Vacation plans in a foreign country? Learn a language

Need to learn a foreign language in a week? In a month? In a year?

Ideally, we’d all have endless hours to devote to perfecting this skill, but with summer holidays and other vacations creeping up, what’s key is figuring out the best way to maximize the amount of time you’ve got.

The experts in language acquisition recommend different methods for learning language depending on how much time is at your disposal — but one thing is a given for everyone, regardless of time.

“Be ready to make lots of mistakes,” said Lynn McBride, the France-based American author of “How to Learn a New Language With a Used Brain” (Marshall & Gilbert). “Approach it with a cheerful attitude and lots of persistence, remembering that everyone who successfully learns a language must pass through this phase. Then, immerse yourself in the language every way you can.”

If you have one week

Learn basic phrases. “All you can do in such a short time is to memorize some phrases and basic vocabulary words,” said Alexander Arguelles, director of the Language Learning Institute at the American University in the Emirates in Dubai. He suggests getting a general phrasebook and studying the language for 30 minutes every day leading up to the day you visit the country. “You should be able to make people appreciate the fact that you have learned their courtesy phrases and also to do things like find the toilet in case of emergency,” Arguelles said.

If you have one month

Download an app. Apps offer you the opportunity to learn about a dozen languages via your phone for free, said Karen Gould MacGilvray, director of education at Language Stars, which offers foreign language classes to children in Washington, Chicago, Northern Virginia and Baltimore. "Apps like Mindsnacks or Duolingo make short blasts of language fun and literally rewarding with virtual points, badges and currency," MacGilvray said. On Duolingo, for example, you can practice basic skills and phrases — and it will also translate texts in the language you're learning. Also get the Pimsleur series. This series ( offers courses in about 50 languages, and it's an audio series that teaches you a language in half an hour a day.

If you have six months

Take a course "This is enough time to make real progress," Arguelles said. "If you were to train really intensively for hours a day, you could get pretty good in a friendly language." Arguelles suggests courses published by a French publisher called Assimil (prices depend on the language and the course. Most can be found on If you can study the course for 30 to 60 minutes every day, you'd have enough time to get through one of the manuals. This would make you proficient enough to go to the country and function on your own. The Assimil manuals come with a set of instructions, but Arguelles recommends adding shadowing or speaking on top of and along with the recordings rather than in pauses after them.

If you have a year

Watch TV. The BBC created a series for beginning and intermediate German called Deutsch Plus, which can be found on YouTube, said Bill Fowler of the American Language Program at California State University. “If a learner is at the intermediate or advanced level in any language, they should try to watch a lot of real television. Soap operas are usually fairly easy to understand because of the simple repetitive plots, and kids shows can be good too. Almost every foreign learner of English whom I have met that has achieved a really high level of proficiency and spoken with near-native-like pronunciation has watched a lot of American television and movies.”