TMBA 356: How Long Does it Take to Learn a Foreign Language?

TMBA356: How Long Does it Take to Learn a Foreign Language? post image

Podcast 35:24 | Download | Stitcher | iTunes | Comment

Hola! Like many of us, Dan and Ian spend a lot of time in foreign countries.

As regular listeners know, Dan has recently moved to Barcelona and he’s starting to get more than a little embarrassed by his limited range lack of Spanish. But he also has a lot of questions and concerns about the kind of a time investment it’s going to take him to learn a new language.

So, in today’s episode, he reaches out to two people who have built successful businesses in the language learning field, and who both speak many different languages themselves: Benny Lewis of and Idahosa Ness, the founder of The Mimic Method. They share some high-quality tips and strategies about how to become fluent in a foreign language – and in a way that fits your lifestyle.


Listen to this week’s show and learn:

  • How much confidence plays into the process of learning a language. (4:54)
  • What Benny’s first six months in Spain were like and why he was struggling to learn Spanish. (8:15)
  • The difference between learning a language and living a language. (11:00)
  • The two key stages to learning a language on a conversational level. (24:47)
  • How learning a language is similar to learning how to play an instrument. (26:05)

Mentioned in the episode:

Enjoyed this podcast? Check out these:

Listening options:

Thanks for listening to our show! We’ll be back next Thursday morning 8AM EST.


Dan & Ian

Published on 09.29.16
  • Ian O’Brien

    Boom! Tengo el primer comentario!!! Great to hear you cats have a chat about this stuff. Great episode. In the past on the TMBA podcast you guys would say get on the phone with your customers/prospects and hustle, don’t hide in the computer. I think speaking a foreign language is like that, like running towards the resistance. Talk to real people, do stuff that you would enjoy in your own language rather than getting caught up with textbooks etc. I enjoy simple books (reading or audio) that I’ve read more than once in my own language to get a load of input in. I stopped myself reading english books and music and listened to ones in my target language instead for a few months. You’re a fan of rap, cypress hill did an album in Spanish way back : ) Great podcast!

  • After living in Panama for 7 years I have a few big takeaways on language learning as an expat.

    1. Learn sooner than later. I didn’t really go after it until a couple years in, but once I did it completely changed my experience in Panama and LatAm in general. It opens your world to the culture and the countryside.

    2. I can also agree with The Mimic Method. Learning to pronounce things correctly is huge. Specifically in Spanish the vowels are so important as you have to break some English habits of short vowel sounds in words that look similar to English.

    3. Looking at my expat peers over an extended period of time there is one group of foreigners that became the best at the language. People who got into relationships with local guys or girls. And more specifically ones that didn’t speak good English. If Spanish becomes the language of the couple the English speaker becomes super fluent. But if English does the Spanish speaker makes the gains in English.

  • Josh

    Hey Dan,
    Just wanted to chime in here with some points regarding your iTalki teacher.

    In some ways finding a good teacher on iTalki is like dating in that you need to get experience with different teachers before you get clear on what exactly you’re looking for.

    It sounds like you have a pretty clear idea of what you want to learn thanks to the advice given by the gents in the episode. What you learn is important, but HOW you learn that is just as important.

    How enjoyable that process is and how effective your teacher will be in guiding you over the next couple of months depends largely on the dynamic between you two.

    Personally I find it to be a less risky strategy to spend the first week on iTalki trying out a new teacher every day, just to get an idea of what different teachers are like and to see if there’s one that I really hit it off with.

    My secret for rapid language learning is to find ways so that it becomes fun instead of work. Otherwise this is just another thing on your calendar that you feel obligated to get through and you’ll create mental resistance to doing it.

  • thanks Ian, makes sense to me. I think talking to these guys gave me a sense for the investment I needed to make, which for some reason was important to me (maybe that’s why I’ve talked a lot about that stuff from the entrepreneurial side? like the 1,000 day rule etc.)

  • hey Josh great tip thanks for that. Makes sense to me and could be fun, I guess there’s no upside in making a commitment to the teacher right out of the gate. It seems to me (at least from browsing) that the Itaki marketplace is a buyers market.

  • noted thanks for that, and #3 very interesting makes sense! RE: #2 Idahosa’s thinking there resonated with me, and it doesn’t seem to intimidating to focus on getting a few sounds down.

  • Doppler

    Hola Daniel, que tal?
    As a 4 language speaker, I enjoyed very much this podcast. I agree pretty much with Benny’s and Idahosa’s suggestions.

    I’d add my 2 cents.
    Instead of watching telenovelas, I’d watch more interesting series in Spanish. Of course the level of Spanish is higher and less clearer, but you will enjoy them more. Sometimes you can find them with original subtitles. Check for example Narcos (original half in Colombian Spanish, half American English), or look for a translated version of your favorite series (take care, you may not like The Simpsons’s voices at first, but you can choose between Latam and Spanish versions). Instead of your favorite American journal, look for El País or equivalent.

    You already mentioned you wanted to enter cyclists group, and this is an excellent opportunity. I’d look for Spanish nomads as well, so to speak business, which is another topic of your interest. Have you been at the Palau Blaugrana or the Pabellón de Badalona?

    Barcelona is a beautiful place to live, and to get the Spaniard and European style of life. However, Catalan identity is very strong, and you’ll have to deal between Catalan and Castellano. You talked about making friends. I guess it will be easy to make contacts for you in the first year. But to really get intimate with locals, it will take you 1000 days, given that you grasp some Catalan as well.

    Suerte en esta empresa, o mucha mierda como dicen por allá. Y si querés aprender castellano con acento argentino, aquí estoy :)

  • Doppler

    Oh, one more thing.
    I noticed one of the most important things when
    learning languages is to learn where spaces are. While listening, try to
    understand where phrases separate in words. It’s hard, but once you do
    it, you’ll start unconsciously separating and rebuilding phrases, and
    having a sense of the message.

  • ryannagy

    Babies are in their native language environment for about 18 months before they start speaking and even then it is just 2 to 4 word phrases. So, you are doing just fine! (Really). And you are already learning all kinds of things that you are not aware of – intonation, syllables, certain recurring words, which words go together etc. That being said, Bennie is correct: Speaking, speaking, speaking is the rule. I found that Pimsleur language is the best thing for getting people over the hump and into the game. 30 minutes a day, every day. You will see an improvement in less than a week.

    I go out of my way to only date women who do not speak English, and for about 3 years i only (ONLY) watched Spanish language series. And I picked several books that I already loved and knew very well, found a Spanish translation and read them outloud. it was cool – even when I did not know the words, I knew what was happening in the story and someone, the language just kind of seeped into my brain.

    And sorry to be kind of a jerk, but reading language learning blogs and creating podcasts about language learning are good ways to NOT learn a language…sorry! haha.

    You guys are great. Cuando nos vemos será un gran placer hablar con ustedes en español!


  • hey Ryan thanks for that and seems like you are right about the podcasting thing! :) Thanks for the Pimsleur tip too, will check it out.

    And also, thanks everyone here for the tips, looking forward to doing a follow-up and sharing my progress.

  • thanks Doppler, I dig your suggestion, in fact I already did a bit of that with streaming some of the bike races I like to watch with the Spanish commentary, so I’ll continue to do that. I have not been to Palau Blaugrana or the Pabellón de Badalona… I’ve noticed amongst the cyclists– even the Catalans– and immense patience with me when (I rarely) try… I will increase and test their patience in the coming months :)

    Agree with you on the Catalan Castellano thing… one step at at time! It seems, at least for my goals, the willingness/patience to speak Castellano, particularly downtown, is very high, almost 100%

  • Pat D

    Hot damn! Enjoyed this episode. Found myself smiling, nodding, laughing throughout. My short story learning French: had an ‘ah ha’ moment in high school and committed to really learning, minored in French in college, studied abroad in southern France (French school, no Americans) and have been back a few times since.

    As frustrating as it can be at times, the experiences learning a language can bring are truly magical – like first time conversing solo with a shopkeeper, talking politics with an Iranian in French, falling in love with a French girl and trying to figure out which 3-4 words for ‘love’ to use, dreaming in a foreign language, playing soccer with locals, true cultural submersion. It’s a labor of love where those amazing experiences keep you motivated during the ‘deep dive’ Benny suggests.

    I’d be interested to hear how some keep up their language skills after they’ve moved away be it podcasts, movies, reading, etc?

  • thanks for sharing Pat, hoping to have some similar experiences!

  • Andrés Doppler

    Agree with Ryan.
    Having a partner (boy/girlfriend) is THE best and easiest way to learn a language. Nothing beats that.
    Sometimes I was fantasizing of forcing my GF to study german, so I would study german much easier :)

  • JJC

    Have you looked into any intensive in-person language schools in Barcelona? I’m curious to hear about your, or other’s experiences with that style of learning.

  • i have actually, but haven’t attended. first impression: prices are lower than expected. my concern is 1) adaptability of curriculum 2) travel time. My girlfriend has been to a few classes and also commented on the low quality of the teachers, if that’s indeed a problem it would be much harder to ‘shop’ teachers in person than on a website. Might be more interesting to try to shop italki teachers locally and do in-person/virtual combo

Next post: