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How to Learn A Language: 5 Hacks to Learning German in 3 Months

02/21/2013

in Make Money, Productivity

[Editor's Note: This guest post was written by Brian Kwong, who is currently developing a language learning app, Genius+]

Hiking with Papa in AustriaLiving in a foreign country does not mean that you will magically speak a new language.

I am a living proof of this, since my wife Julia and I moved to Austria almost two years ago.

I couldn’t speak any German because I resisted to learn German while living in Austria.

Until Julia, my father-in-law (Papa), and I went on an epic 8-day, 96-mile hike, climbing 9,186 feet through the Austrian Alps (at right).

Since Papa cannot speak a word of English, Julia was doing all the translation during the entire hiking trip. I just thought that it was not very cool on my part.

Even though Papa took me to a torture museum the first time I met him 8 years ago, he had accepted me, a Chinese American, into his traditional Austrian family with open arms.

So by the end of our hiking trip, I decided that it was finally time for me to learn German.

After I came home from the trip, I started doing research on what is the best and fastest way to learn a new language.

Fortunately, I saw Tim Ferriss’ tweet:

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The tweet lead me to Zenhabit’s “How to Learn a Language in 90 Days”, a guest post written by Maneesh Sethi, and it inspired me to take on the “Learn German in 3 Months Challenge”!

Below are the five hacks that I discovered throughout my challenge and how you can apply them to your language learning, too.

1. The “P&F Stakes” Hack

Julia, why don’t you tell your dad to pretend to put me in a head lock and then you take a picture?  It would be fun and it will motivate me to learn German.”

I said to Julia as we were waiting for the train to get back home after our hiking trip. Julia spoke some German, then Papa got this big grin on his face.

Before I knew it, his giant arm was wrapped around my neck and at the same time, I heard a “pop” sound coming from my neck as he tighten his grip.

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My veins were popping out on my face, Papa wasn’t fooling around!

I thought, either Julia did not translate the word “pretend” or Papa completely ignored it because it didn’t feel very nice, but at least he had a good time.

After I decided to take on the Learn German in 3 Months Challenge, to make it even more fun and interesting, I told Papa about it. I said that on Day 91, I will have a 15 minute conversation with him in German.

At the end of the conversation, Papa, his wife Gabi, and Julia will judge if I passed the challenge or not. If I did not, I will have to live with Papa and do house work like cleaning the toilet and shoveling snow for a week!

They immediately burst into laughter and kept nodding their heads after Julia’s translation.

Little did I know, creating a big enough stake with some pain and fun (P & F) became the driving force and the motivation for me to grind through the ups and downs of learning a new language during my 3 month challenge.

“A goal without real consequences is wishful thinking. Good follow-through doesn’t depend on the right intentions. It depends on the right incentives.”
-Tim Ferriss, The 4-Hour Chef

In the Meta Learning section of Tim Ferriss’ book The 4-Hour Chef,  “stake” is one of the foundations of his four-part formula on how to become world-class in just about anything in six months or less. (We are just adding some P & F sauce on it!)

2. The “Self Diagnostic” Hack  

Three months is a very short time to learn a new language from scratch, so everything I do around language learning has to be effective and consistent. About halfway through my challenge, I noticed that I was very consistent with certain tasks but not so consistent with others.

For example, I was consistently showing up on time to meet with my language partners to practice speaking German, but I was not consistently memorizing 30 German phrases a day.

Since learning new phrases and vocabulary is a huge part of learning a new language, I had to figure out how I can get myself to nail 30 phrases every day. I already know that I have amazing Mac software called Genius that works simply and effectively (and recommended by Maneesh), so the tool is not the problem.

Instead of beating myself up, asking “Why am I such a lazy ass and not doing the work?

I asked, “Why am I consistently showing up and meeting with my language partners?”

After some self reflection, I figured out why…because at the end of every meeting, my language partner and I will set up a time for the next meeting. Since I had agreed on a time to meet with my language partner and he is expecting me to be there, I consistently show up and do the work.

The key is, a meeting involves someone else at a specific time, where as memorizing and learning phrases alone on my computer does not. I can do it whenever I want, which usually translates to “later”, meaning “No work gets done.”

Once you self diagnose why you do something consistently without fail, you can then apply this to whatever is not working.

3. The “Ride What Works” Hack

Why I consistently show up to meet my language partners without fail is because:

  1. “Someone expects me to be there at a specific time”
  2. “I don’t want to let my friends down”

I have more reasons, but these are the biggest two why I show up on time and do the work. So now I needed to find a way to incorporate this diagnostic in my daily memorization routine:

“What fun ways can I come up with, applying these two elements, so I can get my ass to learn and memorize 30 German phrases every day?”

An idea came to mind and I put it into action right away:

I shared what I realized in Hack #2 at 1 min 27 sec. I announced that I will learn and memorize 30 German phrases a day with Genius and broad-cast it LIVE  to the public at 9 am everyday.

Here is the first day of me doing this:

(Memorizing starts at 9 min 49 sec)

I was fully aware that the chance of someone watching me to struggle and memorize 30 phrases was very slim, but by putting myself in this position, people expected me to do it.

And who knows, someone may come and check on me at any minute! (1-5 people watched me when I was memorizing and learning everyday!) This is the same psychology as, if you have to perform to an audience who came just to see you everyday, would you show up and do the work? Of course you would!

The result?

I started this 22 days before my conversation with Papa in German and I did it 20 out of 22 days, including Saturday and Sunday…which was a hell of a lot more consistent than the previous 2 months and imagine if I did this from Day 1!

So whatever hacks got you to do the work without fail, be creative and ride it like there is no tomorrow.

4. The “Team Sport” Hack  

juliaRelationship is a team sport.

Business is a team sport.

And learning a language is definitely a team sport.

Here is what I mean:

Being married to a German-speaking wife definitely helps but early on in the challenge, I realized that I cannot rely on practicing German only with Julia.

It was very hard to switch from English to German, because we have been speaking English together for more than 7 years, and listening to a variety of German accents will help me to understand better.

So I jumped on Mixxer (again recommended by Maneesh!), a free website for language exchanges via Skype on Day 9. After using Mixxer for 5 minutes, I found a language partner from Germany and we started practicing right away!

Below is a step by step video of how I did that:

Practicing speaking German was a big part of the plan and I definitely would not get have gotten very far without my awesome language partners.

Monika is a friend who is a German teacher living close by us in Austria. She watched our video about why I took on the Learn German in 3 Months Challenge and she was so stoked about it, she made EVERY SINGLE ONE of her students watch my video in class. (Poor students!)

12 of her students then created a project to teach me German twice a week in the last month of my challenge to help me accomplish my goal of speaking with Papa on Day 91.

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Benny Lewis created this awesome site called Fluent In 3 Months on unconventional methods of language learning and a really great forum where people around the world can post and update their progress on their language challenge (He calls it “Language Mission”).

Baron Jon Johnson started the Zero to Fluent in 90 Days Challenge in Chinese at about the same time as me. Even though I never met him in person, I felt like we climbed a mountain together as a team.

Finally, I wouldn’t have started this challenge if I didn’t see Tim Ferriss’ tweet, which led me to Zenhabits and the “How to Learn a Language in 90 days” post written by Maneesh.

Everyone who I mentioned here contributed to my language challenge and were part of my team even if they didn’t know it. Yes, maybe I could have completed the challenge all alone, but there is no doubt that it would have taken way more work, my learning would not have been as effective and definitely A LOT more boring if I learned a language all by myself.

Who do you really need on your team? For me, two language partners and one teacher to show you how the grammar works.

That’s it!

At the end of the day, our end goal is to use a new language to connect with new people, so involving people in your language learning journey will do nothing but wonders for you.

5. The Sh*t Happens Hack

Well, this is not really a hack, it’s more like a fact. During the 3 months in my challenge:

Our beloved dog died. Had to fire our programmer. Hired a new programmer. Had an awesome road trip to Germany, met my language partners in person. Got a new puppy in Germany (a lot more work than I thought to raise a puppy!). Didn’t feel like learning German on many occasions.

Ups and downs are going to happen no matter what you do during your language challenge or in life, but it’s all about setting a goal that is worth your time pursuing. Have tons of fun and enjoy the “highs” on your way to your goal.

And when sh*t hits the fan, use the hacks in this post to help you figure out how to get yourself back on track and continue to turn your worthwhile goal into reality one step at a time.

Before my challenge, I could not speak ANY German. I resisted for 1.5 years while living in a German-speaking country.

On Day 91, I had a fun conversation with Papa and I connected with my father in law for the first time ever.

That’s priceless.

If I can do this with a language I had no passion for, I have no doubt that you can learn to speak a language you have always wanted to speak in 90 days too =)

Now Over To You!

How will you apply what you learned in this post in your language learning or in your life in 2013? Let us know in the comments below!

About Brian and Julia

Genius+ Brian and Julia are developing Genius+, an iOS app based on Genius, the Mac software which helped Brian to memorize German phrases in his 3 months challenge. If you would like to help Brian and Julia beta test Genius+ and get updates on language learning tips, you can sign up here.

Resource Section

How to learn a language in 90 days (2013) from Brian Kwong (a SlideShare presentation)

The Best Way to Learn a Language in 3 Months (video version of “How to Learn a Language in 90 Days” plus Julia slapping me in the video)

How to Learn a Language in 90 Days on Zenhabits

How to Get the Most Out of Your Language Partner – Maneesh’s awesome Video Series (Optin in required) *Do you want to use your Zenhabit optin page?*

Genius – SRS memorization app for Mac

Genius+ – SRS memorization app for iPad and iPhone (in development but you can sign up for beta)

Fluent In 3 Months by Benny Lewis – unconventional ways of language learning

Fluent In 3 Months Forum – A great forum where you can get inspiration and support

Mixxer – a free website for language exchanges via skype

How to find a language partner on Mixxer in 5 Minutes video

Zero to Fluent in 90 days – Just another regular guy like me who took on a 90 days language challenge in Chinese, if we can do it, you can too =)

{ 36 comments… }

Mike June 17, 2014 at 9:55 pm

Hello guys, as it is relevant to this article I would also like to share with you my web application for learning German vocabulary.

It’s focused on practicing vocabulary via solving varied tests and exercises. You can listen to native speakers’ pronunciation and practice your spelling skills.

I know it’s still new and there are little more than 350 available German words but I’m keep working on it and keep improving it.

Here’s the address: http://www.vocabularyschool.com/content.php?language=german

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jason June 15, 2014 at 3:54 pm

Hi, recommend you http://www.mindurgerman.com if you are a beginner. The website is totally free.

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Steve June 7, 2014 at 9:04 am

Any tips on a German phrase book?

@barbara – I’ve just met an Austrian girl that I am pretty crazy about. Is studying German the best way to start or are there Austrian German resources you know of?

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Ray February 25, 2014 at 3:35 pm

Hi Bryan.
I am in the same boat as you when it comes to learning German. My in-laws on my wives side are all German and I want to be able to understand them when we visit (even though they all speak pretty good English). Have you tried the old FSI language course? That is what I am currently working through. It’s a bit dated, but definately complete. You can find different versions of it online – it is public domain – but I am using the one on http://www.livelingua.com/fsi-german-course.php. I hope that helps and good luck!

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Geist November 20, 2013 at 11:30 pm

From what website did you get all the vocabulary and everything you needed? I am learning german. I am taking german lessons at my school two times a week, I find german a really interesting language. Thanks

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Jason April 3, 2013 at 2:52 am

This is actually a pretty awesome article. I’ve always wanted to learn a new language but always put it off thinking it would be too hard and take too long. My wife’s family is from the Punjab so even though her first language is English (being born in the UK) the family usually converse in Punjabi. I’ve made small attempts to learn a few phrases but I think if I really made the effort maybe I could take huge leaps in 3 months. Then I’d know whether the in laws were gossiping about me or not!

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Brian Kwong April 13, 2013 at 10:29 am

Jason, I had the exact same thoughts, “Too hard and take too damn long” and who am I kidding? the last time I had to memorize something was 10 years ago!!
Although my German is not amazing, but you can still make huge leaps in 3 months and not only you can know whether the in laws were gossiping about you, you can shock the hell out of them LOL
I am building this new site call “One Challenge at a time”, anyone can start a challenge, set start and end date, write down whats at stakes, update their progress and get support from the community, well thats how I envision it at least =) Here is the beta version, you can give it a try when you are ready to learn Punjab! http://onechallengeatatime.com

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Gael N March 18, 2013 at 3:23 pm

I think another aspect to memorizing the words vs meeting your language partner is that memorizing the words is a goal that leaves the process open whereas meeting the partner is a process that is straightforward to do because you already know how to do that.

If instead of saying “memorize this word” you could change the wording to involve the process like “pronounce this word and read the definition 10 times” then you have something that is much more clear to do and easier to follow through.

A study on incentives was done in Chicago along these lines. If you pay students to get good grades then the average grade doesn’t really change all that much because getting an A is such an open ended thing. However if you paid the students based on attendance then the attendance increased because students knew how to increase attendance and as a by-product their grades did increase.

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Brian Kwong March 29, 2013 at 11:52 am

Great point Gael =) When its not clear or open ended, it will slow us down. Just like setting a board un-specific goal which we will never have a chance of hitting.

Just to clarify, for me, it is very specific and clear when I say memorizing phrases and words, because I use the memorization software, Genius on the Mac (recommended by Maneesh).

Not only that it has a built-in space repetition system which will continuously show phrases that I input incorrectly and will remind me phrases that I am about to forget.

It also shows me the score of each phrases so I know how well I am memorizing the phrases. So my objective when memorizing phrases is to change all the score to green, which means I have to get them right for at least 5 times.

So memorizing phrases is very clear and specific for me, I am just lazy and had to find ways to hack myself to actually do the work =)

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Fatima Vela March 4, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Hey Brian, this is a nice way of motivating yourself! We all need a few strong reasons to start learning a new language. And German language from my personal experience is not easy at all. However, the idea of that kind of picture with your father–in-law is intimidating!!!
I am only 4 months in Germany and I am trying to learn German from scratch. It is really hard. I am having courses every day and even though I can already communicate in a certain level, I find the grammar even more complicated day by day. But now I spend many hours on a German grammar trainer that I have recently found and it might be useful for you as well as it has a wide range of exercises on German grammar and is quite effective. You can find it on this website: http://www.deutschakademie.de/online-deutschkurs/ . You can have the trainer as an application on your phone. I use it every day on the subway on my way to work and it’s a good way of not losing time and learn German while travelling.
Anyway, thank you for sharing your experience. It is so supportive for everybody facing the same challenge.

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Brian Kwong March 5, 2013 at 8:16 am

Thanks for your support Fatima! Will have a look at the website.
Yes, my father-in-law’s forearm is as big as my chicken leg so he could be very intimidating but luckily, he is great with me =)

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Paul February 27, 2013 at 8:31 am

Thanks for the inspirational story! I’ve been living in Turkey for close to 8 months and only know Turkish basics. I guess it’s time to get my butt in gear. Thanks for all the great tips and suggestions.

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Brian Kwong February 27, 2013 at 10:44 am

My pleasure Paul!

You will meet even more awesome people as you learn Turkish, get in gear and feel free to ask any questions =)

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Tracy Renberg February 25, 2013 at 9:32 am

Fabulous. Thank you for sharing this!!

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Brian Kwong February 26, 2013 at 10:24 am

Thank you for reading Tracy! =)

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Tyler February 23, 2013 at 12:15 pm

Ooops… Looks like you guys forgot to link to this?
How to Get the Most Out of Your Language Partner

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Brian Kwong February 26, 2013 at 10:23 am

Here it is Tyler!
Thanks for the heads up.

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Barbara Eckardt February 23, 2013 at 11:34 am

Boy, can I relate to this story! Same situation here. American husband unable to learn German in a German speaking country (Austria!) merried to a German speaking wife (Austrian)… Brian, if you and your wife want to get in contact with us shoot an email!

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Brian Kwong February 26, 2013 at 10:22 am

That is the exactly the same situation with us, but I am sure your American is able, but just don’t want to lol
Talk soon on email Barbara!

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Fem February 23, 2013 at 8:33 am

Cool tips, though it is really beyond me why you lived in a country for a while and refused to learn the language (?!)

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Brian Kwong February 26, 2013 at 10:20 am

lol Fem, just because I live in the country, it does not automatically mean that I will have the passion for the language.
Some language sounds like melody to me and some language, like German, just don’t and I still manage to learn it to communicate with my Papa.
So anyone can do this!

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Alicia February 22, 2013 at 12:08 pm

Great post, I’ve been keeping up with Brian’s journey and it’s been really helpful for my german language learning process.

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Brian Kwong February 26, 2013 at 10:17 am

Thanks Alicia, lets have a chat on Skype soon!

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Christian Carroll February 22, 2013 at 11:33 am

This is AWESOME!!! When I finish med school I will be implementing this into my life. I just can’t do this right now taking 11 classes. But learning a language I’ve had on the bucket list for a while. Indeed, world travel will be made easier :)

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Yiau Hoong Chong February 22, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Yup I am finishing med school as well this April. After that I’ll take on Portuguese for my dream trip next year to Brazil for FIFA World Cup (soccer if you are wondering).

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Brian Kwong February 26, 2013 at 9:24 am

That sounds AWESOME Christian and Yiau Hoong Chong!
Learning a language and traveling to the country makes a world of difference. I travel to Thailand almost every year for vacation with Julia, but only until last month by taking on the “Learn Thai in 7 Days Challenge”, I met so many more new friends and developed a much more deeper connection just by learning a bit of Thai.
So go for it guys!

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Steven H February 21, 2013 at 10:51 am

Anki is free and cross platform compatible. Its for Spaced Repetition practice. You can sync your progress to their service and its awesome!

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Simone February 23, 2013 at 9:42 pm

Yes, Anki is great and it comes with free downloadable German vocabulary – a great add-on for language studies! Additionally for learning the pronunciation the course on Tim’s blog (http://timreviews.com/rg) helped me a lot with my German (have German relatives I wanted to visit).
Simone

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Brian Kwong February 26, 2013 at 9:17 am

Thanks for the resources!
I do recommend Anki to others if they don’t have a Mac, but if you have a Mac, at least give Genius a try (its free) because its more effective in learning and memorizing. If I am spending my limited time to learn and memorize something, I want the most effective tools, I tried both and hands down Genius wins big time. Its too long to go into why so I will make a video on my channel why that is soon =)

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