How to learn a new language in 1,5 years

Nikita Smagin
9 min readJul 14, 2021

Official Danish exam (PD3 or C1) results: speaking 7/12, reading 10/12, writing 12/12. What it means in practice: comfortable reading, watching local tv series with subtitles, understanding what is happening around you, having basic conversations.

TLDR — what is in this article — practical advice, links to resources, and lessons learned with blood and tears:

  1. What did not work: Duolingo. Group lessons. Adapted reading.
  2. What worked: Book called "Fluent Forever", SRS, Anki/Memrise/Drops, Netflix add-on, reading regular books, italki.
  3. Why it works and how to apply: The approach utilizes intrinsic mechanics of the human brain. Read and take what you think might work for you. A couple of friends who have used it already surprised their colleagues :)
  4. What could have been done differently: Being less shy in speaking Danish from day 1.

I would appreciate a clap should you find the article helpful. Also, feel free to reach out — I am happy to hear feedback, recommend some good italki teachers, or just grab a cup of coffee.

The header of the official results paper from the ministry

“Where are you from?”
“Russia”
“Russian is the farthest you can be from Danish sounds. Ok, maybe after Chinese. Good luck with that!”

It was my first day at a local language school. It took me a while to figure out what to do, so I hope this article shortens this time for you. But first things first.

As all newly arrived foreigners in Denmark (except Germans and other Nordics), I have faced the fact of being a bit isolated, even while working in an open community of management consultants. I could not read signs on the street, read any local news, see a theater play, or understand what people are talking about in the canteen. Life is the context around you, and I was missing that.

Like many fellow expats, I have not put much effort into studying Danish during my first year in Denmark as it was supposed to be just a temporary transfer. As for many fellow expats, it turned out not to be the case, and I started investigating language learning options. Of course, I hit all amateur mistakes and wasted many months following mass marketing: Duolingo and public language schools.

13K exp trying to satisfy an owl

Duolingo was a total waste of time. It is like, ahem, masturbation — somewhat satisfying, but you are not getting better at sex, and it loses its excitement if you do it every day. Btw, I am still waiting to use the phrase 'purple giraffe reads a newspaper' in a conversation with another human being.

Group language school is suitable for total basics however offers a limited return on invested time and applicability.

  • Firstly, while you spend your precious Saturday morning time getting to and from school and 3 hours in class, your actual quality speaking time is 10–15 min at best. The rest is the teacher's talk or another poor bastard trying to compile a sentence.
  • Secondly, schools focus predominantly on the present tense in the early stages. At the same time, in daily conversations, you usually describe something that has happened to you (e.g., watched a movie) or your plans (e.g., over the weekend). This inability to use what you have just learned kills the motivation.
  • Thirdly, instead of teaching how to order coffee, or invite people for lunch, or answer other frequent questions one may encounter, schools' textbooks approach vocabulary by topic, like "bathroom appliances". Describing myself having a shower or brushing my teeth is not a popular topic over lunch.
  • Finally, when you get to speak in a school, you talk with other struggling students ("practicing dialogs"), which is not even close to real Danish. You know what they will say, and they know what you will say (an incredibly realistic scenario in daily situations). And do not even get me started on pronunciation.
Get it on Amazon

So, what to do?

Some variation of the below was first introduced to me by a fellow expat (thank you, Hayk!) and then explained in more detail in a book called "Fluent Forever". I highly recommend you read it — in it, the opera singer who needed to learn multiple languages to perform in them describes the general approach.

Briefly, you fix the structure and then string vocabulary on it, like beads. One should do it in a sequence (see schema below), not in parallel (how many language schools are forcing their students).

Invest in the foundation and then smartly approach vocabulary
  • Sounds: You can pronounce any sound of the language. All the ø's, æ's, and å's or whatever is in front of you.
  • Connected sounds (words): You can pronounce any unknown word you see in the target language. You know all the deaf letters, letter combinations, etc.
  • Connected words (sentences): If given words, you can compile the positive, negative, question sentences. You know all the inversion rules and other tricks your target language has prepared for you.
  • Vocabulary: You know a lot of words, synonyms, everyday slang, etc.

The Foundation

The first three form a foundation. If it is shaky, piling thousands of words on top won't help. So, make sure you invest in the first three, maybe with external help.

Public language schools could build the foundation, however, see above. In addition, learning basics could be challenging, and if it takes a lot of time, one can lose motivation. Try to make a time-constrained focused effort.

Therefore, I recommend italki online skype lessons. It is a faster (and eventually cheaper) approach. You find locals and teachers online to speak with you or explain the grammar privately for 10–20 euros an hour. High-quality time and outcome. You will be amazed at what 10–20 one-on-one hours could do with your skills.

The icing on the cake is reading. The earlier you start, the better. Reading a page of text subconsciously teaches you the proper grammar.

Good news: While the first three might be painful, once accomplished, the rest is just a direct function of the time you can invest in vocabulary. And here, the approach is the key—more on that below.

Vocabulary

Now, the king of all, his majesty vocabulary. The key to all the things you want to say or listen to in a foreign language.

How to learn new words? The solution is two-fold.

First, memory is like a muscle. Remembering words takes energy. Therefore, you need to be careful not to waste it. SRS to the rescue! SRS, or Spaced Repetition System, is a well-known brain feature used by all medical students worldwide (and you know they study a lot). You need to repeat only the things you forget; otherwise, it gets boring and wastes time. It is a brilliant idea, however unmanageable by simple flashcards or Duolingo (yes, I have already learned that 'giraffe' in Danish is 'giraf', do not remind me of that any time soon please, show me something I do not know instead).

SRS in a nutshell: easy word — see it again in a month, tough one — tomorrow

Second, remembering words is a highly personal and emotionally connected effort. The more aspects of the word you have (sound, image, spelling, a situation you encountered it in, etc.), the stronger your connection to it and easier it to remember it. The brain only remembers something it wants to remember. If you are not interested in flowers or kitchen appliances, do not even try to learn these words. Therefore, do the things you like.

Tactics on both SRS and things you like are below.

SRS tactics

All links below
  • Use Anki app. Start with 1000 most used words of your language (easily found online, e.g., here or here for Danish) to kick you off. You will be surprised how far you can go with 1000 words even without any grammar. Then you can add word stacks yourself (if you have time, I didn't). I switched to the 'doing the things you like' approach after going through the first 800 words.
  • For Danish specifically (and a set of other languages), Memrise app. A similar system, but with visuals, typical variations of real-life pronunciation. They ask random local strangers on the streets to say the same phrases on camera for you to see and hear, men, women, adults, children, background noises—real life, precisely what you need, with spaced repetition.
  • Drops is also good, especially for tactical topic concentration. No need to buy premium: 5 min daily is available for free, and you do not need more if you do it consistently.

And yes, switch your phone interface to a target language.

Read what you like

I could not read children's comic books, simple textbooks with stupid, simplified language, and stories about random John moving to Denmark and buying groceries.

My modest library in Danish over 1,5 years

Instead,

  • Level 1: Local news app with snippets of 5 most important news. Read and translate only news headers. Do not even open the body.
  • Level 2: Open and read a couple of paragraphs with a news article. Painful, translating every second word, but worth it.
  • Level 3: Find a book in a store and do the same. It will take you half a year constantly checking google translate on the phone (I started with 2 pages per hour), but you will read a book (a real one! in Danish!), and by the end, you will not recognize your language skills.

Reading just 1 book increases your vocabulary and reading skills immensely. Constantly looking up the words in google translate is tough. Therefore, I suggest choosing a book

  • that you want to read and / or consider reading in a known language (maximize motivation)
  • where understand 70–80% of the words in a random paragraph when you open it the first time in a book store (minimize the complexity). Not yet? Take the next one on the shelf, then next, then next. If no luck after 10–15, continue working with apps and return to the book store in a month.

It is pretty much the only way to pull such a significant challenge off.

Bonus tip: I have been translating unfamiliar words, but I have not written them down in a notebook or highlighted anything in the books. Logic is simple: you need to learn only what you need to know. If it is a widely used word, you will meet it in the book again, look up again, and remember. If not, then it was not a "useful" word in the first place.

Watch what you like

Screenshot from "Borgen", Danish "House of Cards", filmed by the way a few years before the US hit ;)
  • Install 'Language learning with Netflix' plug-in to Chrome. It offers autopause after every phrase (switchable) and subtitle shortcuts already in the free version. You do not need more. Again, a 20-minute episode can initially take two-three days to complete. But, hey, it is a local popular tv show, natural language, culture absorption, something real to discuss with your colleagues.
  • Btw, in case you are watching a show in a known language, add Danish language subtitles—passive learning.

Do the things you like: Speaking. I did not :). Therefore 7/12.

Writing. It becomes automatically better if you read a lot. Plus, some italki teachers could help with that as well. Therefore 12/12.

Bonus tip for expats in Denmark:

  • Must-read info from ministry: exam and sign-up dates, examples, incl. audio files, etc.
  • You may skip PD1 and PD2 as I did and register for PD3 right away. Easiest way: write to the commune.
  • Sign-up for the exam in advance for two reasons: 1) registration closes a few months in advance, 2) keep the motivation up.

I hope that helps. Clap if you are reading this sentence. :)

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