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How to Learn a New Language Fast: An Underutilized Language Learning Hack

Second language strategies designed to help you learn a new language fast, on your terms.

How to Learn a New Language Fast: An Underutilized Language Learning Hack
How to Learn a Foreign Language Fast - Second Language Strategies

This brings us to the topic of language hacking

Everyone has seen it. The program advertising the ability to learn a language quickly using online videos and tools.

foreign languages, funny, meme

As with everything, trying to find the fastest, most efficient way to learn something or acquire something becomes the most important thing to people searching online. While most 'hacks' amount to little more than attempts at overcomplicating simple tasks, there are some worthwhile tactics that can make language learning easier. Of these, reverse translation has to be among the best and most underrated methods of learning a new language.

Reverse Engineer Language Learning with Reverse Translation

Direct translation is something that many people are told to avoid when endeavoring to learn a new language. Though it is arguable that one may become fluent faster by using direct translation as a crutch. One of the best ways to learn quickly is by learning what not to do.

That said, reverse translation is quite possibly an even more powerful tool. The ability to ensure a sentence maintains it's meaning from one language to the next and then back again takes time to develop, but it is well worth the effort. Here is what reverse translation looks like in French with an example from a student:

English: Man, I am listening to a song right now, have you heard the word 'Émoustiller'?

French: Mec, j’écoute a un chanson maintenant, est-ce vous avez entendu ce mot « Émoustiller »?

English AFTER reverse translation: Man, I listen to a song now, you have heard the word 'Émoustiller'?

Once it's been translated back, the mistakes become much more visible and can then be addressed. This is particularly helpful in independent study. So, what does the French look like after correcting the missing parts?

French 2nd Attempt: Mec, je suis en train d'écouter une chanson actuellement, est-ce que tu as (informal as indicated by the use of mec) entendu le mot « Émoustiller »?

Sometimes it is easy to get caught up in the grammar and this usually ends in the overcomplication of a relatively simple concept. Slowing down and thinking through how the translation might work when reversed is important in ensuring that sentences are properly constructed.

It can be easy to get ahead of oneself when speaking or writing in a new language, but implementation of this method will reduce mistakes in the long run. Unfortunately, it is exactly something that can be done in the middle of a conversation. Well, at least not a spoken conversation.

Making language learning more efficient

Leaning into efficient language learning is one of the best ways to remain engaged. With the endless amount of content available in just about every language ever spoken, it is vital to ensure that the stimulus inputs being used are worthwhile. The most bang for the proverbial language buck.

While reverse translating is far from a simple task, after doing it consistently for a few weeks, whatever foreign language is the target will begin to make more sense. For beginners, this is likely going to be one of the most challenging exercises to do. However, it can make a huge difference as a more intermediate level is reached.

In theory, this practice will also help with the continued effort put towards translations in general. Since most of what learning a language breaks down to for beginners is translating in one's head from native language to target language, doing it on paper is a no brainer. That's why I put together this free language logbook. If you haven't downloaded it already, you can do so by here:

Free Digital Language Logbook

second language strategy, logbook, bilingual

The importance of keeping a written log can not be overstated. This is especially true when it comes to efficiency. In order to be efficient it is important to know numbers and have a record of progress. Using a logbook makes this easy and that's really the goal. Facilitate language learning in your household and it will be impossible not to make progress. Along those lines, the best way to get language acquisition done fast is through immersion. If you can't make it to another country, here are some ways to do it in your own home.

Watch movies and use subtitles

Simple, yet effective. Watching something in your target language with subtitles in your native language (target language if you can manage) is a phenomenal way to begin training your ear. Creating a connection between the sound of the word and what it looks like in English is helpful when you begin crafting your own sentences.

This is how I would do it:

1. Audio target language, subtitles native language

2. Audio native language, subtitles target language

3. Audio target language, subtitles target language

4. Audio target language, no subtitles

Going back and forth between 1 and 2 is also good. Being able to see the words after having heard them AND hearing them after seeing them only adds to the brain's encoding ability. Beyond watching movies, YouTube is another phenomenal option and the primary reason is simple, you can slow things down.

While putting together a newsletter for the Spanish learners in the community, I found several incredible YouTube channels, but some of them speak rather quickly. I tested it, and turning it down to .75 speed actually does make it easier to understand. Watching some videos about topics you're interested in will give you another avenue for daily inputs; and it's the daily inputs that matter most.

Start using the language all day, every day

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The only real way to develop language skills is by using the language. Whether you prefer active learning or passive learning, exposure is key. As you spend more time immersed in the language it will become easier and easier to understand. While the beginning may be slow, things will begin to make sense over time.

A good example given to me by a someone I work with is this, every night he reads his daughter a bedtime story. I gave him some suggestions and now he reads her a bedtime story every night in his target language. Whether or not he makes mistakes makes no difference to her. She doesn't need to understand the language. When he started, she didn't understand English. Now there's one more thing he does every day in his target language that he used to do in his native language.

When you make it easy to win, winning becomes easy. Set yourself up for success by adding things in slowly. No matter how many languages you are trying to learn, getting exposure to the language is most important. Ideally there will be native speakers you can talk to, but if not then doing something as simple as reading aloud to your children will help you make enormous strides.

Learning to Focus

One of the most difficult aspects of learning anything is focusing for long enough to master it. Language learning is no different. One of the most common things people run into is the desire to start learning another language as soon as the current one becomes too difficult. Progress plateaus, that is why I am always harping on about stacking Ws. Momentum defeats plateaus.

target language, bilingualism, strategy

While I believe language learning should be fun, there are times for fun and times for focused learning. With focus placed on learning, the time to complete a task will drop and the amount of completed tasks will rise. It is really an easy win to take, but it's not as simple as it sounds. Or is it?

Here are three things you can do to ensure you are getting the most out of your study time:

1. Have your resources organized and ready to go

2. Have writing space and vocabulary words ready

3. Unplug your internet

Anyone can tell you how to learn a language. There are dozens of language learning strategies and everyone is working on language hacking. None of it matters, though, if you can't focus long enough to absorb the information.

With that said, once you've developed a strategy to stay focused on your foreign language, it is time to once again visit the efficiency angle. That's why focusing on the right words is important.

Learn the “right” words

vocabulary, study, teach

When discussing the "right" words, what I am talking about are the most common words. Anyone who has ever studied a language before has heard the phrase, "it depends on the context" and it's because, well, many things depend on the context. Being able to identify the different situations that various words fit into will come with more and more exposure, but it will come faster if you recognize which words are repeated most often.

As your vocabulary increases the utility of these words will as well. That's when the feeling of being fluent starts to become more and more real. With the proper resources and research it is possible to nail down more and more of the vocabulary simply by understanding most of the phrases you read or hear.

Writing is the final one of the final tools that should be used as much and as often as possible. It is a free way to test yourself, track your progress, and ensure that common phrases are easy to recall. With a written history of your studies, you can always go back and make corrections, look back to see how far you've come, and share with anyone who thinks it was an easy process.


Learning a foreign language is no easy endeavor. While it can be simple, there are many things that make it complex. That said, all that really matters at the end of the day is consistency. That's why we started the Duolingo movement. It's not the perfect app, but being able to see other people working towards the same goal as you is powerful. Especially when all of those people are rooting for your success, too. There are countless language learning programs, but half an hour on Duolingo, combined with the above second language strategies, will allow the average person to make more progress than most online courses.

duolingo, owl, routine

It is not impossible to learn a language fast, but if that is the goal it is imperative to understand that it will be difficult. Picking up a foreign language at any speed is going to be challenging. But you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and become great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same. I'll be here rooting for you and watching out for your successes in the meantime.

For more content find me on Twitter or Instagram. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, get up to 55% off a Babbel subscription using this link. I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.