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Getting Fluent in a Second Language: Explained

Let’s think back to when you were 1 year old, then 2 years old, then 3, and then 4. Do you remember being 4? Even if you don’t, we’re sure the adults around you remember. You understood just about everything everyone said, and if you didn’t understand an idiom, you asked, and it was explained. Every word you learned, you watched people’s mouths on how to form the sounds. You did this for approximately 8 hours a day for 2 years until you started making the words. You started slowly, perhaps with the word ‘No’ or ‘Water’ or something else you wanted. 

How did you learn this first word? You learned it through context. You don’t remember it, but your mother or father probably asked you a hundred times, ‘Do you want water?’ or ‘Do you want juice?’ before you ever were able to say the word ‘water’ or ‘juice’. But, you were able to understand it and respond with your head: yes or no. And how did you learn about nodding? You learned the meaning in context. When your parents gave you the water, they were nodding ‘yes’, and when you didn’t get it, they were nodding ‘no’. 

Our brains, without our physically feeling it or purposely doing it, are storing these small encounters and categorizing them in our brains, tucking them away to use later, in order to survive and get what we want and need. Now, fast forward to being 15 years old and starting to learn a foreign language for the first time. Technically, it’s the second language you learned, but you don’t really remember learning the first one, right? If you did remember, then you would likely learn the second one much more quickly, because you’d realize it has to do with exposure to the language, learning in context, using the language to express your needs as much as possible, and nothing at all to do with grammar. 

Let’s focus on these points:

  • Exposure to the language
  • Learning in context
  • Using the language to express needs as much as possible
  • Nothing at all to do with grammar

EXPOSURE TO THE SECOND LANGUAGE

If every child in the world has a 100% success rate with their first language, then why do we learn our second language in the opposite manner? Why do we start with grammar rules and vocabulary lists, instead of watching stories, TV, listening to conversations, and letting it soak in? Well, because we’re adults, and we want to know right away what something means. We want to jump to the dictionary and look it up, and we want rules, lots of rules. We want to know why the ending changes from the first person singular to the third person plural. Even though we knew none of these things and did none of these things to learn our first language, we feel it is how we should learn our second. We make it academic, and in doing so, we actually completely take away the main component: exposure to the language. 

Conjugating verbs will most definitely help you understand the mechanics of a language, but it will not directly help you understand the spoken language or help you be able to speak it. Absolutely, a mixture of reading, writing, listening and speaking practice is key (if your goal is to be writing a lot in the language). But most people spend very little time practicing the language and stay in the safe space of reading or learning grammar rules. 

This is exposure, but it won’t be the same as if you HEARD something and had to SPEAK and RESPOND to someone. Now, THIS is an experience to be remembered. This brings us to our second point. 

LEARNING IN CONTEXT

Sure, the safety of a vocabulary list to memorize each week, is, well, safe. It’s easy. Of course, it takes time and devotion, but it’s not like watching TV or ordering food in a restaurant or trying to speak in your second language for an hour with your online native-speaking instructor. Watching life happening and listening to the words and sounds that people make while it is happening will teach you not only about how the language is truly spoken (as opposed to how you’ve been translating it in your head), but also the culture, the body movements of the people who speak that language, and how people react to various happenings. 

You can memorize grammar structures and conjugations, but you can internalize, like a native speaker, if you do more risky, or, otherwise known as, difficult activities and learn in context. Forcing yourself to watch TV in Spanish, for example, is torture if you’re a beginner. Heck, it’s torture if you’re even low intermediate, but allow your brain this time to categorize words and sounds, just like when you were a child. 

Learning in context also ensures that information truly sticks. You’ll remember a funny scene in a TV show much longer than you’ll remember a word on a vocabulary list. Learning in context allows you to internalize the language, and not remember it on the surface.

Watching TV and talking to people will also make sure that you hear the MOST common words used on an everyday basis. We actually only use a couple thousand words each day, for the most part, so why not learn those first? And make sure they stick in your memory forever.

USING THE LANGUAGE TO EXPRESS NEEDS AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE

As children, we don’t care what we look like and we don’t feel embarrassed about how we speak. As adults, however, we’re terrified of sounding silly when we speak, so in our second language, we basically become a mute until we’re a year or two into lessons, after we’ve memorized rules and read books for hundreds and hundreds of hours. But it should be the opposite. We should START with speaking, not wait a couple of years after reading and learning. 

Like children, we should listen for as much as possible, soaking in the language, letting our brain categorize words and sounds in context. Start by repeating what you hear from lesson one. Try to learn how to express what you need. Learn the most used words first, and think to yourself, ‘what do I need to be able to say today in my regular life?’ THAT’S what I want to learn in Spanish today! 

Also, putting yourself in situations where you have to speak, like working with a private tutor, is an excellent example of forcing yourself to talk. Sometimes, in my Japanese classes, I sit there for a whole 30 seconds, working out how to express myself in Japanese. The patient teacher waits for my brain to get there (just like children’s brains!) and eventually I find the words that will get close to what I want to say. But I very badly want to tell my story to the teacher, and so I slowly work through it, getting corrections in the end, but ultimately, very challenged. Every time I push my brain in this way, I am getting more fluent. Students MUST practice expressing what they want to say for hundreds of hours before they get to a basic fluency level, so start this from day 1. 

NOTHING AT ALL TO DO WITH GRAMMAR (But we love it so!)

When do we start learning grammar rules in school? 6th grade? At age 12? And before that time, what was happening? We didn’t speak for 12 years? Of course not. Now, are 12-year-olds fantastic writers? Not necessarily. They might spell some words wrong, or write took instead of taken for the present perfect. But for the most part, they speak the language pretty darn well. To be honest, we’re already at a very high level even at ages 5 and 6. And guess what, we never learned a grammar rule. So why do we speak so well? How did we learn grammar if we don’t even know it exists yet?

Because we repeat what we hear! We don’t create a new language; we just repeat what the TV says and what our parents say. If our parents say, ‘I did it’ to talk about something they did yesterday, then we will also say, ‘I did it.’ and not ‘I do it’ to talk about something we did yesterday. Parents are also always correcting their children, so they are tutoring them on how to speak correctly every minute of every day, with gentle corrections. Or the tactic of repeating the sentence again in the correct way so that the child hears the way it should be. We don’t need a grammar class to learn grammar if we speak with someone who speaks correctly. 

If you’re taking a conversation practice class, your instructor will constantly be taking notes in class and telling you ways to speak more correctly. Do you need to know WHY in order to speak correctly? Nope. If you have a desire to learn all of the grammar rules, we invite you to do so. But, if you want to get fluent, try not to get TOO caught up in remembering rules, and get more involved with PRACTICING those structures in real-life conversations. Or, learn the rules and put them into practice right away. 

Conclusion 

Getting fluent in a second language takes dedication, humility, hundreds of hours, and patience with yourself. Understand that it will not be quick. You have to put your ego aside for the greater goal and push forward. Make sure you are constantly asking yourself, “Did I speak with someone this week for at least an hour? Did I learn in context by watching a TV show or movie? Did I learn essential words that I’ll use every day that will help me get what I need and want? Did I learn a new grammar rule and put it into practice right away?” Focus on these activities, and you’ll be fluent in no time.

About the author

Micah Bellieu

Micah Bellieu is the Founder of Fluency Corp, providing language training globally for multilingual corporations, and TruFluency Kids, a Spanish immersion program for elementary children in Dallas, TX. She has acquired, through conversation and context, Spanish, French and Japanese. Next, she will be humbled by Russian.

By Micah Bellieu

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