How to Learn a Language for Your Trip in the Next Five Weeks

Can you learn a language in five weeks? Not to complete fluency. However, you can make a great deal of progress in the next five weeks. Follow these five steps to learn how to be ready for your trip abroad in the next five weeks.

1. How long does the language you want to learn take?

Time is a hugely important factor in learning a language. If you want to learn a language that’s really closely related to English like, French, Spanish, or Italian, you can invest between 750 and 1,000 hours of focused, immersive, input and practice, and hit a very basic level of fluency. Those hours are researched-based. They’re done by the US government, and they’re used to prepare people for their work abroad. Most of us aren’t like these people, where we get uninterrupted time to focus on learning a new language and doing nothing else. However, I think it’s a really good rule of thumb.

If you want to learn a language that’s a bit more different, like Russian, or Polish, or Lithuanian, think about taking twice as long to hit that same level of fluency. If you want to talk about languages that are completely different. Think really far away from England, like Japanese, Korean, Arabic. There’s very little that those languages share culturally or linguistically with English, and they have a completely different writing system. To hit that same level of basic fluency, it’s going to take three times as long. To be a CEFR-B2 level, or Intermediate-high speaker of that language, which gives you decent functioning in a language, that’s how long it’s going to take. Think about the next five weeks. To be able to go to Italy and order wine, or order meals on your trip to Paris, you don’t need 1,000 hours or 2,000 hours. You can accomplish a great deal in the next five weeks.

2. What time do you have over the next five weeks?

If we talked about, 1,000 hours to have a decent level of basic fluency in a language like Spanish for an English speaker, imagine what you can do with 100 hours. Divide that time over the next five weeks. That’s roughly a couple hours a day.

Let’s say that you don’t have that much time. Maybe it’s just an hour a day or so that you have to study. That’s still 35 hours. You can learn quite a few words and phrases for your trip. It’s a great start. Do you commute? If you ride in your car, a lot of audio programs are really great, as well as podcasts. Maybe you take the train into work. You can use your phone, make your own playlist, journal or speak. You can learn an entire language on your phone with the technology that’s available today. Think about it. Over the next five weeks, you can make a serious dent in your language studies by using time you already have slightly differently. Perhaps this means listening while you clean the house, doing your errands, or walking.

3. Source Materials. 

My life has been spent around language materials. It’s my passion and my job. There’s so many great things, but depending on the purpose you want to use them for, they’re not always particularly useful. Think back to a high school textbook. You might start on the first chapter of level one with greetings, or language to be used in a classroom. I don’t really think that you need that for your trip to Germany. For materials as a beginner, think phrasebooks. Phrasebooks are so incredibly useful for beginning language learners. A lot of textbooks do present some really good, useful, functional language. However, a lot of them present a lot of rules, grammar, et cetera. Great to know, but the whole purpose here is to get communicating. You will learn language to get your basic needs met. Think transportation, food, directions, lodging, medical emergencies, as common, important topics to learn in your target language.

I suggest a couple of ways to get into phrasebooks. You can buy a phrasebook. It’s great now that electronic versions with audio can be used right on your phone. Think of companies like Lonely Planet, or Berlitz. The language is all presented in meaningful chunks. You don’t have to think about the grammar- just learn what is presented. Another way is to make your own phrasebooks. This is a lot of fun, and a great way to use the Google Translate app (of course, using it wisely, knowing that you are smarter than it).  You can use the copy function and copy the words and phrases that you’re looking up onto a Google Sheet. Fantastic thing to have right on hand, all the words and phrases that you want to know. For example, language for a hotel, or language for transportation. These sheets can then be made into CSV files, and be used for things like ANKI flashcards.

4. Get ready to make a big fool out of yourself.

Making a fool out of yourself is one of the most important things in learning a new language, and one I believe discourages a lot of really intelligent people from sticking with it. Learning a new language involves a great deal of failure. Failure is not fun your self-esteem. But it’s those failures that provide you with the opportunity to move forward. It’s so important to fail forward to learn a new language.

When we learn a language we learn through our input. Think back to those phrasebooks. All that language that you hear and see- that’s where you’re learning. When you speak or you’re writing, you’re testing yourself. That’s going to always tell you how to fill in the gaps. While the learning is really taking place from what you’re taking in, a hugely important part is what you’re putting out.

Each time you work these cycles where you’re dealing with input, and then you’re practicing that output, you’re filling in those gaps. To get out of the novice level and into what we call the intermediate (and what I think many people consider to be fluent in a language), you just have to memorize enough words and phrases to do so. Get back to that travel or phrasebook, either the one that you bought, made yourself or got from a podcast, and get working on it. You can talk to yourself. You can even use something like Voice Memos. At the end of five weeks, you’ll love the progress that that you made.

5. Track your time over the next five weeks.

Track your time each day that you’re working on your language skills. We’re human beings, life gets in the way, but there’s certainly time that we can all find. This might come from waiting in line or getting your car washed. You can pull out your phone, your notebook, or your phrasebook- whatever it is that you’re using to learn a language- and invest 20 or 30 minutes here and there. The time all adds up. Even if you don’t do it perfectly over the next five weeks, you’re going to see a pretty direct correlation between the amount of time you invest, and your progress.

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