Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Benny the Irish polyglot of Fluent in 3 months.
When I was 21 years old, the only language I spoke was English. I had done quite poorly in languages in school and believed that I was too untalented and even too ‘old’ to consider ever speaking a foreign language, even basically.
Now seven years later I speak eight languages fluently and can get by quite well in several others. In my day-to-day life I almost never speak English and my travels and scope of friendships have been greatly enriched because of this.
How I reached this stage was not by studying a lot or investing thousands in software or courses. It was by applying the simple principles outlined here.
Having the right learning approach
What mostly surprises people is my confidence that anyone can reach a high level of fluency in a language in just a few months. Many of us will have studied a language for years in school and are barely able to string a sentence together, so this idea might sound nothing short of arrogant.
However, considering what you are actually doing in school; a couple of hours of theory, using the language unnaturally for exam purposes, and some half-interested homework – this barely adds up to a few weeks of real work even over half a decade.
After just two months living in Budapest, with no previous exposure to the language, I was ready to be interviewed entirely in Hungarian on video. I am not smarter or more talented than anyone else who might attempt this, but I am much more committed and serious about reaching my goals.
You don’t have to devote your life to the language, but you must invest at least an hour a day, ideally more, which involves focused use of the language.
Casual interest can only get you so far – if you just ‘want’ to speak a language, that gives you no edge. Who wouldn’t want that? To make real progress, that
want has to become a need.
With focus and your full attention you can learn much quicker
And there is only one way the language will become a true necessity: you need to start speaking it with other people, now.
Stop learning the language, and start speaking it!
If I had to summarize what definitely separates those who fail in attempts to reach conversational fluency and those who succeed, based on my experience of meeting thousands of language learners, it is simply the fact that the latter group actually use the language. Not for exams, not for listening to podcasts or reading, but to communicate with human beings.
If your goal is to be able to read perfectly or understand the radio perfectly, then lots of reading and listening will be precisely what you need.
However, to speak well, you need to speak often! You can’t avoid this, it’s kind of the whole point!
Seriously, stop studying the target language so much! A language can’t be treated like a subject in school such as history or biology; in the real world you cannot ‘fail’ when you make a certain number of mistakes. Other people are very helpful when you are genuinely trying to speak with them.
People told me that in Berlin I would find it hard to convince Germans to not speak English to me all the time, but even when I was initially struggling they would be very helpful and patient with me as I spoke. They could see that I was serious about speaking their language and rewarded me for my efforts.