Four steps to fluency

I have been flirting with different languages since the day I was born. I grew up in a French-speaking household in Northern Ontario. My first language was French, but as I grew up in the English part of Canada, I am now substantially better at English. Growing up, it did not take long for me to realize that I would have to learn English if I ever wanted to have any friends. 

I struggled to learn English; my brother understood it quickly while I was put in special education. It didn’t help; I always had friends proofreading my papers throughout high school. 

Even though I struggled, I knew there would be many advantages to speaking English. Bilingualism in Canada is strongly correlated with Job opportunities. I knew that speaking multiple languages would open up entire worlds to me – so I persisted. You can get to know new and exciting people purely because you can communicate with them.

I saw how beneficial knowing two languages was and wanted to learn another, that other had been Spanish in university. At the time, I periodically visited the Caribbeans and wished to communicate with the locals better. Then, as my travels got more global, I began to study German with the dream of obtaining my master’s degree in Germany. 

My German got pretty good, but circumstances *cough* COVID *cough* changed my life trajectory and made me give up the dream. Now I am studying Czech to speak with my girlfriend’s family. After close to two years, I can finally have minor conversations with them. 

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My language learning process

Even though I have been experimenting with languages as far back as I can remember. It wasn’t until recently that I began to focus more on how to learn them. I now know that apps and books are good, but I have found that experimenting is better. 

Some things I have tried have taken my language learning from linear to exponential. In contrast, others have proved useless to me. 

  • I was taught English through school and exposure.
  • I studied Spanish and German using Rosetta Stone
  • I have learned Czech through experimenting with Duolingo and group classes.

Rosetta Stone is the perfect application for a lazy learner. I say that because all you need to do is dedicate the time to do what the application tells you. You will eventually speak your target language. Sadly, the languages offered by Rosetta Stone remain pretty limited, which is what forced me to learn to love Duolingo.

Learning a language by translation is not great, but I have adapted my learning method to complement Duolingo. The app is perfect for introducing new words and providing sample sentences. Where it lacks is grammar and pronunciation – at least for Czech.

Instead of explaining the grammar, they make it intuitive, which can be challenging when dealing with subtle grammatical rules. Therefore, I began taking a Czech class to complement the words I learned through Duolingo and provide me with a non-robotic version of the language. 

The combination provides me with an understanding of the grammar from the course and a rapidly expanding vocabulary through self-study, which has helped me improve my language skills quickly. 

Learning a language takes time and dedication, but you will reach your language goals if you follow the steps below. It is possible to learn a language in three months but don’t give up if you haven’t reached your goal within a predetermined time. The key is to keep progressing; progress can be misleadingly slow. You feel that you have learned nothing, then suddenly you are having a conversation in that language – that is what learning a language is like. 

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The Four Steps

  1. Start With Why
  2. Make it a routine
  3. Be determined
  4. maintain

1. Start With Why – Strengthen your resolve

There are two reasons why I wanted to share my language journey with you. The first was to show you that I always had a reason to learn the languages. The second was for you to see that when that reason disappears, so does the desire to learn the language.

Learning a language is hard work, but it becomes the gift that keeps giving when you reach a conversational level. You can never know where your tongue can come in handy.

Sometimes, a kind stranger at the supermarket makes you feel a sense of community. Other times it’s the satisfaction of helping someone understand something or making someone feel at home by allowing them to speak their language. 

Regardless of what gives you the warm and fuzzy feeling, being able to use your language will make you happy. To make sure that you continue to progress even when it gets hard, you must have a strong reason why you want to learn that language. 

Humans are driven by three things: food, sex and power. I talked about the negatives of these in the fallacy of consumerism. Still, they can also be used to motivate you. Suppose you manage to wrap your reason in one of these three powerful forces. In that case, one of two things will happen: you will learn your language, or the thing you tied it to will no longer matter to you. 

When learning Spanish, I wanted the ability to order food with confidence in the Caribbean’s [food]. When studying German, I wanted the privilege of studying at a German university [power]. But primarily, my drive to learn languages has been driven by love [sex].

The last two languages I have tried to learn were tied to my relationship status. When I was dating an Israeli, I was learning Hebrew. As soon as that relationship ended, so did my Hebrew studies. Similarly, now that I am dating a Czech girl, I am studying her language. Her family can only speak Czech, so I have no choice but to learn the language.

Family is important to me, so I have dedicated some time every day to learning their language for the past two years. While in New Zealand, I was studying Half-heartedly because meeting them was a distant thought. Now that circumstances have changed and I visit them every weekend, my learning has gone from linear to exponential. Whereas I used to learn maybe a word or two a week, I now learn that daily. As my reasons have gotten more robust, so did my resolve. 

Learning another language can help you stave off dementia, so it is a tremendous mental habit for longevity to have. That is an excellent reason to learn a language, but it can also be tagged onto your other reason. 

2. Making it a routine

Stacking your reasons for learning a language will drastically increase how motivated you are to learn that language. And the best way to be motivated is to do it – plan your process and stick to it. 

Incorporating your language learning into your morning or evening routine will ensure that you never forget to study. I do it as part of my evening routine, as research has shown that the best time to learn is shortly before sleep. By having the language tasks as part of my evening routine, I optimize my brain’s ability to assimilate what I have learned. 

As I am attempting to live the polyglot life, this is what my evening routine looks like:

Once learning a language becomes a habit, all you need to do is wait. The more you know, the better you will become at learning, and the compound effect will take hold, increasing the rate at which you can learn. 

If you want help developing your process, reach out to me either by email or in the comment section below. Once you have created it, though, you must stick with it.

3. Be dedicated – practice patience 

Anyone can learn a language; it simply takes patience and discipline. I have put the time into Czech and German. As a result of my dedication, I have reached a conversational level in both languages. 

Tomas M. Sterner wrote in The Practicing mind:

“The problem with patience and discipline is that developing each of them requires both of them.”

To have a fulfilling life under my circumstances, I don’t choose but to learn these languages. If you consider learning a language essential – as it must be if you are reading this – then find a way to make learning it a habit. 

The easiest way to make it a habit is to make it necessary, and to do that, you must immerse yourself in that language. Living in a technological age has made it easier than ever to immerse yourself in a language. Sure, you can still travel to foreign countries and live there for a while, or you can join online communities. 

Many applications such as Tandem are free and help you find native speakers to practice with – it will even help you find them locally, but you need to pay for that. Alternatively, you can immerse yourself by joining a class or taking private lessons. 

The main benefit of group classes – aside from the price – is that you can make friends that also want to learn your language. My German class in Germany was full of foreigners who did not all speak English. As a result, we could only communicate together in German. 

As we were all at the same level of conversation, we felt very comfortable together and began having dinner parties. These were a fun way to practice German. You will find it much easier to dedicate time to learning your language when you make it fun. You can make it fun simply by making it social or watching television in your target language. 

I love watching television shows on Netflix, but I only watch them conditionally. For my Netflix time to be constructive, it must be either in a foreign language or a social activity. By only ever watching Netflix in French or German, I have learned to associate those languages with fun and relaxation.

Another powerful technique to ensure you follow your language learning process is to visualize yourself speaking that language. Imagine conversations that could happen or people that you could talk to in that language. 

When learning a new language, you create a new version of yourself, and you get to decide who that person is. Have fun with it but don’t forget that as your language skills increase, you will need to dedicate time to maintaining that language.

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4. Maintaining your language 

As a child, I laughed when my aunts and uncles told me to be careful or I would lose my french. I naively thought: “I am perfectly fluent; how could I possibly forget how to speak french.” It is a lot harder to hold onto it than lose it. Your level of fluency is irrelevant if you don’t use them for an extended period. 

Interestingly, the degradation seems predictable; I have lost a lot more french grammar than words. Most words, particularly those with a physical representation or commonly used, are seared into my brain – the rest is at the mercy of the forgetting curve

It is so important to continually practise even when you become fluent. The stronger your reason to speak that language, the easier it will be for you to find time to practice it.

When getting started, you will find that speaking a second language is exhausting. Your brain is working overtime to understand and generate speech from a limited vocabulary. It is essential to accept this and not overdo it. It will become easier for you to speak that language and have deeper conversations as you keep practicing. 

P.S. Comment below which language(s) you have tried to learn and why. Maybe it will help someone find their own reasons. If you like this type of content, subscribe to my newsletter below and have it sent directly to your mailbox. 

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