THE ART OF APPROACHING A LANGUAGE
Have you ever happened to be listening to a baby speaking for the first time? They often make many errors and exaggerate the sounds, trying to get the patterns of their first language. It is very fascinating to observe and analyze newborns learning a language, because they do it in such a natural way, that allows them to master the language without even knowing consciously what is going on in their mouth. They are assimilating the chunks, the grammar, and the structure of the language. For several months and years before they start speaking fluently, babies absorb the language because they are massively exposed to it: their whole world revolves around communication, and eventually, they start imitating the sounds and the words they hear being repeated over and over in the everyday life. Many people argue that it is possible to learn a language the way that a baby does. The question I want to address today is: can we actually do that?
It is clear that our brain does not work the same as a baby’s one: after a certain age, it becomes harder for us to assimilate the sounds and patterns of a language as easily as a baby does. However, does this mean that there is no way we can master one? Having seen and interacted with several people that have done so with their second or third language, my answer is no: it is possible for us to do that. It takes work to get to a near-native level, but it is possible. The problem of many people is that, despite the fact they might know that they can get there, they have no idea how to do that or where to start. The truth is that eventually, they stop learning because they give up.
There are essentially two main reasons why people give up learning a language: the first one is that they feel like they are not progressing as much as they hoped they would: they put a lot of effort into their studies, however, they do not seem to see results. The second main reason is that they do not see getting fluent as a plausible goal, they do not believe they will get there, not even from the start: this does not give them the motivation they need to keep studying every day. A lot of you are now probably wondering how to prevent this: we have been talking about the illness, but what about the medicine?
The concept that lays behind the solution is actually pretty simple, and it all comes down to two things: engagement and consistency. Imagine you decided to go to the gym, setting yourself a schedule of more than five hours a day, with the goal of being in shape in a very short amount of time. For how much do you think you could handle that? Unless you had all the time in the world and the willingness to spend all your day at the gym, I bet it would not last more than a few weeks. As going to the gym, learning a language cannot just last a few weeks in order for you to get the results you expect, although you will be able to notice some progress along the way, step by step before waking up one day and be fluent. Actually, if you think about it, training at the gym, as well as learning and practicing a language, does not have an expiration date: if you do not want to lose your shape you will need to keep practicing consistently. That is why a language, like a diet, or fitness, needs to become a lifestyle if you want to retain it, so that it will follow you everywhere. To be consistent, you need to have a flexible schedule, that allows you to work almost every day but without burning out: you do not have to do miracles, thirty minutes a day will be enough if you do them right!
Now that we have addressed consistency, let us talk about engagement: Many people view the process of learning a language as a very complicated and difficult path. This could be because they have no idea what to do or where to start, or maybe just because taking endless courses and studying hours on exercises and grammar books has not worked out quite well for them. The problem here is the whole approach to language learning itself: at the end of the day, you know a language when you can communicate with people and you can perfectly understand them, as simple as that. Then why does it seem so complicated to get there? Because most of the time, people are not approaching the language as if they had that goal in mind. It is true that books and simplified audiobooks can be helpful, they can be a great start to get a grasp of the language. However, when you get an overall knowledge of the basis of it, you will not stay engaged by working on a scholastic-based material, nor it will be effective for you to get to an advanced level. The thing is you are not a beginner anymore, and you should not be studying as one.
To understand and speak a language in a fluent way you need to get massive exposure to it. What better way to do this than watching videos, movies, and books YOU like in the target language? It could be anything on Youtube, Netflix, DisneyPlus, and many other platforms. Even social media can be extremely helpful if you start surrounding yourself with news, accounts, and people that speak the language. The point is: languages do not have to be boring. They can be fun, and they must be if you want to be consistent and learn successfully. Think about it as a way to escape from your daily routine: that moment in the day when you turn on your laptop and start reading, writing, watching something that gets you so really engaged, and becomes a habit.
While watching and getting exposed to content you like is fundamental for you to learn a language naturally while being consistent, it is not enough for you to become fluent confident. To get there, you will need production other than simple listening: in brief, elaborating your thoughts through spoken and written words is essential. Here are my tips for you to do that: first of all, keep a journal. It is a way to reflect and elaborate your thoughts (including what you have learned) and to put them in the context you decide. This helps you get used to the language and slowly you will notice you will start thinking in the language.
Let us move to the spoken practice: it might be the case that you are not living in the country where the language you are learning is spoken. If you think that is going to prevent you from becoming fluent in the language, you are mistaken. There is a simple, great tool you can use to boost your vocabulary, fluency in speaking, and listening skills: I am referring to the imitation technique. All you need to do is to take any video you want, start watching it and repeat everything after the person that speaks. Of course, in the beginning, it is not going to be easy, but with time you will get significantly better, and this will allow you not only to listen more carefully to the words you hear, therefore improving your listening skills, but you will also pick up many words from the context while repeating will make you used to speak and practice the language aloud. Finally, the last, but not least tip I am going to give you to improve your speaking skills is to put yourself in front of a mirror or a camera, and start talking to yourself, about any topic you want. It does not matter if you are not interacting with another person, all it matters is that you are reproducing the sounds and the patterns of the language through your words.
Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve once said: “It is astonishing how much enjoyment one can get out of a language that one understands imperfectly”. With those words, Lanneau was unfolding the “secret” of language learning: enjoyment. It is time people realize it is through enjoyment that big achievements are made, books are written, prizes are won. And it is with this same element that they should approach their journey that will slowly, but inevitably, get them to fluency.