So you want to learn a second language? Good. In my humble opinion, everyone should learn another language. But let me first say- it's not easy. In fact, it's really hard. But, it's also incredibly satisfying, fun and rewarding. And not to mention useful.
What is fluency?
Fluency- spoken or written with ease.
Able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily.
Flowing, as a stream.
Fluent is one big step above conversational; not only can you get by, you can communicate easily in all verb tenses and understand others 99% of the time.
I think many people throw around “fluent” and “I speak…” too loosely. Being able to order a cappuccino in Italy doesn't make you fluent in Italian. If you are fluent in a language you can express almost any feeling or thought without difficulty.
Here are 10 tips that can help you become fluent in a foreign language.
1. Learn as much as possible before you go abroad.
While this is contrary to most language-learning advice, I strongly think you should know as much of a language as possible before going abroad- that way you can best maximize your time spent in the foreign country actually becoming fluent and not just learning the basics. Learn boring things like verb conjugations before you leave so you can best use your time abroad conversing with native speakers and fine-tuning your grammar and vocabulary.
And once you're abroad, take language classes if you can afford them– I really enjoy mine and it keeps my focused on French on a near daily basis.
2. Immerse yourself as much as possible.
Immersion is key- the more immersed you are in a foreign language, the faster you learn. This is why living abroad is crucial to fluency.
But this doesn't mean you can't have other English-speaking friends when living abroad; just make sure to have several friends with whom you do language exchanges, or even better, with whom you solely speak your target language. (Or even practice your target language with your English-speaking friends! I do that all the time.)
I would advise learning your target language outside of a metropolis– i.e. choosing a small town in France rather than Paris. This is simply because in smaller towns you will have an easier time finding native speakers who either don't speak English or who won't pressure you to speak English.
This is obviously dependent on the language you're trying to learn- I had no trouble whatsoever practicing Spanish in Buenos Aires or Santiago but practicing French in Paris has been much more of a challenge.
3. Live with a host family.
This is a must for me. I have done home-stays in Ecuador, Argentina, Chile, Spain and France, and they have all been incredibly rewarding, fun and helpful. Also, you learn the language in a completely different way than you would in a classroom. When was the last time your language teacher taught you to say, “I'm going all in,” or “Dude, is that the girl you made out with on Friday?”
Living with a host family reminds you that the language you want to learn is so much more than a class- it's simply a way other people communicate.
Poker night with my host siblings and their friends
4. Carry around a notebook and pocket dictionary.
These two guys are my best friends, for serious.
When I first moved to France in October, I sort of assumed that because I was living with a host family I would start to “pick up the language.” Unfortunately, past the age of seven that's not really how it works. You will learn much faster by carrying around a notebook, writing words down, repeating them to yourself and then reviewing them later to further cement your vocabulary. Having a dictionary on hand at all times is great for learning new words on the fly.
And eavesdrop! Even though I'm not allowed to speak French with the girls I take care of, when they talk amongst each other I write down the words they say that I don't know and look them up later.
5. Use media in your target language.
Watching TV shows, movies and even reading magazines or blogs in your target language can be so beneficial- plus, you also learn lots about the country's culture.
I often watch French films in original version, but with French subtitles on- that way I will pick up more words as well as be able to write them down more easily.
I strongly recommend reading foreign language books in paperback so you can write in the margins and underline easily. I would also suggest reading Harry Potter in your target language, or another children's book you've basically memorized- that way the reading level is easy and enjoyable, and you already know what's going on.
And do what you love to do anyway, just in a foreign language. I have the same strategy as Christine of Almost Fearless- she does things she loves, like reading tabloids and cookbooks, but in Spanish. Check out her blog post for more information: Language learning hack: start with what you love.
6. Try a language exchange.
Language exchanges like Franglish are so helpful for getting in-depth conversation time with native speakers. Franglish is like linguistic speed-dating– you are paired with a French-speaking partner, and together you speak English for 7 minutes and then you speak French for 7 minutes. After your session you move to another table to chat with a new French-speaking partner.
It can be hard to meet native speakers when you're abroad, but websites like Couchsurfing, Totalingua and Conversation Exchange can help you connect. But don't forget to exercise caution- meet up in well-lit, public places, preferably during the day.
7. Make a serious effort to remember every word.
If you are lucky enough to have native speakers you want to help you learn, make an effort to remember everything they teach you (here's where that little notebook will help you!). If you forget what they say, their enthusiasm for your learning will quickly wane- no one wants to instruct a slow or lazy pupil.
And push yourself to speak- even if you're tired, even if it's 8 a.m., even if you literally have been speaking all day, even if you know you're messing up and it embarrasses you. Just keep talking.
8. Get a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks your target language.
Haha. No, but really. Having a native speaker who loves you enough to serve as your pocket dictionary, will talk to you for four hours upon hours every day and feels comfortable enough with you to correct your mistakes? Super helpful. The best way to learn a foreign language ever.
9. Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
This isn't your first language, remember? You're going to make mistakes- and that's fine. The only way to learn is to speak and have people correct you- and when they correct you, be grateful, not offended! In fact, whenever I start a conversation with a native speaker I politely ask him or her to feel free to correct me– it's the only way to improve.
9. Don't be afraid to be pushy when necessary.
This is a global world, meaning that everyone and their mother wants to practice their English even they don't speak it very well.
If someone vehemently insists on speaking to you in English, gently continue responding in their language. You're the one who made the effort to come to their country to learn their language, remember?
And this is a ruthless but effective trick I've learned in France- if someone refuses to stop barraging on in terrible English, I simply exaggerate my level of not understanding, complete with extraordinarily confused facial expressions.
“What did you say?” “Sorry?” “I really don't understand you at all.”
Then they will feel so awkward and uncomfortable that they revert back to their native language. I know that's a bitchy trick, but it really works. Don't let politeness prevent you from reaching your goal.
My best, Excuse me, quoi? faces. Also taking selfies is way harder than I remember from high school, sheesh.
10. And most importantly, don't give up. You can do this.
Maybe the cashier at McDonald's makes fun of your accent, or your boyfriend's stepmother says, “Your parents are really wasting their money on having you study here because you've learned almost nothing.”
You know what? Haters gon' hate. Keep working. And for the record, everyone can learn a foreign language- I promise.
Things that don't work for me:
I really don't like computer programs such as Rosetta Stone- it's just too far removed from the actual language.
Apps that can help you learn:
Google Translate– I obviously use this for translations (warning- it's not always reliable so beware!)
TuneIn radio– I use this to listen to the radio in French while in France.
Spanish Dict – Spanishdict.com is an amazing Spanish-English dictionary website that also has a really helpful app. There should be Spanish Dict in every language!
Books that can help you learn:
501 Spanish Verbs This book is AMAZING. All of the words are conjugated for you, so you can reference any verb and learn exactly how to use it. This series is also available in Latin, Hebrew, Italian, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, English and Japanese.
Larousse Pocket Dictionary I always carry French-English English-French pocket dictionary around with me. I even have a French-Spanish one!
The Essential Neruda: Selected Poems (Bilingual Edition) Along with Harry Potter, I love reading bilingual editions of poetry books- it's wonderful to have the translation right there on the other page.
So what makes you an expert anyway?
I'm not an expert at all actually. I'm just a normal girl from Michigan who was extremely determined to become fluent in French and Spanish.
At present I would say I am fluent in Spanish and conversational in French– in Spanish I can express myself almost to the full ability I can in English, I am familiar and comfortable with all 15 verb tenses and while I lack super-specific knowledge (I don't know for example, how to say gardening shears or windshield wipers) I can usually work around any missing vocabulary by phrasing my sentence in another way.
I am conversational in French because while I know about 7 tenses, I sometimes use them incorrectly. I make very basic mistakes and don't always understand other people, and there are certain sounds in French that I have so much trouble pronouncing that sometimes other people misunderstand me. (The difference between tous and partout is the bane of my existence.) Nonetheless I have no problem getting around, and speak well enough to argue with the concierge at a hotel or make small-talk at a house party.
Hanging out with my host sister in Spain back in 2007.
Have you ever learned a foreign language fluently? What are some of your tricks and tips?
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