I am going to try to become conversationally fluent in French in 1 month. Is it possible? Yes, definitely. People have done it in far less time than that. But is it possible for me…
I do have a few things on my side;
- I’ve got the time that is required;
- I’ve learned some spanish before (the more languages you know, the easier it is to learn new ones);
- I already know some very basic French; and
- I have a French girlfriend who can help me.
On the other hand I have a terrible memory (just ask my friends), and this time I want to learn more French in 1 month than all the Spanish I learned in 4 semesters at university.
Luckily you don’t need to know that many words to become fluent in a language. The below example is for Russian, but the numbers are similar for most languages.
the 75 most common words make up 40% of occurrences
the 200 most common words make up 50% of occurrences
the 524 most common words make up 60% of occurrences
the 1257 most common words make up 70% of occurrences
the 2925 most common words make up 80% of occurrences
the 7444 most common words make up 90% of occurrences
the 13374 most common words make up 95% of occurrences
the 25508 most common words make up 99% of occurrences
Luckily French and English have similar roots, so I already know around 1700 words. I’m not going to bother actively trying to learning these as I should be able to guess them when I need them.
So how many words do you need to learn to become proficient? If you know the most common 3000 words of most languages, you will be able to read the popular newspapers. To have a conversation you only need to know about 1200. That is why my mission is to learn 1200 words in 30 days – 40 words a day. The best way to do that that I’ve found is with a website called Memrise. The website was created by Ed Cooke (A Grand Master of Memory) and Greg Detre (Princeton neuroscientist specializing in the science of memory and forgetting). These guys know a thing or two about memory, and they have incorporated these things into the website. That should take care of the vocabulary.
As for the grammar, it’s not necessary to learn all of it. To make things easier I will start with learning just the present tense “I” and informal “you” conjugations. I will do this for the 3 types of regular verbs and the 24 or so most common irregular verbs. Once I’ve learned this, I should be able to use almost any verb in the present tense as long as I know the infinitive.
For the past and future tenses I will use the help of auxiliary verbs. These verbs – such as to be, to want, to have (done something), to go, to be able, etc – allow me to use other verbs without conjugating. The exception is “to have”, which will require me to learn one more conjugation for each of the regular verbs and a handful of irregulars. But, learning this will allow me to use almost any verb in the past tense.
To learn the sentence structure of the language I am going to use the help of Tim Ferriss. In his book 4 Hour Chef (which I highly recommend to everyone), he gives a few sentences that when translated and analysed, can show the basic structure of the language. Tim gives the full set in his book, but here are some that I pulled from learn-spanish-smart.com:
- The apple is red. La manzana es roja.
- It is John’s apple. Es la manzana de Juan.
- I give John the apple. Le doy la manzana a Juan.
- We give him the apple. Le damos la manzana a él.
- He gives it to John. El se la da a Juan.
- She gives it to him. Ella se la da a él.
Once I understand the function and the order of each word in those sentences, I should be able to construct my own sentences.
Phew… That was a mouthful. Only time will tell if this is going to work or not.