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Intensive language learning or 3 steps to boost your language skills to the next level

At LinguaLift, we strongly believe that there’s no rush when it comes to language learning, and you should always try to enjoy the journey as much as the language skills you acquire, using the language that you’ve learned as much as you can, right from day one.

Nevertheless, in the real world, there are real deadlines, and you might be wondering whether there is any way to make a real breakthrough before that placement test, interview or your first trip abroad.

The good news is that the answer is a definite yes. However, the process does require utmost concentration and immense time commitment so if you aren’t prepared for it, you probably won’t keep up for long unless you’re ready to sacrifice your work, hobbies and relationships to reach your goal.

I assume below that you are at least a lower-intermediate speaker, and that you intended to improve all aspects of your language skills in a balanced manner, not just cram vocab and grammar before a language test. I also assume that you have no or close to no other commitments during the learning period.

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Steps to success

When they decide to learn languages intensively, most students simply do more of the same stuff they did before. Unfortunately, this is a sure way to burnout.

Spending more time alone will not make you learn fast. If you want to succeed, the key to intensive language learning is variety and efficiency.

Variety will keep you motivated as you’ll never be doing exactly the same thing for overly long periods of time. The efficiency of the individual methods will then help you learn more per minute of your time.

Let’s look at the four activities you’ll think of in the morning and dream of through the night during the next few weeks:

1. Sentence spaced repetition (3h/day)

Targets: vocabulary, grammar

The first pillar of intensive language learning is an SRS system such as Anki or Kleio and a good deck of sentences.

Learning from sentences instead of individual words or characters will let you learn more efficiently, force you to learn in a balanced manner, and motivate you as the additional context often makes the process more interesting and many of the sentences are readily usable.

What’s good about sentences is that you not only learn new words, but also understand how to use them in context, and what their nuance is depending on how they are used.

As you have no time to waste, it’s probably best to use a precompiled sentence deck shared by other users, but you are welcome to supplement that with additional sentences you come across elsewhere.

The more personal and emotional the sentences, the easier they’ll be to remember, so make sure to venture beyond simple “the book is on the shelf” if you can.

The more personal and emotional the sentences, the easier they’ll be to remember.

2. Shadowing (3h/day)

Targets: listening, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar

Shadowing is an advanced learning technique where you listen to a text in your target language, and then speak it aloud at the same time as the native speaker.

I describe the shadowing technique in great detail in a separate blog post, but the basic concept is as follows:

  • listen to the text once—if you don’t have at least a general idea of what’s going on, you might be better off choosing an easier topic
  • listen to the text a few more times until you are confident that whatever you still don’t understand you won’t be able to figure out from context through subsequent hearings
  • listen to the text while reading the transcript and look up any words you’re not confident about
  • listen to the text and repeat with a minimum delay—rinse and repeat until you can read it confidently at the same speed as the recording, then do it once more and move onto the next track

By the time you move onto the next text, you should understand every word and sentence, and essentially know the text by heart. If you can’t read most of the text from memory while in the shower, you haven’t repeated it enough.

If you can’t read the text from memory while in the shower, you haven’t repeated it enough.

Note that you shouldn’t look up any vocabulary or grammar until you repeat the text several times. You might only barely understand the content on first playthrough, but if the text is of the right level, you should be able to figure out the meaning of many, if not most words and sentence patterns after hearing it several times.

Make sure to speak loud and clear. If you’re not too self-conscious, this is a great time to take a break from the computer screen and have a walk in the park.

The ideal content is roughly one page long, at natural speed, on engaging topics and with no artificial pauses and absolutely no English.

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3. Practice (3h/day)

Targets: listening, reading, speaking, writing

The third and last step is actually using what you’ve learned. It might seem obvious, but somehow it is something many learners seem to avoid at all costs.

However much you learn, you will forget it sooner or later and you will never understand the nuance behind it unless you hear it, say it, read it and write it every day.

However much you learn, you will forget it unless you hear, say, read and write it every day.

For listening and reading, news sites are a good place to go. There’s new content every day, and it saves you time as you won’t have to read the news in your native language. Movies and youtube videos are also good ways to improve your listening skills.

For writing, there’s no better choice than Lang-8, a site where you can submit your musings and get them corrected by native speakers. Try to write at least a paragraph or two every evening, using as many words and sentence patterns you’ve learned during the day. Pay close attention to the corrections you receive, and make sure that you understand every change before moving on.

For speaking, your best bet is to Skype with a native, trying to use whatever you’ve learned that day. Friends and sweethearts are great for practice, but probably not ideal when you want to learn intensively and thus avoid wasting time on travel, greetings and pointless chit-chat. You can also join an online study group.

Last but not least, if this guide is too intensive for you, or when you’re done with it and are ready to get back to a calmer methodology, be sure to check out LinguaLift, as well as my list of 100 alternative language learning resources.

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