Be fluent in a language in 6 months – mission impossible?

For the last two weeks or so I’ve been blogging about how we can learn languages faster, and perhaps even reach fluency in just a couple of months. If you haven’t read these posts, I suggest you take a quick look before you delve into this one, because I’ll be referring to them here. In the first one I explored 5 language learning myths, and in the second one I looked at 5 steps to becoming fluent in any language.

I’ve become fascinated with polyglots and their extraordinary abilities to learn languages. Take Chris Lonsdale, whose video you can watch here, for example. He became fluent in Chinese in 6 months and completely proficient in one year. This just defies logic. Most people will tell you that it takes much more than that. And you mightn’t ever reach proficiency anyway. So we have two options here: either dismiss Chris as an impostor, or assume he’s telling the truth.

I chose the second option, but countless questions nagged me:

  • Can the average Joe be a polyglot too?
  • Does talent play a role? If so, is it more important than hard work and determination?
  • Can anyone become fluent in any language?
  • How long does it take?
  • Can we speed this process up? How?

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that the role of  talent is often overemphasised. Especially by students who have failed to learn a language and are looking for an easy scapegoat. “I don’t have talent” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more you believe in and repeat it, the less likely you are to actually learn a language.

I think that polyglots are not much more talented than most of us, but simply much better at learning languages. Whether consciously or on unconsciously, they’ve acquired abilities, habits and practices that allow them to learn languages much more quickly and efficiently than most of us.

If this is true, it should be great news for all of us, because we might just be able to achieve similar feats by identifying what good language learners do (read more about it here), and then emulate and cultivate these traits until they become automatic. This is something Chris, Sid and Benny talk about a lot in their talks. In a nutshell, we can become more talented. Through practice and hard work.

Obviously this is just my gut feeling. But I intend to check it against reality. So I’m going to follow the 5 steps to fluency and try to:

become fluent in Portuguese in 6 months.

(as a disclaimer, I know I’ve taken a lot of liberties with the term “fluency”, which as I can hear some of you point out, is vague and difficult to define. So what I mean here by fluency then is a good B2 level, that is being able to speak and write on a variety of topics, and understand most of both written and spoken ungraded materials)

1. Why Portuguese and not Chinese or any other language?

I guess the short answer would be: because I fancy learning it, while I don’t have any inclination to learn Bantu or Italian. And as I wrote in the previous post, motivation and mindset are the absolute keys to success. What’s more, although I live in the Netherlands, there are plenty of Portuguese speakers around me (mostly Brazilians) who I can practise with – remember the use it or lose it step?. Finally, I’m going to Portugal for holidays in 10 days, so it’ll be a good chance to practise the basics there. And I can now start learning things that might be immediately useful and relevant to me (step 1 – make the language a useful tool), which should make the whole process much more motivating.

2. Why 6 months not 3 or a year?

It seems like a reasonable amount of time. Much shorter than what people would normally take in a language school to reach fluency, but still just about feasible, I think. Although Benny Lewis claims to have “hacked” various languages – as he puts it – in as little as 3 months, I don’t want to give myself a safety cushion. After all, it’s my first go at it. As an aside, the idea of this language learning experiment did come to me after reading Benny’s blog. So thanks for the inspiration.

3. How much Portuguese do I know now?

Very little. A few basic phrases and words that I’ve learned over the last couple of days using busuu.com and memrise.com. So we can safely say I’m a complete beginner. However, there’s an important factor:

4. I am proficient in Spanish, so Portuguese will be a piece of cake.

It is generally believed that learning a language closely related to your L1 or L2/3 is much easier than learning one that is completely unrelated. So just perhaps, if I actually manage to become fluent in Portuguese, you might say I had an unfair advantage from the very start. In my opinion, knowing Spanish will be definitely extremely helpful at the beginning as there are many words I won’t even need to memorise because they are very similar or even identical. However, since the languages are so close to one another, my Spanish can really get in the way of things (negative transfer). Especially if I want to be fluent in Portuguese, and not “Portuñol”, that is, a mixture of the two. All in all, Spanish can be a double-edged sword here. I’m curious myself to see whether it will do more harm than good, or vice versa.

5. I’ve got a flair for languages.

The honest answer is: I don’t know. What I do know, however, is that I’m passionate about learning languages. I’ve got a bee in my bonnet about it. And after having learned five, I’ve discovered what works and what doesn’t work for me. So I guess I might be slightly better at it than an average student.. As I said above, though, in my opinion, this is not the same as innate talent which cannot be learned. When I look back at my own language learning history, I can see that my flair started to emerge only very slowly over the years as I became more interested in the process, got more experienced, and became really passionate about languages. And there’s definitely still plenty of room for improvement. So I’m hoping to learn a lot from the experience, to improve my “language talent” and become a better language learner.

6. I’ve got loads of free time.

Not really. Lack of time is often a bad excuse for not trying or not being motivated enough. As a teacher, though, my schedule is quite flexible, so I can squeeze in the learning sessions at different times of the day. Having said that, I want to make it clear, that I’m not going to devote all my free time to this project. Not by a long shot. I will still be teaching, running my freelance business, blogging, socialising, reading books, watching documentaries, going to the gym and trying to keep my German and French up too. So no, I’m not going to have loads of time.

7. Why am I doing this?

To see if we can emulate positive behaviour of successful people, cultivate it and be successful ourselves. I want to put the 5 steps to fluency to a test. What I learn along the way will be immensely useful for my day-to-day teaching practice, as I hope to be better able to help my students reach fluency themselves. Also, I’ve wanted to learn Portuguese for a while now, so this is a perfect opportunity to finally give it a go.

8. How am I going to go about it?

I don’t have a definite plan, but some rough ideas and principles that I’d like to follow. In the process I might need to adapt and change the plan, depending on what works and what doesn’t. So roughly, here’s what I’m going to do:

  • use memrise.com to quickly memorise new words and expressions – at least 10 a day
  • find a language parent/buddy who I can practice with
  • make loads of mistakes and ask people to correct me
  • imitate the pronunciation and language patterns of proficient Portuguese speakers
  • use what I learn on Memrise in conversation as soon as I can
  • focus at the beginning on getting the meaning across, without worrying too much about the correct grammar
  • completely ditch Spanish and English when interacting with Portuguese speakers
  • watch and read the news in Portuguese daily – 10mins should be more than enough to start with
  • keep a learning log on what works and what doesn’t, and adjust my learning accordingly
  • jot down how much time on average I spend studying the language to see what it adds up to at the end

Depending on how it pans out in the first few weeks I might:

  • sign up for Portuguese lessons
  • get a grammar book to sort out the conjugation and tenses

To sum up, I’m going to do very little of “classical” language learning (max 30mins a day), i.e. cramming long lists of words and figuring out how to complete the gaps with the verb in brackets in the correct tense. I do like grammar, and I still think you need to get your head around it at some point, but I want to take an alternative route this time and make the process more lexical and as fun as possible.

9. How will you know whether I’ve succeeded or failed?

I don’t want to keep you waiting for the final results for the next 6 months. So I’m going to try to post regular monthly updates with the progress and some reflection on the learning process. I hate recording my own voice, and worse still being filmed, but this might be the only way people can hear my Portuguese and see whether I’ve improved or not. Hopefully, I’ll find the time to do this.

So stay tuned!

Here’s the first update after 2 months:

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6 thoughts on “Be fluent in a language in 6 months – mission impossible?

  1. Geile Scheiße, Mann! Das sieht doch mal nach nem Plan aus 🙂 Ich bin nun schon seit deinen letzten beiden Posts ganz fasziniert von der Idee und finds spitze, wie du so zielstrebig und vor allem öffentlich an die Sache rangehst! Bin auf jeden Fall auf die Videos gespannt… Ich habe mir die drei Polyglots angeschaut und mich gefragt warum Chris sagt, ein Lang.parent sollte einen nicht korrigieren. Ich mag jedoch, dass er die konkretesten Tipps gibt. Ich habe eine eigene Liste mit diesen Tipps auch für meine Schüler zusammen gebastelt und auch schon positives Feedback bekommen 🙂 Also darüber zu lernen und es selbst zu versuchen gibt einem als Lehrer tolle Möglichkeiten es an seine Schüler weiterzugeben. Ich drück dir jedenfalls die Daumen bei deinem Projekt 🙂 And I did write this in german to give you a chance to practice it, as you mention 😛

  2. Danke Gurmasi 🙂 Ich bin auch auf die Videos un die Ideen gespannt, wie du von meinem Blog sehen kannst.
    I'll reply in English, so other people can follow as well:
    Gurmasi really enjoyed the video but was surprised that Chris mentions over and over again the importance of NOT being corrected, which is the opposite to what Sid advises.
    What Chris really suggests is lack of overt correction, i.e. You can't say I go yesterday, you should say…. He advocates recasting, that is repeating what the learner has said with a different intonation to draw their attention to the mistake, i.e. You go yesterday?; or repeating the correct option: So you went yesterday, did you?
    This supposedly creates a safe and non-threatening environment in which the learner can practise without getting stressed out. Personally, I think a bit of different types of correction is needed, depending on the classroom situation, i.e. you're probably less likely to go for the overt one in a warmer. There is some evidence that suggests overt correction has much better effects on learners' progress.
    In my opinion, often students will just ignore the recast. And many of them really want to be corrected by the teacher.
    Any thoughts?
    Thanks for your comment, Gurmasi. Glad you enjoy the blog.

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