The quick answer on how to achieve fluency in a language is that it is a matter of motivation, of motivating oneself. Having seen a lof ot language learners, I am convinced that motivated learners achieve fluency, and unmotivated learners don’t.
I was recently approached by a person who is involved in teaching English to immigrants in the US. He asked me for advice on how to prepare learning material for them, sort of like graded readers. I answered that there was an abundance of such material available. Probably if he could influence the attitude or motivation of these learners he would help them more than by creating a new series of textbooks or readers.
Motivation is the driver of success in language learning. Motivation is the magic ingredient for success in any learner’s quest for fluency. I was reminded of the recent TED video by Scott Geller, “The Psychology of Self-Motivation.” I don’t agree with all of it, but it is worth watching. It is highly relevant to the pursuit of fluency in a foreign language. In particular, the three questions that are asked in the video.
Achieve Fluency – Can I do it?
If the answer to this question is no, then you are best to stop trying. If you don’t believe that you can reach the destination in your journey, why start? On the other hand if you believe you can become fluent, you are well on your way to achieving fluency.
if you have never learned a foreign language, you may not have the confidence that you are a competent language learner, that you can do it, that you can achieve fluency. I know that I didn’t really believe I could do it, over 50 years ago, until I did it in French. Thereafter I have never doubted my ability to learn another language and achieve fluency.
Unfortunately it is only possible to acquire this sense of confidence after having learned at least one language. Thereafter, the more languages you learn, the more competent, and therefore the more confident you become. I am a better language learner at age 70 then I was at age 16 because I have done it so many times.
Image by Steven Depolo
I firmly believe that we all have the innate ability to learn foreign languages. We just need to believe in ourselves, and stay with the process. We just need to develop new habits and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.
There is a condition. Just as with embarking on a journey, when you decide to learn a language, you accept responsibility for reaching your target. In other words you have to take charge. You have to become and an autonomous learner.
Will it work?
Will the learning method that you are using enable you to achieve your goal? If you want to travel somewhere, you have to be confident that the mode of transportation you are using will take you to the destination. By the same token you have to believe in the learning strategy that you have chosen. if you believe that the learning method you are using doesn’t work, then you should change that method.
If you don’t believe in the method you’re using, it will not work for you. If you believe in the method, you are more likely to put in the time and effort necessary for success and your belief in the process will actually increase the effectiveness of the method. I referred to this as the placebo effect in in a recent a video.
In my view, the most effective learning strategy is one devoted to massive input, listening and reading, using interesting content you have chosen. Of course we need start with beginner material that may not be so interesting, but we can move to authentic and interesting material surprisingly quickly using tools like LingQ.
This means that you seek first to acquire a large vocabulary and a high level of comprehension as the base upon which to build other language skills. I am convinced of the effectiveness of this approach both from my own experience and from reading research on the subject of language acquisition. The fact that this approach has worked for me in the acquisition of over a dozen languages, has only reinforced my belief in this approach. I know that reading interesting language content on my iPad, or listening to an interesting audio book while walking my dog, or driving, is not only enjoyable but constantly improving my language skills.
If we are familiar with the language, with the way of thinking of the new culture, and if we have lots of words, the ability to express ourselves naturally and clearly in the new language can easily develop. On the other hand, starting with a concern about grammar and hoping to speak meaningfully when we have trouble understanding what people are saying, seems like putting the cart before the horse.
There are many people, however, who believe that we should speak from day 1. If they believe in this approach and enjoy it, and if they stay with it, I am sure it works for them. Make sure you find a method that you believe in and one that you find enjoyable, so that you answer “yes” to the question, “will it work?”
Is it worth it?
Do we want to learn the language? Do we like the language? Do we like to be with people of that language group? Do we want to access some aspect of that culture, such as books, movies, music etc.? Do we want to travel to the country where the language is spoken? Do we need the language for our work or to communicate with friends or loved ones? The more times we answer “yes” to these questions the stronger our motivation will be.
Image by Alexandre Dulaunoy
Aside from these obvious advantages of being able to communicate in another language, learning a language is a healthy habit. Research has shown that learning and speaking another language is good for our brains, strengthens our cognitive skills, keeps us young, and helps stave off dementia when we are older.
Language learning requires a commitment, and therefore it is important that we feel the effort is worth it. When I start out in a language, I struggle with language content that is not very interesting, and yet difficult to understand. Usually within a few months I can access content of interest to me, but which is still difficult, certainly more difficult than reading in my own language. When I start to speak in the language I struggle to understand and to find the words I want. Is this self-inflicted pain really worth it?
For me it is. I know that eventually I will be able to enjoy books, movies, and friendships in the language. I feel fortunate to be able to speak 15 languages. I can’t begin to describe the enjoyment and benefit that the ability to communicate in each of my languages has given me. My only regret is that I don’t have the time to focus more on each one of them. Each language is a window to a new world, a new expression of what it is to be a human being.
So if you want to become fluent in a language but your motivation is flagging, ask yourself these three questions. If the answer to all three is “yes” , you are on your way. If the answer is no to any of them, you should either abandon the goal of fluency, or else try find new reasons to say “yes”. It is all a matter of the mind over the brain.