How Can You Become Fluent in a Foreign Language?
The quick answer on how to become fluent in a foreign language is that it is a matter of motivation. Having seen a lot of language learners, I am convinced that motivated learners achieve fluency, and unmotivated learners don’t.
Motivation is the driver of success in language learning; the magic ingredient in any learner’s quest for fluency. The TED video by Scott Geller, “The Psychology of Self-Motivation” is highly relevant to the pursuit of fluency in a foreign language. In particular, the three questions that are asked in the video.
Can I become fluent in a foreign language?
If your 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 in a foreign language, 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 achieve fluency. I know that I didn’t really believe I could do it over 50 years ago, until I did it in French. I have never doubted my ability to learn another language since then.
Unfortunately it is only possible to acquire this sense of confidence after having learned at least one language. Then the more languages you learn, the more competent and confident you become. I am a better language learner at age 74 than I was at age 16 because I have done it so many times.
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 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.
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 to start with beginner material that may not be so interesting, but we can move to authentic and interesting material surprisingly quickly.
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 of learning over a dozen languages and from reading research on language acquisition. I know that reading interesting language content on my iPad, or listening to an interesting audio book while walking my dog is not only enjoyable but constantly improves my language skills.
If we are familiar with the language, with the way of thinking of the new culture, and if we learn 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 is putting the cart before the horse.
There are many people, however, who believe that we should speak from day one. 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.
Is it worth it?
Do you want to become fluent in a foreign language? Do you like the language? Do you like to be with people of that language group? Do you want to access some aspect of that culture, such as books, movies, music etc.? Do you want to travel to the country where the language is spoken? Do you need the language for our work or to communicate with friends or loved ones? The more times you answer “yes” to these questions, the stronger your motivation will be.
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 to become fluent in a foreign language 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, which is still 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 20 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.