What I’ve learned from 4 polyglots – 5 steps to language fluency

In my last post I talked about 5 language learning myths which can hamper our efforts, decrease motivation or even make us abandon the hope of learning a language altogether. In this one I’d like to further explore the ideas Chris Lonsdale, Sid Efromovich and Benny Lewis talk about. I’ve also just come across a really interesting website by another polyglot, Richard Simcott. You can read more about him here.

They have all learned various languages relatively quickly and often on their own, i.e. not in a language school. They also believe that anyone can learn any language, as long as they put their mind to it, regardless of talent or lack thereof; a view I share with them.

Also, many of the tips they talk about are similar, although phrased in a slightly different way. So I thought it’d be a good idea to put all I’ve learned from them together, adding some of my own language learning experience, into 5 easy to follow steps.

  1. Make the language a useful tool.

    Your mindset is the key here. If you’re learning the language only because your boss will sack you if you don’t, or because your parents will ground you, then you’ve got off on the wrong foot. Not that you can’t make headway from fear of punishment. You can, but you’ll hate every moment of it. Instead, find something that you LIKE about English (or your target language). Something that is meaningful and important for YOU, not for your teacher. There must be something about the language you’re learning that you’re really keen on (e.g. watching football games in English). Something that you can learn and use as a tool in your life (e.g. writing a really informal note for your English speaking flatmate). After all, what’s the point of learning how to use a welding torch if you’re never going to weld anything?! Make your first steps in the target language in the area that interests you, and which you feel comfortable in. You’ll be much more likely to persevere. Your motivation will increase, and so will your progress rate.

  2. Make mistakes

    Mistakes are great! Without them, you will stay in your comfort language zone forever. We adults tend to be incredibly worried about being 100% right all the time. Forget about it. Especially at the beginning. Play with the language. Experiment. And slip up. That’s fine. Nobody’s going to laugh, get annoyed or poke fun at you. Believe me. Native speakers will be delighted that you’re trying to learn their language (especially if the language is as obscure as Polish, for instance). Focus on getting the meaning across first. But, get somebody to correct you once you feel comfortable with it. And DO pay attention to the correct version. Otherwise you might be forever repeating the basic mistakes.

  3. Exposure is the key.

    Read and listen to the target language as much as you can. Ideally, all the time. Even if you think you’re not getting any of it, you are. Bits and pieces will stay in your head, and you will get better very quickly. You will also get familiar with the sound of the language. For example, one of the reasons why the Dutch and the Scandinavians speak such good English, apart from excellent language classes in schools, is that all TV programs and films are shown in their original language and are hardly ever dubbed. Go on BBC and read a few news headlines or a short article. Get some graded Penguin readers to give yourself confidence. When watching a film or a video (a lot of youtube and all TED talks have this option) put the subtitles in the target language (NOT in your mother tongue) to make it easier for you. Learn the basic functional language, such as: How do you say _____ in English? Could you repeat that please? Note down the new expressions, check what they mean and…

  4. Use it, or lose it

    Sounds so simple, but why don’t most students ever follow this rule? Avoiding the new language and staying in the comfort zone is not going to get you anywhere. Listen in to how proficient speakers speakers speak and notice some expressions or phrases. Check or ask about their meaning and then use the new language as soon as you get a chance. You might get it wrong the first time, but you’ve tried. And nobody has laughed. So give it another go. I am convinced that I’ve been successful in learning languages partly because I often unconsciously (I’m more aware of it now) copy people’s language mannerisms, and as a result, get more and more natural-sounding and proficient. Also, take however little you know in the language (10 adjectives x 10 nouns x 10 verbs gives you a THOUSAND possible combinations!) and use it as soon as you get a chance. Finally, find:

  5. A language parent/buddy

    This can be your friend, teacher, lover, or anybody else. The key is that they are supportive and encouraging – creating a safe environment where you feel comfortable to practise, play with the language and make mistakes is the key. A good language parent should also be willing to correct your mistakes. Of course, not every single one of them – this can only be frustrating. You might want to tell your language buddy that you have problems with, for example, 3rd person “s”. Or that you have just studied the subjunctive and you’d really like to focus on getting it right. Or perhaps a particular phonetic feature or a lexical set. This will focus the corrections and give you more relevant feedback. And please, DO pay attention to the corrections. One of the very common problems is that for a lot of students the corrections are like water off a duck’s back. They simply either ignore them or overlook them, or don’t care. Either way, the chances are you’ll never progress. So make sure you’re getting some decent feedback on the language from your language buddy, and that you pay attention to it. But also make sure that you’re getting a chance to talk. After all, language IS communication! There are numerous organisations that facilitate language exchanges. One I’ve used is Polyglot. Check if there’s a meeting in your town. You can also use on-line language learning communities such as Busuu.

    Now the big question is whether these 5 steps can lead you to language fluency (let’s define it as strong B2 or weak C1 level) in 6 months (or shorter) as Benny and Chris claim in their videos. No doubt, following these tips can really boost your learning progress and help you make real headway. But becoming fluent in 6 months?

    The honest answer is: I don’t know. Everything tells me that you need much longer than that. On the other hand, Chris and Benny are walking examples that it is indeed possible – of course, if we are to believe them, but I can’t see why not.

    So I guess the only way to find out is to try it all out myself. And this is what I’m going to do. A little pseudo-scientific, language experiment on myself: “Get fluent in Portuguese before this summer.” I’m going to define the objectives and roughly outline the procedure of the experiment in the next post. So stay tuned!

    And for now, forget about the 5 language myths and substitute them with the 5 steps to fluency.

    PS: I’ve just discovered this language learning forum. I haven’t had the time to explore it yet, but it looks fascinating. Check it out and let me know what you think.

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