Is It Possible To Learn A Language In Just 8 Days?

It's March 8th, so I want to wish a happy International Women's Day to all my female readers today. And this year, it happens to coincide with Fat Tuesday, which means that here in Chicago, we also celebrate Pączki Day. (The Polish actually celebrated this last Thursday.) And speaking of Polish, that brings me to today's topic.

After having discovered the joys of Kindle, I have decided that I no longer need to own actual books. They're cumbersome, inefficient, and really heavy on moving day — and no one is ever really as impressed by our book collections as we are — so I'm getting rid of my books.

But I don't want to throw out things I haven't yet read, so I've given myself a year to get through them. Whether I've read them or not, all books will be gone by the end of this year. Now there's motivation!

So, with that in mind, nine days ago I picked up the copy of Colloquial Polish that's been sitting on my shelf and started reading. Last night, I finished it. All 200+ pages.

What? That's crazy! You read an an entire book about a language that you don't speak in just eight days? There's no way you could have possibly learned anything that fast!

Actually, I've learned quite a lot! I've learned three grammatical genders in singular and two more in plural. I've learned seven grammatical cases. I've learned two verb aspects, as well as several Slavic verbs of motion. I've discovered the most cumbersome past tense conjugation of any language I've learned so far. Oh, and also a metric ton of vocabulary.

Yes... but eight days? You can't possibly learn anything useful that fast!

Actually, believe it or not, I've already had several chats, completely in Polish. I've written two entries at Lang-8 in Polish, and I'm planning on writing more. I'm understanding my Polish friends on Twitter without going to Google Translate. Believe me, I'm just as amazed as you are, but yes... I've just learned Polish in 8 days. (Who needs Esperanto after that!)

Now let me be clear: I'm not fluent. My spelling is still pretty bad. And I'm sure my pronunciation is worse. No miracles have happened here. But who knows how much farther I could take this if I were to give it a full 30 days, instead of just 8? I'm not going to do that, because I need to get back to Turkish. But just imagine the possibilities!

Also, I'm absolutely certain a large part of my ability to get through it this quickly has to do with similarities to a language I already do speak (Russian), so I don't think a person could just do this with every language... though it gives me some really interesting ideas for next year's language challenge.

Finally, I think there is one last detail here which is really important: I'm not afraid of grammar. Instead of complaining about grammar, and treating it like some ugly, scary thing, I have learned what those words mean. I've made myself comfortable with terms like instrumental and partitive, and that has given me the ability to read a description of grammar and understand it, rather than fighting with a bunch of strange examples in some book.

Just think how much you might be able to accelerate your own language learning if you stopped fighting against grammar, and instead learned to appreciate it!

Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Wow!... now I've got to try this with some of the language books I've picked up. There's a lot and half of them I don't have any knowledge of! Did you just read it or did you do the exercises as well?

  • Absolutely, I did the exercises too.

  • Very awesome.

  • I see that you worked pretty hard, but come on, it seems you learned just a tiny little bit of the laguage. It seems your definition of "learning a language" is pretty relaxed.

  • Or maybe yours is too strict.

  • Well, yes and no. Again, I'm not fluent. I'm struggling with spelling. And I make a lot of mistakes.But what's awesome is that I'm doing those things at a level at which I did them after six months in other languages.

  • I dunno... I read his posts over on Lang-8 and they seemed good enough to me (a Polish learner myself), certainly after a week of study. That said, I'm quite sure his Russian helped at least a little.

  • Do doubt it helped a LOT!

  • Honestly, the hard part of Polish for me is the completely opaque vocabulary. The grammar is neither here nor there.Not knowing anything about the vocab makes it seem on par with Chinese for difficulty...luckily it's written in latin letters.

  • I'm assuming then that you have no real current knowledge of any Slavic language, yes? For me, Slavic vocabular is a dream come true, because each new vocabulary word explains 10 more.Also, with Polish, you'll find a lot of common threads with Latin-based vocabulary (eg: da = he/she/it gives, są = they are), as well as Germanic (eg: wiele = many, jeden = one).

  • Good job and great article!I'm doing a very similar thing at the moment as I try to learn as much Dutch as possible this week (as a native German). Right now I'm quickly working through a textbook and from Thursday till Sunday I'll be together with a bunch of Dutch people. For 15 hours in total we'll be in a coach, so there is lots of time for conversation practice. I'm already thinking in Dutch quite often and I'm confident that by Sunday I can understand Dutch very well and have conversations without much of an effort.So yes, I believe that under certain circumstances one can learn a language in eight days.

  • 6 months?! Are you exagerating or do you really feel you've done 6 months work in 8 days?

  • It's a mistake to think of it as 6-months work. But yes, I'm saying that my progress is where I would have expected it to be after 6 months, rather than 8 days.

  • I wonder (and envy) how you get so much vocabulary (at least it seems to be a lot) doing so little effort(you said you didn't do any concious effort to learn new words). Though you have used the similarities between polish-russian this time, I guess you still did a great job(specially if you can chat and write a little).
    It feels like it doesn't matter how much I try(I have even tried not worrying at all, but it doesn't seem to work for me), new vocabulary won't come easily.
    By the way, congrats for your quick progress.

  • Thanks. Leave me a comment after your experiment and let me know how you do with Dutch!

  • The key for me with vocabulary is learning the components of words — just as in English. If you can understand the piece that build words, you can quickly remember words based on their components.

  • I've been living in Poland for over a year, my girlfriend's family only speak Polish, and I can say I'm pretty well immersed. I also had the "Colloquial Polish" book, it took me about 3 months to go through, and even then the knowledge I got from the book was somewhat passive, and not that useful on its own.Either I'm completely stupid, but I'm stumped to see how after 8 days of reading this book, you can have decent conversations in Polish, understand and write fairly complex articles on Lang-8. I admit I have no knowledge of any other Slavic languages, and this is my first foreign language, so maybe that's why.After around a year and half of learning, I can understand most conversations, watch TV, write about almost anything on Lang-8, and have conversations with lots of hesitations. It was a hard road, and if what you say is true, I feel incredibly stupid and kind of lost.However one question, do you think the reverse is true? Could I pick up Russian just as quick now that I know Polish?

  • Yes, exactly. It sounds like you have a good level in Polish now. I think you could pick up Russian, or Ukrainian, or Czech now in a ridiculously short period of time. I would expect it to be slightly harder going to Russian or Ukrainian, because of their moving stress patterns and strange alphabet... but if you really tried, I think you could learn Ukrainian in 2 weeks or less. And Czech even faster.

  • It's interesting, because you are clearly quite pleased and excited with your progress from this brief interlude with a textbook, and yet you are adamant that you won't use anything like this for Turkish. Why is that? Is it really just to give your attack on Turkish a more interesting angle for your blog? Or do you see it as having some sort of other benefit(s)?

  • Doesn't compare.
    And yes, it has many other potential benefits.

  • As an experiment, I just went to Wikipedia and tried to read some stuff in Czech, and you are absolutely right. I could understand maybe 40% of the words without any effort. I couldn't comment on Russian however, as I don't yet know the alphabet. But nice to be able to have a big jump start.

  • And just think, with a book to explain to you the minor grammatical differences, you'll find you know a lot more... you just have to read it a little differently.Yeah, it's a ridiculously unfair jump start! :)

  • Blog post's haven't come out yet but I have should point out that I decided to take a Thai language holiday, mainly because my workload at the moment is stupidly high (our company won a programming tender we didn't expect to win and bang I end up working 16 hour days). Upshot is I find starting a language is quite relaxing so limited spare time I have been cramming with leaning some Hindi (it is on my list) and I have been given two new contractors to help with the workload one of whom is a hindi speaker.Ok my approach is mainly audio, a mix of real hindi, a film or two, learning podcasts (free ones), a bit of youtube and a bit of reading online but I too was somewhat shocked by how much I learned in the first week (as was my Hindi speaking colleague). I will be following this through for a least 8 weeks on this stint, I was surprised by how much vocab I picked up, how much grammar and even a little reading and writing ability.To cut a long long story short, I am quite clear that what makes this seem so fast to me is previous experience in learning language my brain has the experiences and some acquired skills, in the same way that a fit person with good core strength and reasonable flexibility can quickly start of with a new sport (whereas a unfit/inexperienced person will spend much initial time learning how to use and develop their body).As for grammar, Hindi seems to be about on a par with German for grammar complexity and I have quick managed to pick up masculine / feminine differences and many other grammar aspects with no explicit knowledge of the grammar terms, familiarity with different grammars and confidence is definitely a factor.All this is still hard though :P but fun.The shock for me was that I did't expect to be creating novel sentences that actually worked in under a week.Edit: should point out that many of the grammar points wouldn't have come so fast with out hearing English in the learning podcasts and asking a few questions of my Hindi colleague, all by example though.

  • I like your comment about not being afraid of grammar. Too often from too many I see a sort of ideological war going on with grammar or with typical classes. I guess I figure I'll just take what I can get and leave the rest. Everything can be helpful if we capitalize on strengths and maximize opportunities.
    Eight days is pretty impressive!

  • Yeah, I really hate the damn holy war against grammar that I see so often from English-native language learners. The funny thing is, ESL speakers can almost *always* explain English grammar to us. In English. So it's really not as hard as we like to think. Once you stop treating grammar as if it were evil, you can actually learn things quickly by using it.

  • Right! That's actually perhaps even more impressive than my own progress with Polish, since Hindi isn't really similar to another language you speak.Congrats! And I totally get that thing about learning something new as a form of relaxation. I've done that all my life.

  • Sorry, yeah... 6 months progress I meant

  • I should have pointed out in my enthusiasm that my level at that point isn't as high as your Polish seems to be. But a lot of basic conversation stuff and vocab. still struck me as way beyond what I would have been capable of without learning experiance. Even a bit of humour, I just said "who was that girl?" about our team leader who was being annoying (and is a guy). My Hindi speaking colleague found that amusing and correctly guessed that I used girl rather than guy deliberately.Yeah it doesn't seem to make sense, but if overworked then the best thing I can do is learn something completly new, I guess it clears the buffers in my brain or something, so I don't go to sleep thinking (and dreaming) about the problems at work.

  • Maybe. Why stop at Polish then? Learn one slavic language per week, you can finish them all in 2-3 months and learn Turkish in remaining 6 months ;)Ok just kidding, honestly, you did a good job.

  • Sure, it doesn't compare because you don't already know a related language, so maybe you'll only make 2 or 3 months progress in Turkish in a week with a good book instead of 6 months :-)What are the other potential benefits? I had a quick look through your posts on learning Turkish and I couldn't necessarily see what those benefits were. I know you mentioned something about how you searched for a clothing word and so saw it used in lots of online shops, and got to know the sort of fashions that are currently being marketed to Turkish speakers.That sort of thing? Got any more examples?Don't get me wrong - I like the challenge you've set yourself. My brother-in-law is currently learning Spanish by just starting with children's books and then using any phrases he learns with his patients (he's a physiotherapist). I think that's an interesting approach too, but I wonder how far you can get saying "I like yellow frogs" :-)Don't you think that what you've learnt from this 8 day sprint is that sometimes you can give yourself a real kickstart in a lot less time? What if you were to read a good book on Turkish and then go back to your current scheme. Wouldn't you find yourself at a new level, gathering vocab and conversational ability at a new, much higher, pace?So I guess my question really is, is the point of not using any books at all just an experiment in language learning because it's more interesting to blog about than more staid alternatives?

  • No.

  • Then why?

  • I've already given several reasons in several other posts. The very fact that you're bringing up Turkish makes it quite clear that a) you're capable of reading, and b) you know that these other posts DO exist. I like to assume the best about people all the time, but I'm finding it really hard not to see this line of dialog you're pursuing as offensive in nature.

  • I feel like learning grammar terminology is useless right up until I read a description of some aspect of a language's grammar in a book that uses that terminology :/

  • Indeed, you're probably not interested in discussing noun declension at the bar over beers. But when the intent is to learn a language, that is a term you will want to understand! :) And so on.

  • https://www.myamazingyear.co...

  • Bardzo dobrze, zawsze jestem szędześliwy kiedy słyszę że inny Amerykanin uczy się polskiego :) Ale niestety muszisz powrócić do wyzwania....

  • Dziękuję! Tak, już powróciłem do wyzwanie. Szkoda. Mi podoba polski język. Wolałabym koncentrować się na nim teraz. :)

  • Impressive! I guess it would give you a great start - and one of the things that may have worked in your favour is that you read the book in one go (over 8 days obviously - but you didn't put the book down for a few days or weeks and then come back to it). I'm going to guess that this would have been really helpful for retention?

  • Maybe. But I still think the biggest advantage comes from the similarities to a language I already speak.

  • Podobno polski jest jednym z najtrudniejszych języków na świecie, a tu proszę - można się go nauczyć w 8 dni! :D

  • Według mnie nie wydaje się tak trudne.

  • I'm personally all about noun declension at the bar... no one else seems to be... ;(

  • Thanks James. I had read that article, but on reading it again I realised why it hadn't stuck:"An emotional trigger is required in order for your brain to move short-term information into long-term memory…and for most people the only emotional trigger they know is boring, tedious study!"Now I've read it twice, it will stick better ;-)I actually think these are all good reasons (in the link) for the interesting path Randy has chosen here... But they don't necessarily preclude using a good book, etc, do they?And here's an example of a success story with a book - so it seemed like a good time to ask why you should avoid books altogether (as opposed to just not focussing on them). If you can find a book that's as good as your Polish one for Turkish, given the amazing progress that you made in 8 days (and it's certainly impressive!), do you still think would it hinder your progress to use such a book? And if so, why would it be different for Turkish than for Polish?Please don't take offence, Randy - it wasn't intended. Like I said, I find your Turkish learning path intriguing and look forward to reading more about it as the year progresses.

  • As I clearly stated in my post on this very topic in January, everyone just takes it for granted (as you are now) that these products are helpful. No one ever questions that. It is important that before we have a discussion about which is more or less helpful, we must first prove that they're helpful at all.I have not seen anyone establish a baseline for fluency without learning products. If I succeed (as I expect I will) in becoming fluent in Turkish in one year, it will be comparable to my previous two years, both of which made extensive use of products. And if, by some chance, I find my leven to be even better... that will be a huge blow to the path of language products.The advantage I had in 8 days with Polish was a direct result of a previous fluency in Russian. I blasted through a book, but the biggest thing I got out of the book what just a roadmap to a different spelling and pronunciation of words I already know. It doesn't make a strong argument *at all* for learning a brand new language with a book.

  • Hi there.  I'm new to your blog, but a lover of languages myself.  I just wanted to clarify:  Would you recommend Colloquial Polish for a new learner?  My husband and I are planning a trip to Poland in June and I was hoping to pick up a book to familiarize myself with the language before we go.  I don't want to invest loads of time in it because I'm currently studying Mandarin fairly intensely, but I'd like to be able to read signs, have basic small talk in shops, etc.  I do speak (very rusty) Russian, so that should help.

  • If you have a decent understanding of Russian, and an open mind, I believe you could easily duplicate my results here.  I found an old copy of the book in a used book store for a few dollars and it sat on my shelf for longer than I wanted it to...I basically read straight through it in a period of about 8 days, making sure to understand everything I was reading, but wasting no time in worry about whether or not I remembered everything.That, followed by a little bit of practice over the following week or two, gave me enough of a skill level that I was able to get by quite well in Polish for 2 weeks in Poland.

  • Thanks.... or rather, dziękuję.  :-)

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