The One Thing You Need to Get Fluent in a Language

This may be one of the most important things about language learning you may ever read, so I’m going to be as blunt as I can:

“BAD WITH LANGUAGES” DOES NOT EXIST.

It just doesn’t.

What there is, however, is not having the one thing you need to get fluent in a language.

And that is…

 

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No, it isn’t comic books…necessarily…although it can be!

It is finding a way to have fun with the languages in your life.

What you should be looking for in addition to books / programs etc. is a way to use your target language in your life in a way that you enjoy doing it.

Think about what you do for fun.

Think about the sort of ways you can have fun in your other languages.

There is a REASON a lot of endangered languages have to have programming to make them viable. Because if not for them, prospective learners would associate the languages only with classroom learning and nothing else!

And if you associate your language only with classroom learning, then you ARE going to burn out very quickly!

And this is why there are so many students who say “I’ve took (language commonly studied) for four years and I still can’t speak any of it”.

I can GUARANTEE you that if they had found a method towards applying that language in their life in a way that they would genuinely enjoy doing so, they would never say that.

This can include:

  • Socializing
  • Forums
  • Online videos of any variety
  • Podcasts
  • Books (or any type)
  • Music
  • Films

And think about how many non-native English speakers you have met throughout your life who have spoken impressive English. Ask them about how they learned it. They will NOT answer “I took it for years in school” (although many of them do and it helps!), they will, GUARANTEED, say something like “I really liked British comedies” or “I had a Texan roommate”.

Back when I believed that I would never get fluent in another language as an adult (which I rate as one of the Top 5 most destructive beliefs of my life), I was in the Yiddish Farm summer program and realizing that the various songs, artistry and the like that I partook of would make my Yiddish better, bit-by-bit.

When I was in Poland and living with students in Spain, I genuinely felt more comfortable conversing in Castilian Spanish with them, surrounded by bottles and makeshift ping-pong tables, than I ever did in a classroom.

Even with languages that I still struggle with, such as Greenlandic and Russian, I came to put on very good accents and came off convincingly to many—by virtue of the fact that I had Greenlandic- and Russian-Language “programming” in my life!

And so one thing you should be doing is in addition to asking, “where can I study this language?” is “where can I have fun with this language?” And if you can’t answer that second question, you’ll give up and/or burn out!

I know because it has happened to me!

But let me be clear on this:

 

Don’t expect to get fluent with the “fun time” alone.

Well…I’ve done it, actually, but only with languages very close to ones I already knew. (As I did with Danish after Norwegian, and Bislama / Solomon Islands Pijin after Tok Pisin)

Think of it this way:

The various applications of the languages in your life are your chess pawns.

They will not win the game by themselves, but winning without them (and playing without them) is impossible.

 

And by extension, allow me to be clear on this also:

Don’t choose a language based on any supposed professional benefit it will bring you, choose a language based on recreational value to you.

I know, right? Sounds counter-intuitive, but when I hear someone say “I’m learning this language for an advantage at my job” or “I’m learning this language because so many people speak it” something like that, my heart tells me “chances are, unless you find some way to have fun with that language really soon, you’re going to burn out. Mark my words”.

I would say that the vast majority of failed language experiments didn’t take this into account.

I know, because I’ve done that with some other languages throughout the years.

But the good news is that for almost all learnable languages out there, there is a way to engage with them in a fun way using the method I listed above!

Not only that, but the methods will continue to grow as technology marches on!

So if you may be struggling to find almost anything fun to do in your target language…wait a bit, maybe even a few months or a year, even! You’d be surprised what’ll come out when you’re not looking…

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Wrapping it up, so that I don’t cause any misunderstanding, I will say this:

There is no bad with languages. Period. There is only a misunderstanding that doesn’t take into account that fluency requires (1) dedication (2) perseverance (3) feeling stupid sometimes and, most importantly (4) being able to include each language in a fuzzy place in your life where you play with it rather than work with it.

So get playing!

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If I Were a Language Teacher, Here’s What I Would Say to My Students

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I would make the following clear to my students from the outset:

 

“The tests, assignments, and class sessions will not make you even remotely good at this language on your own. What you must do, in addition, to these sessions, is make space for this language in your own life…”

 

“I hereby present to you an additional homework assignment for each session: you must somehow engage with your target language in between each class. You can do this at home. You can set up a meeting between friends. You can watch your favorite TV show, as long as it is in the language. You can go YouTubing or play video games in the language…

 

“…what is important is that you associate this language with its countless other dimensions outside of my class”.

 

“You must realize that no journey ever existed without mistakes. While some assignments will be graded, I understand that on your road to mastery you must err…

 

“I’ll have you know that on my own language journeys I have been through terrible moments indeed. I got answered in English by service people and felt terrible about it. I once got shouted ‘STOP SPEAKING (Language)!’ by someone. I got told on multiple occasions that my accent was terrible, and in less than the span of a year, I was told by others that it sounded like that of a native…

 

“There will be discouragement (If relevant: There will be those that will ask ‘Why do you bother to learn this language if we all speak English anyway?’ I’ll have you know that it may be most, but it is by no means all. And even those who speak the language will marvel at your attempts, however small, as long as they are honest.) On the long road, I almost never let that discouragement get to me and neither should you. I will always be supportive of your efforts to learn any language, no matter what”.

 

“Once you leave the class, you can choose to forget everything and then, from that point onward, mention to friends that you took the language for X years, and now you don’t speak a word of it…

 

“…or, alternatively, you could keep a space for this language in your life, continue having fun with it and your friends that speak it and media that use it. Then you will look back on this class as merely the beginning of a journey that made your life complete…”

 

“Whether you will let this language complete your life is entirely up to you

I Am Not Talented

Too often during the past few days (actually, more like every single day, on average of about three times), did I hear “some people have a talent for languages, I guess you do have it and most people don’t”.

I’m going to be mighty quick about this post.

I am not talented.

There is no such thing as a “talent for languages”, this is merely a cover for people not willing to apply themselves. I know that this sounds harsh, but let me put it this way:

The real reason I mastered the Danish “stød” was not because I had this musical gift that I had from birth.

The real reason was, in mid-2013, I really envied people who could make that guttural stop properly, and so I practiced it in the shower and while crossing the street. I read about it. I watched television in Danish for a significant amount of hours. I read blogs on how to improve my pronunciation.

This wasn’t an issue of talent.

The fact that I had learned Finnish and Greenlandic the way I did doesn’t indicate talent either.

Ask any of my family members.

They will tell you how much TIME I put into the endeavor, until I managed to retrieve results.

And believe me, both of these languages were extraordinarily frustrating for me! (Actually, pretty much all of them were, even the “easier” ones like Norwegian).

But while I did give up some of my languages due to the “chemistry” dying down, I kept on going with those that I really cared about.

Only this morning did I show up for a Hebrew class and was told that I was too high a level to continue being there (I was actually sent out of the class right before a dialogue exercise and told to speak to the department).

I was struck by the Language Class in the fact that the teacher spoke very slowly, as opposed to immersion, even from children’s television, which went on playing regardless of whether or not I understood every word, and certainly didn’t care if it was going “too fast” for me.

Now back on topic.

I’m just going to say this emphatically.

I am may be proud of the fact that I commit my time to this, but I do not believe for a second that this is because I have a talent.

If anything, this is because I’m willing to put an extraordinary amount of time into my projects until I see a return.

You can be a speaker of many languages, just like me.

All you need to do is care.

Care enough, love what you do, and apply yourself.

Isn’t that easy?