Recently, a blogger buddy of mine, Benny from Fluent in 3 Months sent me a copy of his Language Hacking Guide for review. I was excited to read it, hoping to uncover the secret that was going to unleash my inner polyglot. I’ve always wanted to be one of those people who just know another language. Someone who dashes off a note to their Spanish Facebook friends, while watching French films on the weekends. Or knows the right thing to say when greeting someone in Thai, and when their Vietnamese neighbor gossips about them, they respond in with some witty bon mot in their own language.
Do you see the common thread in this fantasy? It’s effortless. I didn’t dream about memorizing verb tenses or awkwardly talking my way around vocabulary I didn’t have, “You know… the thing… on the street… you’re in the street then go up…” Um, did you mean curb?
To the uninitiated, fluency means speaking like a native – complete and effortless mastery of the language.
Is that possible in three months? No. In three years? Not likely.
I learned this the hard way, as anyone does who seriously attempts to gain fluency. At first, you’re working towards the ability to just have a conversation. Then you’re focusing on being able to get around in the world: order things correctly, read the paper, translate bus schedules. If you continue at it, you begin acquiring specialized vocabulary, related to your job or interests. Finally you begin to understand enough of the culture, the language and history to get jokes. But that takes a really long time.
To be fair, Benny doesn’t claim to teach the kind of fluency I was talking about. Instead, he reveals what I consider to be the “how to learn a language” skills that I think most people learn in immersion programs. You have to work in the language constantly. You must speak it, even if it pains you (but don’t let it). You should give yourself opportunities to learn in as many different formats as possible… watch movies, listen to music, play games, talk to people, read, interact online, take a course, memorize strategic vocabulary and so on.
Becoming an efficient learner
The revelation to me was that in hindsight, I wasted so much time trying to learn Spanish. I spent three months with a private tutor, who was drilling me on vocab and having me memorize grammar rules – all before I began speaking the language. It took me a really long time to figure out how to learn. To really learn, not just cobble together high school Spanish sentences based on vocabulary and grammar that no one actually uses. In the last two weeks of my immersion program in Guatemala, it all clicked. I had an organized framework for approaching new vocabulary. I understood how things fit together and what all the pieces were. I still had (and have) work to do, but I knew where I was going.
I think one of the draws to learning a language is that it’s so mysterious. Until you learn one. Then you get it and it all makes sense, but good luck explaining to first-timers what that means. Benny has come as close as anyone to really breaking down what every language learner eventually figures out: how to break down a language and learn it in a way to works with you, not against you. It’s what these high-priced language programs don’t seem to get. It’s not about vocab lists, it’s about using the language in as many ways a possible, as much as possible, for as long as possible. Then you will learn. You won’t notice your progress, until one day (and it will literally feel like that) the switch goes on. Someone is talking to you in another language and you’re not actively translating. You’re not getting in between the words and inserting the English equivalent. To me, it felt like it was washing over me. I understood, but I didn’t know how.
Can you get there in three months? Probably. If you have learned another language in the past. Or maybe if you read Benny’s ebook, although I suspect, like all things with language acquisition, there is no substitute for personal experience.
Have you ever tried to learn a second language? How long did it take?