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!

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photo by Leif (Bryne, Norway)

I'm Corbett Barr, founder of Fizzle and Palapa and co-host of The Fizzle Show. This is where I write about building businesses, living the good life, and doing work that matters. More about me »

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