Learning a New Language in 6 Months

Learning a New Language in 6 Months

Last year I went from knowing how to say "hello" and "thank you" in Thai to B2 level proficiency. I can make small talk with Thai people, read and understand news articles, and have basic conversations about various topics.

Good enough to get through most day-to-day interactions I have with Thai speakers.

If you have ever attempted to learn a new language but never got past learning 100-200 words on your latest attempt to keep your Duolingo streak going, you know learning a new language is no easy task.

Learning a new language can feel like an enormous grind, and it's hard to keep up the motivation and time commitment to keep studying. Luckily, you can do many things that speed up the process and make it more enjoyable.


When you start learning a new language, you need to learn vocabulary before anything else, but you don't have to learn as many words as you probably think.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, there are an estimated 171,146 words currently in use in the English language, of which 47,156 are considered obsolete. That leaves us with 123,990 words [0].

Luckily we don't have to study all of those either. Estimations say native English speakers only know around 15-20.000 words and lemmas (run, runs, ran and running). There are many words that even native speakers have trouble defining, like panoptic, preterition, or swivet.

It's estimated you need to know around 800-1000 words to get by in day-to-day situations and about 3000 to watch TV or movies in a language. That means you only have to learn a small subset of your target language before you can get by in daily conversations.

Although the numbers aren't the exact same, every language has only uses a subset of the complete vocabulary.

A great way to find the most common words is to search for frequency lists or download sentence pairs from the Tatoeba project. The Tatoeba project has a big collection of sentences with their translations provided by native speakers. You can find ready-made datasets from the Tatoeba project on http://www.manythings.org/anki/.

By focusing only on the most common words, you can cut 80% of your effort and focus on the 20% that brings all most of the results.

The best way to study these words is by using spaced repetition, which has proven to increase the learning rate [1].

Anki is one of the most popular apps, but there are plenty of alternatives. My personal favorite is Quizlet, which offers a much better user experience than Anki, a free mobile app, and various other quiz types apart from just flashcards.

You can also find card decks for each of these apps based on frequency or topic.

Listening and understanding

Once you've got a small vocabulary built up, you must start immersing yourself in the language as soon as possible. It will expand your vocabulary much quicker, help you understand the correct sentence structure, and hear the correct pronunciation.

Watch Netflix

Watching Netflix can be productive with the Language Learning with Netflix extension. This extension shows the subtitles of your target language with a translation underneath so you can learn the translation of each sentence in real-time.

Their directory will help you find titles that have translations available in both your native language and your target language.

Create a separate deck in Anki or Quizlet and add every new word or sentence you learn to this deck. You can then keep practicing each regularly until you remember it.

Listen to Podcasts and Radio

While you are working, exercising, or driving, you can listen to podcasts or radio broadcasts in the language you are trying to learn. TuneIn has a directory of radio stations by language, or you can use Radio Garden to find radio stations by location.

If you are learning a popular language like Spanish, English, or French, you can easily find podcasts tailored to language learners in these languages. If you study a less popular language, like Thai, they aren't as easy to find.

You will have to google around for podcasts in the language you want to learn or use the local google version to find podcasts about interesting topics. For example, if you're looking for a podcast about technology in Spanish, try searching for "podcast de tecnología" on Google.es instead of using English terms in the English search engine.

These radio stations and podcasts target native speakers instead of language learners, so don't expect them to adjust their speed and vocabulary to your level.

Watch Youtube

Create a separate youtube account where you only watch and subscribe to channels in your target language. The youtube algorithm will do a great job of recommending new content in the language you want to learn.

Be careful not to watch any youtube videos in your native language on this account. Just one or two videos can be enough to flip the algorithm to recommend more videos in your native language.

If you accidentally watch some videos in another language, go to your Library > Watch History and delete them. That will keep the algorithm from recommending videos in another language than you are learning.

Unfortunately, the automatically generated captions on youtube are pretty inaccurate, and there is no language learning plugin like the one that exists for Netflix. You can filter search results on Youtube to only show videos with closed captions but very few videos have it.

It's a great source of new material regardless as you can find many videos in any language and the visual aspect of videos provides more context, so it's easier to understand

News, Blogs, Reddit, Social Media

We all consume a huge amount of information online daily. Instead of reading everything in your native language, diversify and read it in the language you are learning instead. Follow some news sources, blogs or social media account of people and companies who post in your target language.

A big pro of text over audio and video is that you can consume it as slow or as fast as you can comprehend it and you can quickly paste a word you don't know into Google Translate.

Social media will also introduce you to more colloquial language, and seeing what's trending or often discussed also helps you better understand the culture.


Learning to speak a foreign language is probably the most challenging part of learning a new language. You also need some confidence to stumble through a conversation with a stranger.

Even if you live in the country of the language you want to learn or have friends or family you can talk to, not everyone has the patience to have a conversation with you at your level of study. Speaking slowly, in a clear manner, and with a limited vocabulary.

Trying to start a conversation with the waiter in a busy restaurant is probably not ideal. The old lady killing some time on a park bench is much more likely to be willing to have a short chat!

A good alternative for this is HelloTalk, a big community where you can talk to native speakers from every language. You can also book a lesson with a teacher on Italki. iTalki isn't just for talking with native speakers, the teachers also offer structured lesson plans for different levels.

If you want to make sure your pronunciation is okay, before talking to native speakers, use the Google Translate app's voice feature. Or, if you have an iPhone, add the keyboard language to your iPhone, open the Notes app, and start dictation. You can then talk in the microphone and see your speech appear on the screen. Although it's not perfect, it will give you a good indication of whether people can understand you.

The most important part of speaking a foreign language is confidence. Don't be afraid to make mistakes when talking to a native speaker; it's a part of the learning process.

Make it easier for yourself and learn the words and phrases you'll need to clarify misunderstandings when things go wrong.

I don't understand. What is this called? Can you repeat that? Could you speak slower, please?

You still have to put in many study hours to get proficient in a new language, but hopefully, these tips will make it more enjoyable and help you acquire proficiency a little bit faster.

[0] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-44569277

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5126970