Learn Anything in 20 Hours: Languages

Thinking about my previous post on Josh Kaufman’s book “The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything…Fast” by Josh Kaufman, I realized I had actually done almost exactly what Kaufman outlined. Not only did I do it, but I found it to be very successful and self-motivating.

Around last March of last year, I decided I wanted to improve my Korean. I decided that I would take the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK – Beginner Level). This decision turned out to be an excellent one, as it gave me two benefits: a deadline to achieve a certain level by, and the reward of earning a certificate which would look quite nice on my CV/resume.

I bought an excellent book (Korean Grammar in Use) and found an excellent website to use. Every morning, I would do exercises in the book for about an hour to an hour and a half. I would make flashcards with gGlash+ and Quizlet and review them whenever I had free time, especially whenever I took the bus and subway. I also took a few practice tests.

When the taste came around in April, I felt prepared. The actual testing experience was mixed. Some parts were extremely easy, others were extremely hard. The results came in June and I was ecstatic that I passed. I was disappointed by my writing score, because I thought I had done very well, but I was pleasantly surprised that I earned a 100 on the reading section.

Without knowing it, I had actually follow Kaufman’s advice. And succeeded. All in all, I spent 1 month studying Korean. Am I a fluent Korean speaker? Hardly. Did I achieve the level of mastery I set forth? Yes. I earned Level II on the beginner TOPIK test (the highest beginner level). Here are Kaufman’s principles of skill acquisition, and a brief explanation of how I followed each one:

  1. Choose a lovable project. – I wanted to learn Korean.
  2. Focus your energy on one skill at a time. – I focused mostly on grammar. Vocabulary learning was ancillary.
  3. Define your target performance level. – I wanted to pass the TOPIK, hopefully earning Level II.
  4. Deconstruct the skill into subskills. – Grammar. Vocabulary.
  5. Obtain critical tools. – The book, the website, practice tests, flashcard apps
  6. Eliminate barriers to practice. – I removed mental doubts by believing this would be possible to do.
  7. Make dedicated time for practice. – I did 2 units from the book every morning, plus other types of studying throughout the day. In total, it was probably ~20 solid hours of studying.
  8. Create fast feedback loops. – I tried out my Korean at the gym. I also took practice tests.
  9. Practice by the clock in short bursts. – I was semi-strict about my time, trying to not miss any study sessions.
  10. Emphasize quantity and speed. – I went full speed through the book and flashcards (gFlash+ is a very rapid learning environment) but left time to review and relearn as well.

If I had continued to study in that manner, I would probably be near intermediate level by now. I stopped however, as I was preparing for a trip to Poland and had to switch what language I was studying. I repeated a similar study routine with Polish and found it to be equally as successful.

I think the most important principle of rapid skill acquisition is number three: Define your target performance level. Having a obtainable goal in mind is useful for staying motivated and “keeping your eye on the prize”. I would add that having a deadline is also important to add a bit of motivating pressure as well.

From my experience, rapid skill acquisition works. I have done it with two languages, but it can be applied to any skill. I suggest you take the time to read his book and follow his principles. If you stick with it, you are guaranteed success. On to programming!

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