Rapid Language Learning

Greetings Everyday Spy,

Mastering a foreign language is one of the most difficult challenges anyone can take on. 

And many Americans accept the challenge!

  • 20% of American adults are actively enrolled in a foreign language course right now.
  • 25% of American students are currently studying a foreign language in school.
  • 35% of American adults identify themselves as bilingual.

Whether you find those numbers encouraging or discouraging, it is worth comparing them to our European cousins across the Atlantic ocean:

  • 72% of European adults are enrolled in a foreign language course right now.
  • 92% of European students are currently studying a foreign language in school.
  • 54% of European adults identify themselves as bilingual (or trilingual!)

Much of my adult life has been spent learning, living and working in a foreign language abroad.

And English is the predominant language around the world. 

No other language comes close.

English is the language of business, diplomacy, education, and travel.

With more than 300 million native English speakers in the USA, our lack of foreign language ability is not holding our country back. 

If anything, our command of English is continually propelling our economy forward!

But economics and influence are two different things…

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head.

If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” 

– Nelson Mandela


Spies use foreign language to increase our influence on the world around us.

  • Our influence over governments.
  • Our influence over institutions.
  • Our influence over people.

Language is not just a tool for communication; it is a tool for maximizing your objectives.

A businessman who only speaks English will close foreign contracts. But a businessman with a second language will close more.

A teacher who only speaks English will teach many students. But a teacher who speaks a foreign language will impact students and their families.

A diplomat who only speaks English will communicate America’s needs. But a diplomat who speaks another language will project America’s values.

Espionage is the art of influence, and CIA knows that language is critical to building influence.

You know it, too. 

Are you more inspired by someone who traveled to a different state, or someone who traveled to a different country?

Are you more impressed when you speak to an American with excellent English or a foreigner with excellent English?

Do you have more trust in someone who speaks English or someone who does not speak English?

Hollywood’s depiction of spies as foreign language masters is totally false.

  • We don’t speak multiple languages fluently with perfect accents.
  • We can’t imitate the voice of a foreign leader in a high-stakes conflict negotiation.
  • We aren’t able to seamlessly flip between Albanian and Korean in the same conversation.

It is true that intelligence officers are recruited because they have foreign language experience.

But CIA doesn’t care what foreign language a new recruit speaks or how advanced their vocabulary might be. 

What matters to CIA is that you have the ability to learn a foreign language at all.

Because a new language is always difficult and new grammar is always confusing.

And when faced with learning a new language, many people quit.

  • 45% of high school language students do not continue studying a foreign language in college.
  • 85% of learners enrolled in an online language course never finish the course. 
  • 90% of language students that finish a beginners language course do not complete the intermediate level.

The halls at Langley are filled with people who studied a language at some point in their life. 

But the day we accepted assignments with CIA was the last day we used whatever language we learned before. 

CIA assigns officers to missions based on mission needs – not individual skills.

Once you are assigned an operation, then you have to learn the skills you need to succeed. 

And that includes learning language rapidly.

The key to rapid language learning is recognizing that language is a tool, not a test.

The entire world gets this wrong.

Schools from Beijing to Boise are teaching mastery. They seek perfection.

But effective communication does not need perfection.

CIA trains us to identify and overcome something called the ‘Perfection Paradox.’

The ‘perfection paradox’ happens when people become so focused on perfecting a skill that they never actually use the skill at all.

  • Artists keep ‘touching up’ their sketch and never put paint on canvas.
  • Engineers keep ‘fine tuning’ their design and never start building the project.
  • Language students keep ‘reviewing’ their vocabulary and grammar and never engage a foreign stranger in conversation.

While the academic world focuses on achieving language mastery, CIA focuses on achieving language utility.

No mission requires that you master a language. 

But every mission requires that you use your language.


Here is how you can rapidly learn any foreign language in the world:


  • High-Frequency Words

Every language has high-frequency words. These words are more powerful than other words because they are the building blocks of useful language.

The 1,000 most frequent words in any language make up 80% of all conversation in that language.

If you learn these 1,000 words, you have fully achieved language utility and are considered operational in the eyes of CIA.

The first words you should learn are not the first words taught in a text book. 

Instead, find and learn the most frequently used words in that language. Phrase books are an excellent source for learning high-frequency words. So is your favorite search engine. 

Worried about sounding foolish? That is the ‘perfection paradox’ lying to you.


  • Toddling 

The best way to learn a new language is the same way you learned your own native language. You have to stumble through it… you have to ‘toddle.’

Contrary to popular thought, adults are actually better suited cognitively to learn new languages than children.

An adult brain has developed logical and abstract reasoning. It has advanced frameworks for communication, like speaking ‘around’ a subject or using context clues. Most powerful of all, adult brains have already learned how to learn!

The reason that children appear to learn languages faster than adults is not because of their brain, but because of their emotions. 

More specifically, their total lack of personal embarrassment and social anxiety.

There is no ‘perfection paradox’ in children. They are comfortable making mistakes publicly.

When they try to say or write something in any language, they observe the feedback around them, adjust their pronunciation/vocabulary, and try again. They don’t care if you laugh at them or not – they are focused on communicating.

When you were a child, you did the same thing. That’s how you learned to speak as well as you do now.

Rapid language learning requires you to ‘toddle’ again; to make mistakes, observe the response, adjust, and try again. 

Go to language meet-ups, join language clubs, keep a journal in your target language, flip your computer’s primary language to the target language – do anything you can to immerse yourself… then embrace the mistakes that you make.

They won’t last for long…


  • Micro-Learning 

Similar to toddling, micro-learning is a tool that mimics the way you learned your native language.

The natural learning cycle in the human brain works in 35-45 minute increments.

     Ever wonder why you got tired half-way through those one hour college lectures?

     Curious why you always seem to get antsy the last 15 minutes of an hour-long show?

     Have you noticed that you check the call-time about 30 minutes after mom calls on the weekend?

That is your brain begging for a break. 

It needs time to sort, index, and compress the information it just absorbed. 

The brain is like an old-school plastic oil filter. If you don’t give it time to funnel, it just spills over. When we force our brain to absorb more than 50 minutes of new information, it starts to spill over. And when the spilling starts, there is no telling what gets retained and what gets lost. 

Children do everything in short bursts – play, fight, cry, eat, read, watch, and nap. 

They do that because their brain is constantly learning. Constantly funneling.

Adults spend a lifetime ‘forcing’ our brains to focus. And then we walk around frustrated and confused when we forget most of what we forced ourselves to focus on.

Micro-learning leverages your brain’s natural process to boost what you are learning. 

So set a timer, learn for 30 minutes, and take a 10 minute break before you start again.


  • The Anti-Routine

People find comfort in routines for one simple reason: routines turn the brain off.

Routines are meant to build habits – to trigger automatic responses without active thought or effort.

Learning is exactly the opposite of a brainless habit. Learning requires active thought and effort.

Without realizing it, language learners undermine their success because they build study routines:

  • They spend an hour a day (whoops! see #3 above…) reviewing their text book (whoops! See #1 above).
  • They flip through the same flashcards and always seem to struggle with the same words.
  • They make dedicated ‘study time’ daily or weekly, and confine learning to that time block.

Anti-routines are designed to upset routines – to force active thinking by preventing the brain from falling into a familiar/repetitive pattern.

Flashcards are great, but don’t practice them the same way every time. Instead, break them up differently each time you use them. 

  • Some days practice only the words you know best.
  • Other days practice only the words you struggle with.
  • A third day, grab completely new words you’ve never seen before.

The brain learns and retains information better in an unpredictable environment than a predictable environment.

Throw away your ‘study hour’ at 6pm every night and replace it with a random 15 minute ‘study break’ during the work day. Use a vocabulary app or subscribe to a YouTube channel in your target language. 

Interrupt your daily routine and watch how quickly your foreign language skills advance.


Dr. Seuss wrote ‘Green Eggs and Ham’ after his editor challenged him to write a story book that used less than 200 vocabulary words.

Dr. Seuss won the bet. 

‘Green Eggs and Ham’ tells the story of how friendly Sam-I-Am won over his grumpy neighbor and uses only 50 different words. 

It is the model of language utility.

You are writing your own foreign language story.

How quickly will you choose to live it?

Godspeed, #EverydaySpy


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Author: Andrew Bustamante, Founder of www.EverydaySpy.com. Andrew is a former covert CIA Intelligence officer, decorated US Air Force Combat Veteran, and respected Fortune 500 senior advisor. Learn more from Andrew on his Podcast (The Everyday Espionage Podcast) and by following @EverydaySpy on your favorite social media platform.

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