interest in learning Chinese at the time, I decided to pick up as much Mandarin as possible before heading over.
Caption: Anthony Metivier with a student in Guilin, China. Tom memorized 20 Chinese idioms overnight after just one class of memory training.
When I arrived at the school, they showed me around and put me with one of their local teachers for a friendly test of the Chinese I’d learned and started using in earnest when I arrived in Beijing and while traveling down to Guilin.
“Are you sure you’ve only been studying Mandarin for three months?” the teacher asked me. It is perhaps the highest compliment I’ve ever received.
“Actually, it’s been just under three months,” I confessed, and then got busy asking for new words and phrases to learn. Since that time, I’ve passed level III in Mandarin in a formal course I took in Brisbane, all without breaking a sweat.
It’s all about how you define it
Am I fluent in Mandarin?
But I’m also not fluent in English either, even though it is my mother tongue. I’m currently 43, and regularly remind myself of how little I know by thinking of the massive shelf containing the bulky volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary in my local library.
With modesty about our mother tongue kept in check, here’s what matters: When we ask whether or not you can really learn a language in three months, the answer is as simple as how you’re defining “fluency”. And things get even simpler when you structure your definition of fluency with goals and meaningful milestones.
What is fluent anyway?
Let’s talk about re-defining “fluency” and effective goal setting. Understanding and being understood in specific contexts.
You’ve probably had the experience of watching a NASA liftoff or some kind of filmed scientific experiment. You understand some of the words, but if you’re honest, it’s mostly just babble.
That’s because you’re not “fluent” in that context.
You need to make fluency work for you
When we take this new understanding of fluency into the process of learning a language, it becomes clear how to set effective goals. Before you crack open a textbook or start an online course, you think about the contexts in which you’ll use the language you’re learning. To take another example, when I first started learning German, I needed to give talks in the language because I was a university professor at the time. Those goals are a lot different than the ones I had for everyday small talk.
By separating them out, it was possible to create separate goals and highly targeted milestones. It also makes it possible to forego “frequency lists,” or at least use them with caution. Just because a company has put together a list of how frequently words are used in newspapers and conversations doesn’t mean you should use them for your specific goals.
This kind of highly targeted approach requires a bit of upfront effort, and it can seem daunting. But it is precisely these “missions” you create for yourself that give you leverage when learning a language quickly.
“Mission” is the word famed polyglot Benny Lewis uses when helping people keep up with his stunning speed of acquiring new languages. As he and many other polyglots advise, rather than working with word frequency lists, you cultivate your own vocabulary and phrase “missions” and then conquer them based on when, where and how you’re going to use the language.
Caption: Benny Lewis, Anthony Metivier and Olly Richards at language learning conference in Berlin.
But you still need to memorize vocabulary
In terms of getting those words and phrases into memory, that’s where the ancient memory techniques that brought me to China via my article on Matteo Ricci come in.
When it comes to rapidly committing vocabulary and phrases to memory, you really have only three choices:
– Rote repetition
– Creative repetition
– Contextual repetition
Rote repetition is the painfully boring practice of looking at flash cards hundreds of times in the hopes that you’ll eventually remember their content.
Don’t get me wrong: rote can and does work. But it’s excruciatingly slow and most people give up for the perfectly rational cause of avoiding pain.
Creative repetition, on the other hand, is neither boring, nor painful. It taps into every layer of your senses and reduces the amount of repeating needed.
Contextual repetition comes from listening, speaking, reading and writing. These activities are all necessary for consolidating your memories from either rote repetition or creative repetition. The trick is in making sure that you’re exposing yourself to comprehensible input, as linguistics expert Stephen Krashen calls it.
How you can get started
This makes for a bit of a “chicken and the egg” scenario when you’re starting from zero. You might be thinking: How do I get comprehensible input when I don’t know anything yet?
Well, as cliche as it sounds, you have to take a cue from Nike. Just get started. And as I suggested and have done a number of times along with many other successful language learners, look to your goals first.
For example, let’s say that you’re taking a trip to Italy. Here’s what you might list:
I want to speak at:
– Directions on the street
For that, I need to learn:
– How to order and ask for the bill
– Where to get my museum pass
– What time is checkout
– How to talk about distances
Focus on what really matters
Notice that none of these goals have anything to do with “Hi, my name is Anthony” or how to describe oneself in terms of occupation and interests.
It might seem weird to skip those formalities, but when you think about your trip to Italy, when are you really going to introduce yourself to strangers and start talking about yourself?
When you think about your goals and start creating highly targeted missions for what you want to say and in what contexts, you can go about acquiring those vocabulary and phrases instantly. This process will create a solid basis for picking up the other material as you go along.
Don’t overstretch yourself
When it comes to finding the words and phrases, my friend Olly Richards gave me golden advice many years ago:
One video course
One audio program
You don’t even have to go that far, but Olly’s point is clear: limits matter.
Imposing some limits matter because we far too often invite overwhelm into our lives, or suffer from FOMO (fear of missing out). In reality, just like most of our mother tongue interactions are highly mission-oriented and repetitive, just about any decent book and program will be “good enough” for getting started. Don’t fall into the trap of decision anxiety.
For Chinese, I picked a Chinese character book from Langenscheidt, but not for its characters. I chose it because it had all of the vocabulary alphabetized at the back by pinyin. This makes the vocabulary much easier to memorize using the Memory Palace technique.
For my audio program I went with Pimsleur and I completely left out a formal video course. I memorized songs from YouTube videos that included the lyrics in pinyin.
I had to go through a few teachers in the first week before finding someone who was willing to follow my missions instead of the standard curriculum they preferred. Then, I shared with the teacher a spreadsheet I’d created of the vocabulary and phrases I wanted to learn and recorded each session.
The rest, as they say, is history. Now I speak Mandarin almost every day and still enjoy the ability to converse in German. It’s really not about learning a language in three months, but making sure that you use those first three months to “front load” your initial activities with the best possible activities. Don’t worry about making a mistake. Just come back to the principles in this article and keep focused on specific goals. All the oodles of incidental words will fill in as you go and if you ever get frustrated by your current level of “fluency,” get yourself a picture of the full set of Oxford English Dictionary. Few, if any among us, will ever know it all. And it’s simply not necessary to accomplish your goals in any language.
About bio: Anthony Metivier is the founder of the Magnetic Memory Method, a systematic, 21st Century approach to memorizing foreign language vocabulary, dreams, names, music, poetry and much more in ways that are easy, elegant, effective and fun.