The answer? It’s impossible to tell.
Maybe the person who studied French for two years only shows up for class once a month, rarely attempts homework and never uses the language outside of class. Maybe the person who studied French for ten days devotes eights hours a day, practices with native speakers and already speaks Spanish and Italian.
The truth is, how you study is much more important than how much you study.
In ten days, can you become completely fluent from scratch? No. But can you make a lot of progress that will lay the foundation for fluency? Definitely.
Why can’t you become fluent in ten days?True language-learning requires retention. And retention requires you to store information in your long-term memory by strengthening neural pathways over time.
In other words, you need a significant amount of time to form meaningful, complex associations with each new word or grammar concept—repeating it orally; writing it down; recalling it after a few weeks, a few months, a few years. Over time, after enough practice, it sticks with you for life.
If you don’t work hard to commit something to your long-term memory, it flashes briefly through your short-term memory and then disappears. Have you ever crammed for a test? The information stays in your brain just long enough for you to scribble it down on paper, but by the next day, it’s gone. Speed-learning a language can feel a lot like that—depending on how you approach it.
However, if you approach speed-learning with the right tools, you build a firm foundation in your target language.
So, what can you learn in ten days? It’s different for everyone. And it depends on three things.
1. What are you hoping to learn?Unsurprisingly, the more complex the concepts, the harder it will be to grasp them. If you jump straight into advanced Russian grammar from day one, you won’t make much headway by day ten—sure, you might understand one concept very well, but you won’t be able to utilize it without an expansive vocabulary on the same level.
On the other hand, if you’re a French-speaker who just wants to pick up enough Spanish to navigate New Year’s in Madrid, and you spend ten days focusing on the most common phrases and conjugation rules, then by the end of the week, you might be able to hold a conversation over your tapas.
Keep difficulty in mind when choosing your goals.
2. How many languages do you already speak?The more languages you know, the easier it is to pick up more languages. That’s because the more often you expose yourself to unfamiliar vocabulary words and grammar rules, the more skilled you become at creating order out of unfamiliarity.
As you study more languages, you become more adept at optimizing your own learning style. Maybe by the time you pick up your third language, you know that flashcards don’t work for you at all, and by the time you pick up your fourth, you realize that listening to music is your secret weapon.
3. What language do you already speak?If you choose a language that’s close to something you already know, you’ll get the hang of it faster. Cognates will feel like old friends. Grammatical structures will be similar, in some cases right down to the irregulars. If these languages share an alphabet, then you’re miles ahead of anyone who has to memorize a new one from scratch.
If you already know English, you’ll find it easier to learn Afrikaans, French and German. If you’re fluent in Mandarin Chinese, then Japanese won’t feel so foreign. Meanwhile, Russian-speakers will have no problem picking up Ukrainian, and Arabic-speakers won’t struggle much with Farsi.
Now, how can you study a language effectively in ten days?After ten days, don’t expect to give a speech to the United Nations in Cantonese or lecture a class of native Urdu speakers. But you can expect to carry simple conversations, navigate a city comfortably and pick up enough vocabulary words to skim a newspaper. To do this, you just have to employ four strategies.
1. Immerse yourself.What’s the only way to guarantee that you use your target language? Outlaw every other language.
Institute a complete ban on languages that aren’t your target language. If you’re learning Xhosa, then speak in it. Think in it. Change all of your phone settings. If your friends don’t speak it, then replace them with better friends using apps like Bilingua and Tandem.
2. Transform your space into a site of immersion.When you look at a microwave, what do you see? You see, well, a microwave. But if you’re learning German, you shouldn’t see a microwave, you should see eine Mikrowelle. You shouldn’t have breakfast at a table, you should have it at ein Tisch. And you shouldn’t eat sauerkraut, you should eat…well, actually, that one’s fine.
The key to spatial immersion is post-it notes. Lots of post-it notes.
Write household vocabulary on post-it notes and stick a note to each item—and then get more creative with it. If you’re studying Spanish, then near your shoe rack, don’t just write zapatos, also make a list of things people do with their feet, like correr (run), caminar (walk) and even volar (fly).
Write little rhymes to remember tricky grammar phrases and paste them near your panini press. Now you have to review the rhymes every time you want a sandwich.
Everywhere you look, you’ll be forced to think in your target language.
3. Partner up.Be it a friend, a spouse or just a really cool person you met on the Rocket Language forums, a partner will keep you focused throughout your ten-day language boot camp.
Study together. Struggle through vocabulary together. Stumble through conversations together. If you forget a word, your partner might know it. If you slip back into English, your partner can correct you. And if you want to quit halfway through because Uzbek is just too hard, then your partner will be the one to remind you why you started this crazy adventure in the first place.
4. Find the right tools.Different things work for different people, but having a variety of language-learning tools on hand will keep you from burning out.
- Your favorite online course :), grammar book or app.
- A phrasebook for expressions and idioms.
- A native speaker to practice out loud with, or at the very least a recorder so you can adjust your own pronunciation.
- A notebook to jot down questions.
- Flashcards (or, if you’re high-tech, a flashcard app).
- Several hundred post-it notes. See above.
- Music in your target language.
- A sketch pad for you to draw study guides and mind maps.
- Highlighters for color coordination.
- And, of course, patience. Because learning a language in ten days is not going to be easy.
You can’t become fluent in ten days, but you can get a head start.
There are two things you need to remember: dedication and efficiency.When you’re dedicated to learning a language, you persist long after it stops being fun.
When you’re efficient about learning a language, you make the most out of every minute.
In ten days, you can’t become completely fluent, but by following the tips above, you can lay the groundwork. And, if you’re dedicated and efficient, you can learn more in ten days than some have learned in years.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.