How to Actually Learn a Foreign Language

A crash course on a valuable skill.

Jack Raines
May 16, 2022

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This article is based on my own experiences as well as notes from Tim Ferriss, Gabriel Wyner, and Benny Lewis. If, after reading this, you want to dig deeper into learning a new language, check out their stuff.

Learning a foreign language is the highest-leverage skill that one can develop. It enhances your creative thinking, exposes you to new worlds of literature and media, allows you to communicate with millions to billions of new people, and leads to countless professional opportunities.

Yet in America, we have been spoiled by our English-centric world. English is the language of business and commerce. Movies and music. It is the de-facto neutral tongue for international communication.

In most countries, kids are taught English from an early age to make them more competitive in the global job market. In the US, we are born with the linguistic advantage of our native tongue. As a result, only 20% of US citizens speak two or more languages, while 60%+ of the rest of the world does.

We have this idea that learning a foreign language is impossible. It certainly feels that way. I majored in Spanish (and finance) in college, had a 4.0, and still struggled to be "conversational" when I studied abroad in southern Spain.

But it can't be that hard to learn a foreign language. Considering that 60% of people speak multiple languages, the average human can do it.

The problem isn't that learning a new language is difficult. The problem is that we don't know how to learn a new language. School does a poor job of teaching practical language acquisition, giving way to countless students who "studied" a foreign language for years but can only say a few phrases.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a thread on Twitter about how I have successfully reshaped my language learning process.

Today, I want to share a longer form piece explaining where foreign language courses go wrong, and how you can actually learn a new language.


The Problem with Foreign Language Courses

I studied Spanish for two years in high school and three years in college. Five years should be plenty of time to gain fluency in a language, yet most foreign language students never come close to this level.

It's not an issue of time. It is an issue of material, focus, and consistency.

Here is how pretty much any Spanish class works:

Every week you get new set of vocabulary words. Maybe you will have "things around the house" like cama (bed), cocina (kitchen), mesa (table), espejo (mirror), etc. You'll be asked to memorize a list of 30-50 words for a quiz that Friday. These words may or may not actually be commonly spoken. Then you will focus on one area of grammar like pronouns, the future tense, or direct and indirect objects.

Every week or two, you gain a new list of words and a new theme. You'll complete writing exercises involving both the vocabulary words and the grammar theme of the week, and you'll be tested on your knowledge once or twice per month. You might practice speaking for an hour per week, max. In my experience, I would be well-versed in reading and writing all sorts of tenses by the end of the semester. However, my spoken Spanish would still be at rock bottom. 

As with any other class, students will cram the vocabulary before the test, memorize a few example sentences using the verb tense of the week, and survive the class. Rinse, repeat. Minimal material is stored in the long-term memory of students.

I followed this path to a 4.0 in Spanish. I could, on paper, explain when to use the past subjunctive tense in Spanish, but it was still difficult for me to articulate what I was doing next weekend. I learned how Spanish was spoken, but I did not learn how to speak Spanish. I imagine I'm not alone.

To summarize the three biggest issues with "classroom" Spanish:

  • Thematic vocabulary lists have little to do with words commonly used in conversations
  • Understanding written Spanish and responding in real-time to conversational Spanish are two entirely different activities
  • A minority of tenses and words create the majority of conversations, yet classroom instruction time does not reflect these proportions

After years of minimal progress, I got frustrated.

How to Actually Learn Spanish

Since 2018, I have studied abroad in Sevilla, backpacked all over Spain, and most recently lived in an Airbnb in Buenos Aires. Yet even after spending six weeks in Argentina this year, I was still disappointed by the rate of my Spanish improvement.

When I got back to the US in March, I had a lightbulb moment. I had no idea how to actually learn Spanish efficiently. It had largely been a jumbled mess of reading a little bit here, struggling to speak there, and eventually giving up in frustration before trying again a few months later. However, some people speak multiple languages, so they must have developed an efficient method for language acquisition. My new goal was simple: find someone who learned multiple languages in adulthood, and see how they did it. This search led me to Tim Ferriss.

Tim is a NYT best-selling author who can speak several languages. I came across one of his blog posts where he mentioned that he learned German from scratch in 10 weeks. He even has a video in this piece proving his ability.

After reviewing Tim's work, as well as articles from Gabriel Wyner and Benny Lewis, I developed a new framework.

Learning a foreign language is painstakingly simple, but execution is rigorous.

I'm going to list the steps, then give a more detailed breakdown of each one.

The steps:

  1. Learn the pronunciation of the alphabet
  2. Learn subject/object/verb agreement
  3. Learn core rules
  4. Learn to conjugate simple verbs in the past, present, and future tenses
  5. Memorize the 100 most common words
  6. Talk. Talk. Talk.
  7. Consume media
  8. Don't stop


If you don't know the letters and you can't pronounce the sounds, it's going to be impossible to learn the language. Fortunately, the Spanish alphabet is simple. In English, different letters take different sounds depending on context. The "o" in "women" sounds like an "i". Don't get me started with "ph". In Spanish, every letter has its own sound that never changes. Here's a link for the alphabet with sounds.

Subject/Verb/Object Agreement

After learning the sounds and letters, learning the basic grammatical structure of the language is necessary for comprehension. In English, most sentences go S --> V --> O. In Spanish, they often go S --> O --> V, especially when using object pronouns.

English: I bought it. Subject, verb, object.

Spanish: Yo lo compré. Subject, object, verb.

If learning a language is a puzzle, then subject, object, and verb agreement forms the edge pieces.

Learn the Core Rules

Every language has a series of rules and common practices that, once understood, will help you acquire the new language faster.

Some examples of these rules in Spanish:

  • All verbs end in ar, er, or ir. Each verb type has its own conjugations
  • All nouns have gender, and they are preceded by "el" or "la" to signify this gender
  • Pronouns and pronunciations vary from country to country. Argentines can understand Spaniards and vice versa, but their native vocabularies vary

Learn to Conjugate Verbs in the Past, Present, and Future

There are a dozen tenses: conditional, past subjunctive, present progressive, etc. For perfect fluency, you will need to learn them all. But our goal isn't perfect fluency. Our goal is to be conversational. To be conversational, you need to be able to say what you did, what you do, and what you will do. Everything else is secondary.

Sticking with the Spanish framework, this means you need to memorize the conjugations for ar, er, and ir verbs in three different tenses. Four technically, because Spanish has two past tenses.

Memorize the 100 Most Common Words

The Pareto Principle states that 80% of our results will come from 20% of our efforts. Nowhere is this more visible than in foreign languages. In any language, a small minority of words is responsible for an overwhelming majority of conversations. In English, how common are the words you, me, computer, house, and street? Much more common than pollinate, senile, aquatic, and archipelago, for example.

Instead of memorizing sporadic bursts of thematic vocabulary words, learn the 100 most common words. I recommend using Anki to help with this. Anki is an open-source flashcard platform, where you can make your own cards or download others'. Every time you flip a card over, you rate how well you knew the answer from 1-5. Answers that scored lower will reappear in the deck frequently, giving you repeat exposure to the harder words. Some decks contain images and audio descriptions as well, giving you the ability to engage all of your senses while learning a new word.

Note: you can scale this to 250, 500, and 1000 words as your vocabulary increases.

Talk. Talk. Talk.

"But Jack, I'm not ready to speak Spanish! I will frequently mess up."

You're right. You are going to butcher every sentence for the first few weeks. But guess what? That's part of it. Have you ever listened to a three year old speak English? You will hear mistake after mistake after mistake. That's how language learning works. You can't learn to speak by reading books and studying vocabulary. Like anything else, the best teacher is experience.

"So how do I practice Spanish from Atlanta, Georgia (or insert your city)?"

Another great question. I recommend using italki.

Italki is a platform that pairs teachers with students in 150 languages. Teachers charge whatever rate they want, and students can sign up for as many classes as they'd like. The best part? It's dirt cheap.

I'm currently taking classes with a girl from Buenos Aires, Argentina and a guy from Valencia, Spain. The cost per lesson?

$5 per hour.

Not bad, no?

And my "lessons" aren't really lessons. They are hour-long speaking sessions. We talk about anything and everything. Inflation in Argentina. European football. Travel. Food. Whatever.

A contrarian take, but Spanish lessons are a waste of time. You can teach yourself the foundational pieces of a language such as important verb conjugations and the placement of direct and indirect objects. You can memorize enough basic vocabulary to have simple conversations.

After that, you have to speak as much as possible with the words you know, and you'll acquire more along the way. You can't learn the nuances of communication without communicating. The filler words. The ability to substitute a word you don't know with one that you do. Only understanding 80% of the speaker's question, and using context clues to fill in the blanks.

You don't develop these skills without speaking, so you need to speak a lot.

Content Consumption

This step will occur at the same time as your daily conversational work.

So you understand the core grammatical tenets of your target language, you have built a vocabulary foundation, and you are conversing daily. Now it's time to increase exposure to your target language.

Watch and listen to Netflix, YouTube, podcasts, and radio stations in your target language. On Spotify, you can actually reduce podcast speed to make the content easier to decipher. Content consumption provides two benefits:

  • Curates your vocabulary around topics of interest
  • Gives you more exposure hearing your target language

For me, I listen to podcast episodes from a Spanish economic radio channel, Capital, la Bolsa, y la Vida, at 80% speed each day. Markets, money, and geopolitics interest me, so the topics on these podcast episodes keep me engaged. Plus my vocabulary has expanded to include dozens of new words in an area of interest.

Don't Stop

By far the hardest step. Once you nail the basics, the only way to improve is through continued practice. Can you carve out time to speak Spanish each day for three months? Once you learn the 100 most common words, can you expand to the top 500? Top 1000? Will you keep listening to Spanish media, even when you don't understand every word?

The Reality of Learning a Foreign Language

For 99% of us, our motivation for learning a new language is to speak it. We aren't shooting for a PhD in German linguistics, and we don't have to master our target language. We want to be able to fly to Madrid, Paris, Milan, or Munich and communicate with the locals in their tongue.

Once you know the structure, vocabulary, and verb tense conjugations, you have to start speaking. A lot. And screwing up. A lot. That's how we learn.

From studying abroad to living in Argentina, my Spanish never accelerated because I never went "all-in." I would switch back to English when speaking with other students on my study abroad. Mike and I only spoke in English to each other in Buenos Aires because it was easier to communicate. Every time Spanish got difficult, I would switch back to English.

But spending a few minutes a day "speaking" Spanish before reverting to English for 99% of my trip was never going to work.

If you are serious about acquiring a new language, the path is going to be painstakingly boring at times. Memorizing vocabulary. Studying different tenses. Speaking in broken Spanish with your teachers every day.

But these boring steps are the most effective method for acquiring a new language. And mistakes are a feature of language learning, not a bug.

And these steps do work. I'm not fluent (yet), but my ability to speak Spanish has accelerated exponentially since I started down this path. Just last week, I had a 30 minute conversation about the difficulties of starting your own business in Spain vs the US, for example.

Your likelihood of successfully learning Spanish, German, or Arabic has nothing to do with your natural ability or a predisposition. It has everything to do with your willingness to make mistakes while practicing daily.

- Jack

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