If you need to learn a new language in order to take advantage of a career opportunity, be it a business trip or job change, then you're part of a growing contingent of workers trying to boost their language skills.
A 2017 New American Economy (NAE) report showed that the demand for bilingual workers more than doubled from 2010 to 2015, and more companies than ever are seeking employees who speak multiple languages.
It makes perfect sense why an increasingly global business environment requires people who can rapidly develop new language skills. As Leonardo De Valoes, adjunct faculty at Trinity Washington University, wrote in a 2014 blog post on the school's website, "Communicating directly with new clients and companies in their native language is one of the first steps to founding a lasting, stable international business relationship. Being able to do this automatically puts any multilingual person miles ahead of his or her peers in the competition for jobs and high-prestige positions."
But it's no small feat — especially if you already have your hands full with your current job responsibilities — to pick up a new language muy rápido. According to a 2019 This Is How We Learn Report from the learning software company Cerego, it takes 15.5 hours of study distributed across 56 days to master a course, and 86% of what we read or listen to is gone from our memory in a matter of days.
Business Insider picked the brains of six people who successfully taught themselves how to speak a different tongue in record time to understand how it can be done.
Practice key words and phrases
As a PR veteran with more than three decades in the business, Barry M. Schwartz, president of Schwartz Public Relations, often finds himself abroad.
"Travel is an integral part of the work, as mine has included regular trips to Europe, South America, and Asia," he said. Yet like many people, Schwartz found it very challenging to become fluent in a foreign language for these short stints.
As a workable alternative to fluency, Schwartz explained that he found it "most advantageous" to at least learn key phrases required on his travels.
"[This] helps in two ways: just getting around more easily, and equally important, serving to ingratiate yourself with the locals, whether clients, media, or just folks you meet," he said.
To facilitate this effort, Schwartz used a teaching tool/card game called Lingo, which, according to the website, provides 54 essential translations "accompanied by intuitive, easy-to-learn pronunciations."
While he confessed that the card game isn't the way you "really learn a language," he emphasized its value for helping business people take advantage of career opportunities by being able to speak just well enough to communicate while on assignment.
"Many business travelers have found Lingo to be an invaluable aid in just getting through the day," he said.
Learn the most-used verbs and how to conjugate them
Studying languages is a major passion for Josh Palmer, who studied French in high school, learned Chinese by living and working in Beijing for two years after college (while earning his MBA from National Taiwan University), and learned Spanish while living and studying full time in Spain.
Last year, Palmer founded LanguagePosters.com, a business designed expressly to help people learn languages more quickly and easily. Palmer's venture initially launched with posters in Spanish, French, and Italian, but now the business sells 10 different posters in eight languages in more than 20 countries. The latest posters come with decoder glasses that obscure the irregular verb conjugations to help you quiz yourself.
The business was born out of his own desire for speedier and more effective language tools. Palmer had just moved to Barcelona to study Spanish, and really wanted resources to help him learn the language faster, but couldn't find anything on the market that "didn't look like it was designed for a second-grade classroom."
"I knew from high school French class that memorizing the irregular verb conjugations was going to be the trickiest part — even more so with Spanish, where every letter is pronounced — and designed a poster I could keep on display to help with this memorization," he said. "I knew it had to look nice as well, so my roommates would let me keep it up in the living room."
Palmer explained that as the action words of the sentence, verbs are the key to speaking a language. "You'll naturally learn the names of commonly used things around you, and you can always point and use the words for 'this' or 'that,'" said Palmer. "But unless you're a charades expert, you'll want to learn the most-used verbs. For example, learning to say 'I want this,' [and] 'Do you have that?' will get you pretty far."
Build the basics using workbooks and a frequency dictionary
Russell Knight, who today is an attorney at the Law Office of Russell Knight, had the foresight to realize when he was 30 years old that learning Spanish would come in handy in his legal career.
Back in 2007, as he was starting his law career at a small firm on the west side of Chicago, Knight was under pressure to get up to speed with Spanish quickly.
"That year the bottom fell out of the legal market," he said. "The only people walking through the door with cash were Spanish speakers. There were no other job openings for fresh attorneys. I needed to learn Spanish and I needed to learn Spanish fast."
To learn the language as quickly as possible, Knight ramped up the "old-fashioned way" with a frequency dictionary. "This is a dictionary that starts with the most common word and goes to the next common word," he said. "Most languages use 500 words for 90% of all conversations. I memorized the first 1,000 words." This was what Knight needed to be able to communicate with his clients.
"Now … about a third of my clients are Spanish speakers," said Knight.
Once he had the basics nailed, Knight took more time finessing his Spanish skills by beefing up his grammar. "There is no way around this other than buying grammar workbooks with all of the problems that involve filling in the blanks," he said. "This is not fun and it takes hours ... but it [does] teach you."
Knight caveats that advancing to the stage where he could speak extemporaneously in a new language took much longer than mastering common words and grammar. "Making a language immediately register in your mind and leap off your tongue [is] like gaining muscle memory, but learning the basics just took a few months," he said.
Record yourself speaking
Annemarie Fowler, owner and director of the online English fluency training company Speak Confident English and Fluency School, made recordings of herself speaking French in order to learn it quickly to prepare to accompany her husband for his diplomatic posting in France.
"I'm a professional language coach, so I should have known how to learn a language quickly, but it took me years to discover this strategy for myself," Fowler admitted.
She recommended that after recording yourself speaking in your target language you "listen to it. Analyze it. (Delete it if listening to yourself is uncomfortable.) And do it again."
If you're unsure how to get started with this method, Fowler advised beginning with a spoken journal summarizing your day. "You can talk about what's happening at work, practice for conversations you know you'll have, or simply summarize a movie you just saw," she suggested.
The language coach said that once she put this system in place, she noticed "immediate results" in her fluency, vocabulary, and overall confidence when communicating in French. Fowler still uses this strategy to maintain her language skills and also uses it with her clients for fast, effective language absorption. "It's particularly helpful for shy, anxious second-language speakers," she said.
She explained that this works in helping you quickly and effectively master a language because you must first practice speaking in order to skillfully gain command over a language.
"Recording yourself gives you that opportunity [to practice speaking], no matter where you live or what your level might be," she said.
The other reason that Fowler believes this approach works is that it helps you see your weaknesses. "They say you can't fix what you don't know is broken," said Fowler. "Analyzing your recorded speech highlights gaps in knowledge and ability."
She added that recording yourself practicing a language multiple times develops muscle memory. "Creating that automaticity with the words and grammar you need to express yourself is how confidence and fluency are built," she stated.
Fowler reassured that while listening to yourself may feel uncomfortable, "thankfully, you get comfortable with how you sound rather quickly."
Meet or video chat with native speakers
Digital tools were primarily how Brett Downes, an SEO specialist with link-building service DFY Links, speedily spruced up his Spanish in preparation to work in Guatemala for 11 months in 2014.
"The [employees at the] hostel I worked at were all Spanish speaking," recalled Downes. "Before flying in, I downloaded the Duolingo app on my phone and used it for two hours every day for three months before arriving in Guatemala."
Additionally, Downes signed up for an online Spanish lesson, through which he would speak via Skype with a teacher for three times a week for one-hour sessions. "The app helped me learn words, conjugations, and formal things, while speaking in person [via Skype] allowed me to practice understanding and also interacting with a real person in Spanish."
Downes boosted his adeptness at the language still further by participating in a home-stay for a month, during which he lived with a Spanish-speaking family before starting his job.
"I was forced to converse in Spanish only," Downes remembered. "It was here that I really got to grips with the language, and when I actually … could hold lengthy conversations with the staff and guests while being able to read, write, and understand emails and work documents, too."
The SEO specialist still works remotely for a Spanish school in Guatemala and has continued with his Skype lessons to keep his skills fresh — albeit just once a week now.
Listen to language audio guides, and constantly speak it
Saurabh Jindal, founder of voice mobile application Talk Travel, is no stranger to learning new languages. A current resident of Paris, he has been learning French "to help [him] with … daily life as well as in professional settings." He previously lived for a year in Chile, learning Spanish for the same reasons.
"I travel a lot, and try to learn the basics — a few words, at least — of a new language to break the ice and communicate in the local ecosystem," said Jindal.
For Jindal, the quickest way to "get around" a new language has been to use audio guides, including Paul Noble's "Next Steps in French" and "Learn Spanish." "I listen to them a lot during the day — sometimes even as a replacement to music," he said.
The biggest benefit that Jindal noticed from the audio guides was the ability to understand accents. "In the beginning it was a pain to decipher what was being spoken, but regularly hearing the audio guides enhanced my comprehension of the spoken words," he said.
He added that it can be extra helpful to immerse yourself in the "actual environment" with foreign language speakers.
"If you force yourself to converse with them in their language, [it] makes you think and use the words," Jindal said. "Practice makes … perfect, and it couldn't have been more apt for learning languages. I tried to speak, whenever I could, even if it was broken, but gradually got hold of things, and now I am at a decent level."