Corbett Barr

Lifestyle Business Weekly

How to Learn a Language in 96 Hours


It’s possible to learn a language to a useful conversational level in just 96 hours of study. How do I know? That’s how long I’ve spent studying Spanish, and a couple of experiences this week convinced me that I’ve learned a respectable amount.

Now, notice that I said 96 hours of study time. Since we’re living in Mexico, I have opportunities every day to practice speaking Spanish in conversations.

The total time I’ve spent speaking Spanish is much greater than what I’ve invested in formal learning. The point of this method is that you don’t have to sit in a classroom for hundreds of mind-numbing hours.

You don’t have the luxury of moving abroad while you learn a language? Try volunteering in your local community to help a group that is comprised mostly of speakers of your desired language. You’ll get an opportunity to practice the language and you’ll be doing something good. You’ll want to wait until you’ve had a few weeks of classes to do this.

Experts contend that real-world practice is more important than classroom time when learning a language. I agree that real-world interactions in your desired language are key to getting to real conversational fluency, but some classroom time (or other formal study time) is the foundation upon which those conversations will be built.

How Much Can Be Learned?

So, exactly how much can you learn in that amount of time? Let me describe it this way. We were recently in a local restaurant and our native Spanish-speaking server asked us where we were from in English. Our conversation continued in English for a few moments, and I thought to myself that his English was good.

At some point, though, we started Speaking in Spanish when it became clear to both of us that the conversation would have more bandwidth that way. It was a real-world direct comparison of my Spanish to another person’s English (which I thought was decent). It gave me a great way to gauge just how well my use of Spanish must sound to a native speaker.

I’m not saying you can achieve fluency in such a short time by any means. But you will be able to get almost anything you want done, and you’ll be able to have at least 10 minutes of conversation with native speakers on most common topics.

Repetition at the Right Interval is the Key

The 96 hours of study I mentioned will of course have to be spread out over a period of time. Studies show that the ideal time to practice something is just before you would have forgotten it. That time varies from person to person.

I spaced those 96 hours of study over six months (four hours of dedicated study every week for 24 weeks). Could it be done in a shorter amount of time? That depends on your capacity for remembering what you’ve learned. I personally would probably have been better off compressing the same amount of study into 3-4 months.

If you try to squeeze the time frame too much, you’ll forget most of what you learn. People who expect to become fluent in a language by cramming 80 hours of classroom time into two weeks are usually disappointed.

The Shotgun Approach

What techniques should you use to learn your new language? I worried a lot about that at first, and then settled on a completely shotgun approach.

There are benefits to the shotgun approach. It’s good in that you’ll get to speak with many different people and learn from different approaches. This helps you synthesize the information and arrive at your own best method for learning.

The downside is that if you jump from instructor to instructor (we’ve had 4 different teachers), you’ll spend a lot of time being evaluated for how much you know. On the other hand this repetition may actually be a benefit.

Here are the methods and tools I’ve used so far (some are Spanish only):

  • Classroom instruction: classroom instruction can be good. It really depends on the instructor, the materials and your classmates. It is generally true that a class will progress as fast as the slowest student can handle. As a side benefit, classes can be a great way to meet interesting people.
  • Private instruction: private instruction also depends on the instructor, but you’ll be able to tailor your materials and won’t have classmates to worry about.
  • Software: I’ve found the Rocket Spanish and other software to be a good compliment to classroom time and real-world practice, but it’s not a complete substitute on its own. Read my full Rocket Spanish review.
  • iPhone software: on the iPhone, I use a great little tool called Spanish Anywhere (iTunes link). It’s very handy to have a complete dictionary and study aid on hand all the time.
  • this website has a lot of great free resources for learning grammar and vocabulary.
  • Google Translate: I’ve noticed Google’s Translator get better over time, and I’m guessing it will get better still. The translations aren’t dead-on, but definitely helpful in a pinch.

Do you know of ways to get better language-learning results? Please tell me about it in the comments.

Gracias por leer este artículo. Hasta pronto!

P.S. Why not sign up for free updates via RSS or email or follow me on Twitter?

photo by Leif (Bryne, Norway)

Corbett Barr

A weekly curated email of useful links for people interested in lifestyle businesses and independent entrepreneurship.


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    • Oh, man, I can’t believe I forgot that one. I’ve listened to quite a few of their podcasts. They’re excellent, especially in the car. Each episode is only like 15 minutes, so you can squeeze one in anytime! Thanks for the pointer, Stefan.

  1. Hey Corbett!

    Thank you for this interesting post! I certainly agree with you that practice and repetition are key to learning a language and so I wrote my own little blog post on this topic ( I also believe that being surrounded by the language that you want to learn is essential, whether you live in a foreign country or not, so my blog post focuses on how to get this exposure while you still live in your home country!
    I’ll check back soon!

    • I’m glad you agree with the approach, Maria. Thanks for sharing your techniques. I especially like the suggestion in your post to watch movies with subtitles in your desired language. It’s important to include some fun and regular life in your language studies. I like to watch movies in Spanish and see how much I can comprehend.


  2. Hey Corbett! Great post :D I surfed by your blog by chance yesterday and has bookmarked it. My mother tongues are English and Chinese but I have also taken up third languages of Japanese and Bahasa Indonesia. I found the best way to learn languages is to just directly immerse yourself with the native speakers. Their natural eloquence and ease with the language steps up the whole learning curve and it makes one improve a lot faster. Watching shows/listening to audio tapes in those languages really help too.

    • I also find it very interesting to find out how differently a language is used by different people. That’s really only possible when talking in the real world with native speakers. It’s amazing how diverse a language really is amongst various socioeconomic groups. In the classroom you’re really only exposed to a small segment.

  3. I think I’ll have to find some Japanese, French, Chinese, Italian, German, Spanish and Arabic students next year at uni. Let’s see what we can manage in a few years on those languages. I’ve never been to good with languages save Dutch (native) and English (near-native due to childhood abroad) and have been talking myself into not being good in languages all my life.

    Now I see there is no need to talk myself down. Just get it over with and dive in there, head first.

    Thanks for the inspiration

    • I wonder what it is like trying to learn multiple new languages at the same time. I feel like since I’ve been learning Spanish I have forgotten much of the German I learned in my teenage years. Good luck working on so many new languages! Let us know how it goes.

  4. Darryl

    Cool article. I have also tried and recommend You can use it to do online course work which will be reviewed by native speakers who may also be in the process of learning your language. The site uses combination of social networking and online tutorials to advance your knowledge of a particular language. The tools are both audio and written. So far I like it, there are a few kinks, but it can be very productive.

    I have also used a site in a foreign country to find people who want to do language exchange over skype. We divide up the time between languages. Since it is skype, we can talk as long as we want.

    One last unique tactic, is to watch favorite DVDs in the target language (if it is available) since you are already familar with the dialogue you can train you ear to hear the translated content in the target language. Break out those Lost or Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs and have at it!

    • Thanks for the suggestion about livemocha. I’ll check it out. The tip about Skype is great also. I believe there is a site out there that helps you find people from other countries who want to do a language-learning swap with you.

  5. Mat

    Hey dude

    Cool post, but you haven’t heard of a resource that blows all the rest of those out of the water. It makes Spanish learning addictive… seriously, my family had to rip me away from it to eat dinner or go to bed.

    It’s from a man named Michel Thomas (now deceased). His beginners and advanced course are both amazing and both will be completed within 15 hours of listening time. I started learning Spanish with it… y ahora, hablo castellano sin problemas.

    I recommend this to any beginner who asks me the best way to get started.

    96 hours of study time is easily enough to get to a good conversational level starting with those courses.

  6. I took 4 years of Spanish classes in high school, one of which was an Advanced Placement course. At the end of the third year, our entire class took a trip to Mexico — Cancun, Cozumel, Uxmal, Merida.

    After all that, I do not know any useful Spanish. I can’t hear it. Can’t speak it. I can vaguely read it and write it.

    It’s okay, though. I don’t have much interest in learning Spanish. I’d really like to learn Brazilian Portuguese. I speak with Brazilians all the time and because of that I can read it and write it at a pretty decent level. I suspect if I had a chance to speak with them my learning would go even farther. Immersion is key.

    I’ve used Rosetta Stone and my opinion of it is that it’s too godawful boring for the price you pay. It is mind-numbing. Like you said, it’s great for vocabulary, but it’s not practical. It had me saying “The boy is on top of the plane.” and “The dog is jumping.”

    I did try when they were beta (and free) and I loved it. I tend to prefer web apps anyway. If I was doing any traveling and needed to learn a language fast I’d get a MangoLanguages subscription.

    Anyway, awesome post and it reignited my desire to learn a new language! Thanks, man.

  7. James

    To be fair, Spanish is one of the Easiest languages for an English person to learn (as well as most other Western-European-language speakers). Of course, that’s not to quell your achievement any though.

  8. Nice article.
    You can see some Timothy Ferriss’ resources :

    In addition I’m working on my English so I can share with you some keys tips :
    – always define your tools, sofwares, websites (facebook, twitter, forums) in the following langage
    – always see the signification of a word in a unilanguage dictionary first. Then only if you don’t understand the signification you can check it into your mother tongue.
    – open a journal and share it with friends who are already master in the langage you want to increase. In this way they will help you.

    Nice to follow you,

  9. Oh, I forgot.
    You can travel for free with in order to be in immersion (in fact according to your article this is the better way to have fast results).


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