Get Fluent in Any Language in Just 20 Minutes!

by  Mose Hayward
LAST UPDATED ON  2023-12-01
PUBLISHED ON  2013-03-14
Illustration by Johanna Thomé de Souza. *Translations: “Fuck yeah!” • I’m from Moscow. • That’s tragic! • Even his dick doesn’t know. • To the Republic! • To Stalin! • Cheers.

Your Guide

Mose Hayward

Language Nut

We feel that other language methods unduly stress the ability to understand words and respond in an appropriate way. OK sure, if you want to spend six months to a year studying, communication is a fine goal — I’d recommend a good communicative method and online language exchanges in that case. One of the many “language hackers” encouraging similar styles of learning even claims that you can achieve “fluency” in 3 months; this, through intensive study and a downgrading of the idea of “fluency” to being able to hold a basic conversation.

That’s dandy, but what if you need to become fluent much, much faster — say, between dinner service and when your flight lands?

Introducing the Minimalist Language Learning Method: Key Concepts

First, we’ll downgrade our definition of “fluent” literally beyond all comprehension (“fluent” really just means “flowing” anyway). The point is not to understand what is being said, but — and this is ALWAYS more important, in any case — to continue the conversation in a pleasurable manner. For example, until the next drink is poured, or pheromones take over. We feel language is highly overvalued as a communicative device. Think about your total language use over the last 24 hours; now ask yourself how much of that verbiage — yours and your interlocutors’ — actually presented any new or interesting ideas.

The second rule of the Minimalist Method is: Be funny. And it’s tricky to perform verbal fireworks with the amount of vocabulary you can learn in 20 minutes, so we’ll have to make a tiny bit of vocabulary and cultural awareness count for a lot.

To achieve this second point, we’ll be borrowing that trade secret of television comedy writers: push everything to its limit. This is how screenwriters deal with those moments of zero inspiration when we need to come up with a joke, fast. (In drama, we would go for nuance, but in comedy, we go for broke on extremes. E.g., dramatic characters ponder sorrowfully whereas their comedic counterparts vomit their guts out, preferably literally. This fallback technique explains why sitcom characters sooner or later all come to resemble socially unaware, halfwit loudmouths.)  The same concept can be applied to that ultimate moment when inspiration and, especially, words generally fail: that of speaking a language you don’t understand. The Minimalist Language Learning Method doesn’t waste time with small-bore expressions of affinity or information, rather, we’ll go for love and horror, passion and inebriation.

Learn Languages Like as a Minimalist: The Method

The items to learn are presented in English along with examples from whatever language I feel does the phrase particularly well — but the same principles apply in any language. Work through this list with a native speaker (e.g., the person next to you on the flight, a language exchange partner over the internet, etc.) to find the right expressions for your target language (many of these won’t be in dictionaries); then memorize them.

1. Don’t bother learning the word for yes; rather, find the target language’s closest thing to “abso-fucking-lutely”. With such an expression, you can convincingly express your understanding of everything that you don’t understand, and, moreover, show that you enthusiastically agree. People love to be told they’re right; your interlocutors will find such a response funny, pleasurable, or quite possibly a turn-on. Here are examples of a few languages’ most enthusiastic possible expressions of affirmation: Catalan: Sí, deu n’hi do! German: Ja, sowas von! French: Non.

2. Hand-in-hand with the previous point, don’t bother with negation in your target language. It’s like the first rule of improv comedy: never say “no”. Whether you understand it or not, agree with whatever’s being said, and add to it.

3. Question tags. You’re going to have lots of questions, and, even if you don’t, you should, to make it seem that you understand the conversation and want it to continue. You can accomplish this by repeating any declarative-sounding string of words and adding a question tag — the magic words at the end of a statement that turn it into a question. (This is generally much easier than learning the grammatical constructions for questions.) In English we say “… right?” In European Spanish: … ¿verdad? (ver-THAD?, truth). In Mexican Spanish: ¿neta? (NEY-tah, truth.) In French: … n’est-ce pas ? (nays pa?, isn’t it so?).  In German: nicht wahr? ([sound of hacking up phlegm]-var?, not true?). In Russian: … Да? (da?, yes?)

4. Learn at least one simple local joke. For example, if speaking Serbian you should know at least one joke about dead babies. In English, non-native speakers can use: “A man walks into a bar, and falls down.” That is a very funny joke when accompanied by an emphatic demonstration. In some languages, tales of the most obnoxious possible pickup lines serve a similar function; Galician has a particularly rich tradition.

5. Extremely positive adjectives. If you’re doing things right in your new country, you’ll be invited places for drinks, sex, and/or food. It would be awful to be limited to a word like “good” for describing these things; you must rather know a local word or two for “fabulous” or “mind-blowing”. In Serbian: do jaja (do yaya, meaning literally “to the testicles”) or fenomenalno. In Catalan: boníssim (super great). In Brazilian Portuguese: gostoso (meaning, depending on the context: tasty, desirable, beloved, fuckable, or sensuous).

6. “People” and “thing” are your nouns. They’re maximally vague, so they can be employed, along with pointing, in almost any situation. In Spanish: gente (HEN-tay, people). In Russian: человек (chel-ov-YEK, person). In Italian: roba (an informal word for a thing, stuff, and also drugs).

7. Though as per rule #2 we never negate, we must still prepared for the less-than-wonderful things that may come up. A ways back, on my university semester abroad, my Chilean host mother launched into a tale of why she had divorced her husband, who was over for dinner that night and was sitting across the table. It seems he had fucked lots of women. She looked at me, expecting a response. I looked at the ex-husband, and then at the two kids. A few years of high school Spanish and two decades of life had really not prepared me for such a situation. We need a way to respond with limited language when things — big or small — are headed south, and the TP answer is: “How tragic!” (¡Qué trágico! in Spanish). It’s an all-purpose expression of pain and loss, and, since it’s rather literary and over-the-top, it also can show that you have a sense of humor about the whole thing. This phrase is easy to learn in most languages and is almost universally useful; you can bring it out whether the coffee is cold, the taxi meter “isn’t working”, or a penis has strayed where it shouldn’t be.

8. “Guy”/”dude”/”badass.” If you’re getting into properly interesting situations, you’ll use this a lot more than “Mr.” or “Ms.” In Serbian: brate (dude, brother; also used as a general interjection). In Brazilian Portuguese: malandro (ma-LAN-drew; a cool, bad-ass lowlife). In Chilean Spanish: huevon (way-OWN; meaning a guy, friend, or total jerk, depending on the context).

9. “Darling.” It’s wise to show affection for your new friends. In Italy, use bello (literally, beautiful) to address a man, bella for a woman. In French: poulet (literally, chicken) or chouchou d’amour (shoo-shoo damoour; a very sappy, stupid term for darling).

10. “I don’t know.” The most reasonable and honest answer to any question. In informal French: chais pas (shay-PAH). In Catalan: cap idea. In Japonese: わからない (wakaranai).

11. “I’m from Rome too!” When travelling, you will repeatedly face the question, “Where are you from?” You’re supposed to give your hometown so that your interlocutor can exclaim he’s been there and seen some stupid landmarks, or that he hasn’t and anyway what’s up with your _____ (famous politician, celebrity, or national stereotype). God, these conversations are boring. Derail them by responding, in your best attempt at Italian, for example: Sono di Roma. In Dutch: Ik kom uit Amsterdam. In Russian: Я из Москвы (Ya iz Moskvy). Etc. Remain firm on this point, and you’ll avoid all discussion of inane cultural differences or your country of origin. For extra credit, cite a hip neighborhood and/or a local expression of pride, e.g., when speaking Serbian, you should always bellow munze konza to indicate that you hail from Belgrade’s coolest borough, Zemun, and that it completely rules.

12. “Passionately” will be your one adverb. It’s useful for explaining how things can/will/should/did happen, from cooking to cocktail preparation to dancing to, obviously, lovemaking. The world’s best language for any of this is Brazilian Portuguese: apaixonadamente (a-pai-sho-na-da-MEN-chee).

13. One toast, preferably an outdated and classy one. Go drinking in an old-man dive bar on your first night in a new country to properly obtain this knowledge (young people generally have no class and have lost their traditions). If toasting with old members of the communist party in Russia, for instance, you should stand, shout “to the Republic!” (за республику, za respubliku) and down your vodka in one gulp. Traditionally, Stalin executed guests who failed to perform this correctly. For another example, see the fascinating world of Catalan toasts.

14. Gestures are an integral part of language that are almost never covered by language methods. Employing a few culture-specific gestures is classy as hell, and allows you to fake a high level of cultural awareness. Your hands should not do the same thing when you’re speaking Italian as when you’re speaking French. This blog has previously covered Brazil’s particularly large and amusing vocabulary of gestures.

15. Untranslatables — every language seems to have a few words that its speakers insist cannot be translated into other languages. This is bullshit — such words invariably have equivalents around the world — but defer to the local culture by pretending to believe it. And, in any case, these words are interesting because they tend to reveal local obsessions. Brazil has saudades (sow-DA-jeez)— a celebrated and intense feeling of nostalgia. Bosnians have sevdah, which they also insist is uniquely theirs, but which means much the same thing, perhaps tinged with more tragedy. Germans have schadenfreude, which of course we borrow in English when we want to make laughing at others’ pain sound like some classy foreign thing. The French, believe it or not, actually do spout their stereotypical oh-la-la, but it’s usually to express disgust and disapproval — one is never impressed in French. Other supposed untranslatables are listed here and here.

16. “I fucked it all up!” — Chances are you will do this within minutes of arriving in a new country, and at regular intervals thereafter. Apologizing is boring, however. Demonstrate respect and cultural awareness by swearing at your own stupidity in the native tongue. In French: Je me suis chié dessus ! (Zhuh muh swee shee-ay duh-soo, I shat all over it.) Mexican slang: Hice puras chingaderas (EE-say PU-ras chin-gah-DAY-ras, I did absolute bullshit). In Turkish: Işte şimdi boku yedim (eesh-tay sheemdee bohkew yaydeem, literally, now I eat shit).

These are just ideas to get you started and to point the way towards what you can learn to do in a language that you don’t speak.

I have used this method for over a decade now to have fun and connect with people in languages that I don’t know—yet. I often do end up actually learning to communicate in the end, but the way to get started is definitely with such unique and intriguing first steps that get the ball rolling.

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