Today I’m going to share the most important decision I have ever made in learning languages.
This choice changed me from a hopeless “I’m not talented with languages” person to eventually become the polyglot that I am today. The change happened in one day; November 1st, 2003.
If it wasn’t for that one decision I would have given up with my first foreign language, and all later ones, and all of the wonderful experiences of the last 6 years wouldn’t have been possible. Let me explain…
[Edit: For a much more detailed explanation of how I learn languages quickly, check out the Language Hacking Guide]
Months of work and still not speaking
I had spent almost 6 months in Spain (in Valencia); I loved the people, the fiestas, and life in general there. I wanted to stay longer, and I really wanted to speak Spanish.
I was trying so hard! I was studying every day, I even tried expensive courses for a short time, and I was speaking it every chance I got; in the supermarket, at parties with strangers I met, after giving an English class to a child I tried conversing with the parents, etc.
But I still couldn’t actually speak Spanish.
I was just struggling with repeating the same words and phrases over and over. I didn’t get it! I really wanted it; I was motivated! I was working hard. Surely after 6 months I should have been speaking much better than I already was?
I would go to my English speaking friends, and my Spanish friends with good English, because I could properly express myself with them and let off some steam. I would say how maybe Spanish is just too hard for me. Other foreigners were also having the same problem, and yet a few others were so easily picking up the language with apparently little work. [Sigh] Maybe we’re just not the kind of people who will ever pick up languages quickly…
Then I realized something! In a great Eureka moment,
I saw both the problem, and the solution. It’s so obvious and yet people still don’t actually get it…
Stop speaking English!!
This may seem like a pointless statement to make when you live in the country already, but I have seen the same pattern hundreds of times and I am seeing it once again here in Prague.
Expats hang out with other English speaking expats and complain about how hard the local language is, or talk about life in general in English. They chat to their boyfriend/girlfriend/friends in English. All of the local friends they have also talk to them in English. They only actually use the local language when they have to; English is actually the language they socialise and relax in most of the time.
I have met some English speakers who have lived in Prague for up to TEN years, and after just a few weeks I already speak better Czech than them!! This does NOT make me feel smart; it makes me feel sad and frustrated for them! And I will meet more people like this in other travels who will look at me like I just have some special gene for languages or something. (Let me say again, that I did horrible in languages in school, and when I was 20 years old, the only language that I spoke was English; up until this crucial decision I was the Average Frustrated Learner).
These people that I keep meeting don’t realize that their English speaking social circle is protecting them from ever speaking the local language. They already have enough of the local language to get by, so why would they need more?
MY PLAN: A very difficult and frustrating month in exchange for the best years of my life