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Can you learn a language in 20 days?

Published 2021-01-27

Can you learn a language in 20 days?

The short answer is, yes, you can, and the long answer is this article.

Let’s start with a question: why do you want to learn a new language (or significantly improve the one you already know) in such a short period? If your sole motivation is that you have a boss who requires you to learn a new language or improve it, but you don’t feel like it, then I have bad news for you: you’ve just wasted the 20 days. And you’ll waste any other language course, intensive or not, individual or group, if you start it with this kind of attitude. As I say, go to an attitude shop and buy a new better attitude. However, if you want to use this 20 day period to learn/improve a language to adapt faster in a new environment, social or professional, then we are on the right track already.

Now, let’s establish what is “a day” for us.

Let’s say, you have 20 days and 3 fours per day at most for sessions with a teacher/instructor and self-study. Sorry to be bearer of bad news again but it’s insanely too little to acquire a new language. If you want to learn a new language in 20 days, you’ll have to give a full day, and not a full working 8-hour day. Maybe 12 hours will be enough, and you have a little time to sleep, eat and go to the loo. You might try to put your notes and textbooks under your pillow, that could try to extend those 12 hours. So, time to take a leave from work or any other activity you do and tell your family and friends that you’ll be living in the whole different dimension for the next 20 days. Some people make a career out of learning languages intensively, so, I guess, if you’re one them, then you don’t need to decline anything.

There is a different route to take: just google “learn a language fast”. These are the results I got by googling it in Lithuanian.

Some of the results were sponsored articles about miraculous Swiss methods (the articles were written in Lithuanian, Latvian, Estonian and Croatian, always with the same people: Irena, Ināra, Irene, Ivona; or taksistas (a taxi driver) Artūras, taksometra vadītājs Aigars, taksojuht Artur, Croatians sadly don‘t have their own version of a taxi driver). The website seems to be translated with Google Translator and suggests to the potential clients/learners to learn a language in a few days (10, to be exact) and for a very low price (less than 10 euros). Of course, they are very careful here with wording, they say, that you will learn the basics and will be efficient enough to impress your friends with simple but fluent English. I can’t tell you what’s in the course and compare it with a regular general English course, but it’s worth mentioning that even in the interviews written by them they stay extremely mysterious. However, “Irena” herself said that she revised the course over and over until she learned it and the articles are titled like, X took a challenge and learned English in a summer. So, 10 days or around 3 months? Another weird thing was their disclaimer under the logo that they are in no way associated with Facebook. Weird indeed.

I won’t be able to talk about the other website as much but I found their math peculiar. They offer just 17 minutes a day to learn a language. However, probably, it’s great that they’ve decided not to hide anything because they say, that just after 4 hours (around 14 days if you give 17 min./day) you’ll be able to hold a conversation (“Hi. Hi. How are? I’m fine. What about you? I’m fine, too.” This is a conversation as well, by the way), and you’ll need just 50 hours (around 6 months) to speak fluently. So, not really fast and I can’t even give you the price because it’s hidden better than Atlantis.

There are more websites, but I believe you can put them in two categories: a) they have a miraculous method, or b) give a little of your time to learn something, however, they might actually not lie and say how much days or months you’ll need (the latter case) or might lie through their teeth just to get your money.

So, let’s come back to our hypothetical intensive learning situation. What can you learn in 20 days? If you’re completely new to the language or have A1, it’s a great chance to get your basics, such as conjugation, sentence pattern, language parts and tenses. Maybe some phrases which would help in situations where you’re the only one speaking your mother tongue, or some work-specific jargon and a few small talk phrases. And still, there will be some gap between A1 and A2 at the end of the intensive course because it’s not enough to speak fluently about things you know, ask information and understand it, or give some information yourself. It’s easy to learn grammar and patterns but vocabulary and pronunciation is the whole different thing.

So, hypothetically, you are just like me and many others who remember vocabulary or things in general by heart when they revise repeatedly. 20 days is way too little. I myself had the experience of learning a new language from zilch in an intensive course that lasted around 5 months. At the end of it, we were supposed to reach B1-B2 (the latter was more desirable, of course) and I got B1. I had course mates who reached B2 and I am very happy for the, however, they were the ones giving more than 8 hours per day. To compare, in Lithuania, pupils are supposed to reach B2 when they leave the school, or at least B1, so, it took us 5 months to reach what school pupils are required to have after 10 years of English, or 7 years of a secondary foreign language. I believe that my life would have been easier if I had a photographic memory because it wasn’t enough time for me to learn 60-120 words a day with my mechanic memory (but I believe that I am really slow learner). What concerns pronunciation, it helps if you’re not tone-deaf and can sing (memory also plays a role here because you need to remember how the teacher/recording pronounced the word). You can learn grammar and vocabulary but if you cannot produce it out loud, everything’s in vain. So, to sum up, if you have a goal to use that language in a precise setting, 20 days are enough to learn the main phrases by heart and work on their pronunciation.

So, great, 20 days have passed, and you’ve learned everything there is to learn in those 20 days, what’s next? Some more bad news: if you’ve just finished the course and don’t start using the language or continue learning in not intensive course, then everything’s in vain, again. The same is with the students who take a few years break after normally paced general language courses and have to come back to the same place where they’ve started. If there is an opportunity to continue learning or use your acquired knowledge in everyday settings, you must do it.

Personally, I’m not a big fan of an intensive course: not as a student, not as a teacher (I’ve taught it and I could see how the students couldn’t keep up because they had day jobs and other activities at the same time). It’s great to see the results fast, trust me, but it can be emotionally and mentally exhausting and kill any joy from learning anything new.