How To Have Basic Conversations In A New Language After Only One Week Of Study

In part 3 of our new travel series, Jimmy lays out his suite of hacks and shortcuts that get him speaking a new language as quickly as possible.

I like to learn languages by speaking them. Instead of spending too much time worrying about perfect grammar, I try to take the quickest route to building a basic sentence because I know I can learn the nuances later. By engaging as soon as possible in real-life conversation, I enter a learning process which is much more captivating, fun and organic than a classroom.

But, of course, you can’t just start speaking another language overnight! I have developed a method that involves a solid week of memorizing the most common verbs and nouns along with a handful of handy context-specific sentences. Once that foundation is laid, the rest will come by itself faster than you might think — one conversation at a time. You can see your progress every day, and that makes it fun. Here are the five simple language hacks that get me speaking a new language in no time:

1. Learn 20 verbs in the present tense

I start by taking the 20 most common verbs — to be, to do, to eat, to think, to want, to go, to come, to have, to need, to like, etc. — and I learn to conjugate them in the present tense (to be: I am, you are, he/she/it is… to go: I go, you go, he/she/it goes, we go…) This hack involves sitting down with a notepad, writing out all the conjugation tables, and memorizing them. If memorization is not your strong suit, this article has several useful tricks to make new words stick.

If you want to be conversational in one week, there is no way around this step. When we first got to Italy, I sat there for two days solid, staring at my notepad and repeating the words in my head. After a while you won’t even need to think about it because you’ll know how to conjugate any regular verb in the present tense intuitively.

2. Learn 100 nouns

Once I’m familiar enough with the most important verbs, I start to compile a vocabulary list. It is important to dedicate a couple of days to this in the beginning. But if you can manage to commit about 100 useful nouns to memory, you’ll be amazed by how far this will already get you when attempting to speak the language.

This is an ongoing process, but with smartphones in everyone’s pockets these days, you can always look up new words you need practically on the spot. Keep a list of the words you have translated, so any time you are sitting on a bus or a bench, you can scroll through these words until you have them memorized.

3. Learn to conjugate in the simple past tense

Once I can make basic sentences out of my 20 verbs and 100 nouns, I learn to make basic past tense sentences. In English, the correct way to say the past tense of “go” is “went,” but you would still understand someone if they said, “I did go.” This shows that if you stop worrying about being perfect, all of a sudden it becomes quite easy to make a past tense sentence. “I did eat,” “I did talk,” “I did think”… Viola!!

In Italian, the easiest way to turn a sentence into the past tense is by putting the verb avere (“to have”, which we have of course already learned to conjugate!!) in front of the infinite form of a verb and adding an -eto or -ato at the end of the verb. “I eat” in Italian is io manjo. “I did eat” is io ho manjato. “I speak” is io parlo. “I did speak” is io ho parlato. Do you see a pattern emerging? You can do this with any verb, and people will understand you.

Bear in mind that there are a lot of irregular verbs, and what you are saying half the time won’t be grammatically correct — but you can always ask people to correct you. My system is about short-cutting straight to conveying your thoughts; leave the refinement for later. I prioritize being understood over saying things perfectly. Many a school teacher would scoff at this approach, but I don’t have six months to attend their classes — I’m in a hurry!

4. Learn to conjugate in the future tense

In English, the easy way to talk about the future is to say “I will” in front of a verb (I will eat, I will walk, I will think, etc.). In Italian, they stick an extra er in the verb towards the end. “I speak” = io parlo, “I will speak” = io parlero. “I take” = io prendo, “I will take” = io prendero. That’s almost all there is to it!

5. Keep expanding that vocabulary list

Each time you think of something you are missing, like: Who? What? Why? Where? When? Prepositions (at, on, by, from), the days of the week, or numbers 1-20, add them to your vocabulary list! Every time you are about to walk into a conversation, practice first by speaking the sentences in your head, and look up the words you’re missing on your phone. Then walk in and use them! You will be amazed at how quickly you remember words when you have already used them in conversation.

A disclaimer: Don’t go at it alone

My method will not get you speaking a language fluently, able to read the newspaper or understand locals when they speak to each other — learning the subtleties and complexities of a language takes time. However, what you will be able to do after mastering the above five hacks is convey your thoughts in a way that, even if not completely correct, will make you understood. I employed this method for the first time on my last trip to Italy, and I can say it has worked wonders, giving me the confidence to speak to people without feeling lost for words. But on it’s own, it is a messy system, full of mistakes.

That’s where the Babbel app comes in handy. By walking you through everyday situations, Babbel gives you the vocabulary you need. By allowing you to listen to native speakers and repeat phrases, it gives you a feeling for what a language is supposed to sound like, too. It also helps to refine your pronunciation and teaches you grammar properly, filling in the gaps in my approach.

Speaking a language is the fun part. For me, learning through exchanges with interesting people is the most enjoyable method, and the sooner you start speaking the better. By starting with a solid week of memorizing words and using the app, I was amazed how far I managed to get after I’d been in Italy for only four weeks. And the beautiful part is that I learned something new with every conversation!

Follow the rest of Jimmy and Pia’s adventures on the road from Berlin to Venice:

Part 1: Germany

Part 2: Austria

Part 4: Venice

And catch up on their bicycle tour across South America:

Crossing South America By Bike

Learn a language your way, and keep your routine organized with Babbel, the shortest path to real-life conversation in a new language.
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