How to Learn (Not Just) a Language Quickly

I was never good at languages. Although my first language was Punjabi, I grew up as a monolingual English speaker. In grade school, I took French for many years with grades of mostly Bs and a few Cs. However, I managed to learn fairly fluent German in just a few months. As I look back on it, I realize that I applied methods that help in learning any subject, which is my reason for telling you what I did.


(Polka Dot)

It was 20 years ago in the eight-week language course at the Goethe Institute in Prien am Chiemsee, a beautiful resort town in the foothills of the Bavarian Alps (sadly, that school has since closed its doors). Upon arrival, we took placement tests to determine a suitable class. The instructors offered me the choice of starting in the highest of the three beginning levels or in the lowest of the three intermediate levels. (In college, I had studied a year of German, which I estimate to be comparable to four weeks of immersion in language school.)

I chose the intermediate class. For the first five weeks, I understood almost nothing that the teacher or the other students said. However, in the sixth week of the course, something amazing happened. Each day in that week, I understood more. By the end of the week, I understood all the class discussions. By the end of the course, I could hold decent conversations, understand movies and even argue in German.

The language stayed with me such that four years later, I was almost fined for carrying my camera on a visit to Germany. The customs officer thought that I lived in Germany and was trying to import it without paying the (at the time) high duty on electronic goods. Only a long discussion, and production of my British passport without a German residence stamp, convinced him that I was just a tourist with a camera who happened to speak German.

I had learned so much German by using one idea: errors. I was happy to make them. And I created useful ways to make still more.

No matter how many errors I made, I spoke only German for the duration of the course. I constantly read the newspaper and listened to the radio. In the first weeks, I hardly understood any news. Fortunately, my burden was lightened whenever George H.W. Bush (Bush the Elder) was on the news. And that happened often, for it was the summer of 1991 just before the invasion of Iraq. Bush’s dubbed German was, like his English, easy to understand (“We good, Saddam Hussein bad.”).

I also planned useful errors. I looked over the grammar tables, simplifying them so that I could speak quickly yet correctly enough, without much mental computation of endings. Here is an example: in German there are several forms of the, and the correct form depends on the function of the following noun in the sentence — as the subject, direct object, indirect object or genitive object. It also depends on the noun’s gender and number — whether masculine, neuter, feminine or plural (and gender is basically random: a table is masculine whereas a street is feminine).

The four case possibilities multiplied by the four gender/number possibilities make for 16 the possibilities. Several of the 16 possibilities are handled by the same form of the so there are only six different forms of the (der, die, das, dem, den, and des). But all of this figuring, even with only six different forms, is complicated and takes time. Thus, whenever I doubted the correct form, which was often, I would pick from the most common forms randomly.

Freed from long computations, I could speak quickly and have many conversations. They led to the strangest experience. In pubs, Germans would tell me that my grammar was perfect. At first I thought it was the strong German beer getting the better of their hearing, and I would explain some of my grammar crimes such as guessing the form of the or, in a related approximation, the ending on an adjective.

Eventually I realized what was happening. Like English, German usually places the syllable stress at the beginning of the word (HE-ro rather than he-RO). Talking quickly, the unstressed endings end up all sounding like a slurred -eh. But the native speaker, with the perfect language model in his or her head, hears the correct ending! He or she was then doubly willing to talk fast in return, and I got even more practice speaking and understanding German.

Back then, I did not realize the generality of this technique. Now I know, so I teach it in all my science and engineering courses as the method of lumping (for example, Chapter 3 of Street-Fighting Mathematics, which is a freely licensed book). This method is based on the idea that in order for our minds to manage the complexity of the world, we must throw away information skillfully — by discarding the least useful information first. The motto: “When the going gets tough, the tough… lower their standards.”

Twenty years later, it feels hard to imagine learning so efficiently again. First, having two small children, I don’t want to disappear for eight weeks. More fundamentally, I find it hard to imagine, now, letting go enough to err so happily. But I would like to find that courage again. And I offer this story to all my readers still bold and young at heart: May it help you learn what you have been dreaming to do!

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  1. Evie says:

    I studied for four weeks at the Geothe Institute too when I was a bit younger. I still tend to speak a bit of German when intoxiated. It was a great experience. Nothing new though, people have known this for years.

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  2. Jack says:

    You sound an awful lot like Benny, the Irish polyglot!

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  3. m.m. says:

    Would that we all had the freedom to err so happily! Unfortunately, almost every school experience in this country is set up with negative reinforcement: if you make a mistake, it will cost you grade points. We train to NOT make mistakes.

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  4. Eric M. Jones says:

    My language is English. I could never do much with other languages. I have had the experience of finding my self hungry in foreign lands. It is amazing how much one’s language improves when faced with the task of finding something to eat or drink in a foreign land. This is a great motivator.

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  5. Mark says:

    Reminds me of myself – 4 yrs of French yielded little compared to living in Germany while in the Army. 5 days of “head start to German” then lots of getting out there!

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  6. Pat Crofoot says:

    Memorize the 100 most commonly written words in the language.
    Then memorize the 100 most commonly spoken words.

    If you know these, really know them, then application is easier and your brain can keep up with the inputs.

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  7. nolanca says:

    I spent 10 years trying to learn german using traditional methods – classes, tutoring etc but without success. But I went to work in Italy knowing NO italian and spent three months in a lab with a technician who spoke only italian and had no interest in speaking english. during this period I shared an apartment with a french-speaking belgian. There were no formal italian classes available. I was getting nowhere, awfully slowly. Then I went back to Ireland for christmas to wrestle with the question of whether to press on or not. I decided to go back to Italy after the holiday and suddenly, everything started clicking. The trick is not to be afraid to make mistakes and not to be afraid to look stupid. I can do that fluently now in Italian but not yet in my mother tongue.

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    • Thomas says:

      being European (actually German) I understand the mechanics behind it (as we have to deal naturally here with many different languages).
      The language brain rarely works like a lookup table system, but more like a chaotic net. Memorizing tables of declination and conjugations only satisfies the teacher interest in perfect grammar, but rarely help you learning a language.
      As an example – during my university we had several foreign students for a year. Many of them started with their school-German trying to construct perfect sentences (obviously still making mistakes). As this was slow and frustrating many sooner or later retreated into only socializing with their own language group (spanish, english, italian, etc…)
      One was different, he started talking and talked without break or even caring about grammar lime a waterfall. He dropped out of all language classes and hung around pubs. Guess – who was speaking fluently at the end of the year ?
      Another group learning the language was the ones which got a local boy-/girlfriend 😉

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      • carlosmx37 says:

        the problem with the english learners in many countries,is that We expect first to have a total mastering of the language,and then start contacting foreigners.But if We were rated by our teachers as “middle level”,and fail to get a job where “100 % fluency of English”,.We are afraid to try reaching visitors to our countries.
        excellent advise Thomas,respect getting a local girlfriend!
        It is said that “pillow talk” turns basic speakers into masters!
        juan carlos garcia
        “mi casa es tu casa”

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  8. MM Jones says:

    Very interesting. Just to clarify: did you eventually learn all the correct genders and endings of each noun? Or was this never important and you still guess to this day? Was ignoring these rules and speaking rapidly a step towards fluency, or an end point?

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    • Sanjoy Mahajan says:

      Now I know the genders reasonably well, and I know the declension table automatically now, so I am mostly accurate in choosing the endings.

      However, I still regularly get stuck on a few points. For example, whether to use the accusative (“direct object”) or dative (“indirect object”) endings after a few prepositions that can be followed by either case. The choice depends (roughly speaking) on whether there is motion in a direction. In English we sometimes make this distinction by changing from “in” to “into”, e.g. I am in the house vs. I am going into the house. In German, both examples use “in”, but the first example, without motion, uses the dative ending on the “the”; and the second example, with motion, uses the accusative ending. In clear cases like that, I make the correct choice automatically.

      But there are many figurative or weaker senses of motion, such as klopfen (to knock). Do you knock on the door or onto the door?! My ear sort of tells me that, in German, it’s “onto” (accusative). But I don’t know what the proper rule is (and would be glad to learn it!).

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