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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The Case for Many Languages

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Antwerp Stadhuis, August 2013. Photo: Jared Gimbel

It is often Europeans that wonder why I would focus a lot of my efforts on many languages than all of my efforts on just a few. It is also often Europeans that wonder why I would even bother with a language with few speakers.

With people from the rest of the world, especially the United States, I don’t receive such reactions and encounter a lot less condescension. That isn’t to say that I haven’t received support for my efforts from my European peers—far from it.

But now I’m going to make the case as to why I studied many languages to small degrees (as well as getting very good at a handful of them) rather than just focusing all of my efforts on a few useful ones.

In my view, there are two goals to learning any language: (1) usage (conversations, bureaucracy, ordering food, and the like) and (2) the revelation of an entire new world.

Interestingly there are many people who just think that the first reason has any validity at all, and I’ve encountered this everywhere.

My last post was on the Greenlandic Language. I may have not had any conversations in it as of yet (although I have spoken it to people who did not understand it—namely, those who ask “How do you say XYZ in Greenlandic?”). However, the fact is that I have experienced music, TV shows, and other media that I just simply couldn’t have if I not learned the language at all. The Danish and the English translations just don’t cut it, if they even exist at all.

I only get one life, as do the rest of us.

There is only so much time I can spend in this world and I don’t want to give all of my effort to understanding just a small portion of the human experience. (It is true that I focus a lot of my cultural work on Europe, but this is because of the nature of my project and my work at the time being.)

When I talk about other countries and cultures that most people don’t know anything about, I usually think, “this entire world could be yours with even just minimal effort…even if just a part of it will suffice, it will change your life”

I’ve encountered many people who expressed a desire to learn one language or another. To have the desire is common. Acting on the desire isn’t. And if you have the desire, act on it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have the time. Any small effort can be rewarded. You should be proud of your efforts, even small ones—and others will, too!

High-caliber polyglottery is effectively a juggling act. There are languages that I have forgotten because I can only juggle so much at a given time.

The Finnish Language was useful for what I have been doing for the past year and a half, but in my next MA Degree Project I can’t imagine that it would be as necessary for me as other languages. But in the event that I forget that language (or any other) and need it again, my latent knowledge is still there, waiting for it to be reactivated with noteworthy effort.

But even if you forget a language, the worst that can happen is that you’ll have some cultural context—and a good head start in the event that you want to take it up again.

I learned French as a child, and now I have forgotten almost everything, and Russian and Italian have gone similar ways in my life. I don’t see them as having been lost forever—I see them as waiting for me to come and pick them up.

But now I have to carpool other languages as my clients. One day I may drop a number of them off, but I can pick them up if I need them. I may have not learned all of them perfectly, but nothing is stopping me from bringing them up to a professional level if I need to—except for maybe procrastination.

Back on topic:

Languages are not just about usage.

They are about empathy with a culture.

They are about understanding how a culture relates to others.

They are about changing the way you see the world outside your own linguistic spheres.

If you look at the most essential words in any given language, they will, more often than not, not align with the most important ones in any other. One of the first words I learned in both Northern Sami and in Greenlandic was the word for reindeer. Obviously this word isn’t going to be as important in Israel.

While learning German, my first experiences were with urban vocabulary. With Swedish, it was with nature-oriented vocabulary. With Yiddish, words relating to religion are of primary importance. With Greenlandic? Not a chance.

(It occurs to me that I may be one of the only people on the planet that has a command of both Yiddish and Greenlandic. If there are any others, please let me know.)

KNR’s modestly successful TV show for kids, “Pisuttuarpunga” carries a completely different essence from America’s “Sesame Street”. Even if you compare the various international localizations of Sesame Street to one another (e.g. Israel’s “Rekhov Sumsum” or Norway’s “Sesam Stasjon”), it is obvious that there are differences and that the language makes the differences between the cultures even clearer.

In the professional world, there is one imperative: be useful.

Knowing a rare language to any degree will make you a commodity, whether you like it or not.

Learning many languages to okay degrees has enabled me to have an “I-Thou” relationship with many other cultures. My peers who study a handful of commonly studied languages to full professional proficiency tend to not have this—or they don’t have it the way I do. That isn’t to say that you should avoid that path—but be aware that being different will always give you the edge. Always.

Thanks to my excessive language juggling, I find myself very empathetic to other cultures and attuned to the human experience as a whole.

If that isn’t useful, I don’t know what is.