What it means to know a language
There are two options.
- To my mind, knowing French means being able to communicate in French with other people. Simple and obvious.
- However, some people say that knowing French isn’t about communication as much as it is about knowledge. Knowing French means just that: full knowledge of French language. All the words in use, rules, grammar. Although this seems literally correct, I don’t agree with it. Because it’s actually false. Not even native French people know all the words of their language. Does it mean they don’t know French? Of course, it doesn’t. Plus, nobody learns a language just to know it. We learn it to use it in communication.
So, now we know why people laugh at the idea of learning a language in a month. It’s because they think that learning a language means acquiring full knowledge of this language. This is almost impossible. That’s where the quotes like:
“Life is too short to learn German”
…come from. On the other hand, if you think that knowing a language means the ability to use it, then the answer is yes.
YES, you can learn a language in 30 days
You may think: “I can’t communicate in Spanish if I don’t have a good knowledge of Spanish rules and vocabulary”! Knowledge comes before practice! I agree with you. We need this knowledge to put it to use. However, we don’t need full knowledge. We don’t speak about rocket science, advanced linguistics or exotic animals with our friends and family every single day. As a result, we don’t need the words specific for these topics. (There are exceptions. I will cover them later.)
How many words do we actually need for everyday communication? These numbers will vary from language to language. However, on average:
- 20 most frequent words will give you an impressive 24% language coverage!
- 1,000 most popular words equal 74% language coverage.
- 2,000 most popular words equal 81% language coverage.
- 20,000 words equal 98% language coverage.
This logic is very simple. For example, the word “hello” is more commonly used than the word “benign”, so its language coverage is much larger. This blog post contains less than 300 unique words in total (yet much more words overall). Therefore, 1,000 words are enough for a start. You can understand most of the casual conversations with such a base. And you can acquire that much language in 30 days assuming you spend enough time and effort. 1000 / 30 = 33 words per day. You can do it if you learn the right way and start practising from day 1.
Of course, there will still be some problems with more advanced texts or conversations. That’s why you can focus on the topics that are important to you. That’s the exception I mentioned before. If you know you’ll want to talk about economic topics in a foreign language, you should learn the economic terms and expressions of that language. This way, you can easily reach an advanced level of, say, Italian (in the fields of importance). Without having to learn how Italians call fennec fox or an orbital spacecraft.
The base you’d learn in a month isn’t enough to cover every single conversation or text. You’ll want to expand your language experience. The good news is that it’s going to be so much easier! Since you know the basics and can understand quite a lot, you can learn from anything and anyone.
At this point, you will say: “If I must continue learning after 30 days, all this post is wrong!” Is it? Even native speakers are continuously learning their own language. There are always things that Americans don’t know in English, their native tongue. How do they learn their own language? They use it every day. If YOU want to keep this language in your head, you must use it anyway. There’s no way around it. So you’re going to learn it inevitably. Unless you drop it altogether, which raises the question: why were you learning it in the first place?
Usage and learning come together. Therefore, after the first 30 days, we don’t actually “learn” a language only for the sake of learning it. We use it to communicate. So, acquiring a new language in 30 days is possible. And “possible” doesn’t mean “almost impossible”. You can do it just like many people before you. It’s a challenge. However, nothing comes without an effort.