How I Gained Fluency in a Second Language
I love studying languages. But it was not until reaching adulthood that I felt comfortable navigating life in a language other than English. Below are a few of the things that were not obvious to me from the get-go, but that helped me to make to jump to fluency. I hope they help you, too.
Make It a Lifestyle
For most of us, becoming fluent in a new language is a long-term project. Since you’re going to be in this thing for the foreseeable future, you may as well incorporate the language you’re learning into everyday life. Even when you’re not hitting the books and doing the hard work of vocab memorization and grammar comprehension, you should be thinking about your language frequently. Try thinking to yourself in the language. Study the names of important cities and people who influenced the nation(s) where your language is spoken. Go to restaurants where you can practice saying the names of dishes in your language.
I cannot overemphasize the commitment that learning a whole new language takes. Listen to movies in the language. (It is fine if you have to do so with English subtitles. Simply familiarizing yourself with the sounds is important.) Practice talking to yourself in the language. (If you live with roommates, you’ll likely want to warn them first.) Listen to music and radio in the language. It doesn’t matter if you cannot understand anything at first. If you hear any words you recognize, pat yourself on the back — that is a breakthrough!
The Learning Does Not End With Class
This is crucial. I know of some people who claim to have been able to pick up a language simply by watching foreign movies or using Duolingo. Whether these people are geniuses or lying, I don’t know. But I think it is safe to say that for most of us, learning a new language does not come from just one method of exposure. At least for myself, learning a language took a lot more than attending class a few times a week. Watching foreign movies and using Duolingo can be great supplements, though. The internet is also your friend. (Just be wary of Google Translate.) When I was studying French, ThoughtCo was a huge help. I also still use WordReference to this day.
Accept That You May Never “Feel” Fluent
Language fluency is a strange thing. When I tell people I studied French in college, it is often followed by two variations of the same question. First, I am asked,
“So you speak French?”
Then I am asked,
“So are you fluent?”
Honestly, I don’t really see a difference. Fluency is hard to measure because language is so fluid. Yes, according to government standards I am fluent. But I know there are slang expressions being used on the streets of Paris that I’ve never heard. I’d expect that to be the same with English if I were to visit an anglophone region I was not familiar with. When studying Japanese, I was shocked to discover that even my teacher, a professional educator, and native speaker, did not know every single Kanji character. Later I came to discover that this is pretty common in Japan.
I know there is always going to be a native speaker with stronger French than me. That is okay. If I go somewhere other than France, like Sénégal, the French is going to be less familiar than the French I learned in school. But that is only logical — I was largely only taught Parisian French. (I do wish more French programs offered more than Parisian French but that is another topic for another post.)
Dispel the myth that you need to go to the country
While traveling to a place where you can immerse yourself in the language you are studying is certainly helpful, it is not the only way. In school, I knew plenty of people who had never been to a Francophone country, whose French was superior to mine.
There are plenty of alternatives that can work just as well in place of studying abroad. If you live in or near a city, look for local clubs and organizations. Check out Meetup.com — I found several French-speaking groups this way. Consulates, and universities that have a department dedicated to your language can also be a great starting point.
If you do not live somewhere that offers such institutions, the world wide web can also work. Free apps like HelloTalk and websites like italki set you up with language exchange partners who you can skype and text in your respective languages. Making friends with native speakers is fun and can help you improve dramatically.
But If You Have The Opportunity To Study Abroad…Do It
On the other hand, if travel is available to you, I highly recommend it. Of course, it is not necessary, however, it can help speed up the process and teach you cultural nuances that may be hard — not impossible — to learn in your home country.
Get Over The Fear of Speaking
You are going to make mistakes. That is a good thing. I’d argue that making errors is imperative to learn any new language. Practicing speaking will test important skills, like recall and pronunciation. Over time, it will also strengthen your confidence.
Dispel the Myth That Some Are Good At Language and Others Are Not
It just isn’t that black and white. I am living proof that not having a “language gene” is not the be-all and end-all. I will tell you why: I have absolutely sucked at every language I’ve ever tried to learn in the early stages. Maybe some people have a natural disposition for learning languages. In my experience, it is not necessary. As I’ve come to see it, language learning has a huge learning curve at the beginning. This is followed by several slightly less steep but still steep learning curves. Still, nothing is like getting over that first slope.
Read Books in that language…kids’ books count
This can be a dreadfully frustrating and boring exercise to do as a beginner. You may find yourself spending so much time looking up words you don’t recognize that following any kind of plot becomes an afterthought. That is totally fine. In earlier stages don’t worry about following the story — if you can, that’s awesome but I’d argue that it is secondary to learning any new vocabulary and grammar structures. Getting through one book can increase your vocabulary drastically.
Celebrate the Small Accomplishments
Learning a new language is often seen as one achievement, but really it is just a bunch of super small accomplishments. I remember when I was studying Mandarin and I walked by a Chinese butcher in San Francisco and I was able to recognize the character for “meat.” This small feat made me feel invincible, at least for the afternoon.
Keep Going…Especially When You Have Discouraging Days
The first time I went to Paris, I was shocked at how much harder it was to understand French natives who weren’t accustomed to speaking slowly and clearly to language learners, like my teachers. I feared I had digressed. Of course, the reality was that I had been thrown into a foreign environment and coming up against new challenges that come with that.
A few years later when I was living in Lyon, France, I experienced highs and lows. Sometimes I would go out and have no problem keeping up with the locals. But there were several days when I could hardly remember the crucial difference between a Chausson aux Pommes and Pain aux Raisins. It is normal and okay to burnout now and then when immersing yourself. These days are not indicative of your overall abilities. It is most important that you just keep practicing.
Are you fluent in another language? When and how did you learn? If you have insights into the process, I would love to hear. And if you are studying, I would love to hear how it is going. Drop me a line anytime at, firstname.lastname@example.org