The Secret Trait Shared by Effective Second Language Learners
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! While there are many second language strategies, there are few that compare with the proper weaponization of one's own curiosity. Proper utilization of your natural curiosity will take you far in any field of study, language learning is no exception to this rule. Endeavoring to learn a foreign language is difficult enough, but without curiosity it becomes that much more difficult.
Asking questions is great, but asking the right questions is better. When you really pay attention to the language you are learning, you will notice idiosyncrasies in the grammar structure and the vocabulary words. Asking why in those scenarios will prove beneficial irrespective of your learning style. Though a certain amount of bravery is required to employ this specific strategy.
Bravery in the face of harsh self evaluation
At the end of the day, you will inevitably be your own harshest critic. Even though this is expected, it can still be quite the battle and that is why so many people find themselves saying, "I can read and understand the language, but I can't speak". If that sounds like something you have said before, then there are some things you should know.
1. People really do not care how you sound
Yes, people will make fun of your accent. This will always happen. It does not matter if you are flawless, make one slip and you will be questioned and made fun of for the slip up. I was mocked relentlessly for my accent for a long time. Then, one day, something strange happens. One day, the people mocking you realize that you communicate far better in their language than they communicate in yours. Suddenly it's not so embarrassing that you went through some growing pains.
Most students focus on perfection over progress and that can cause fluency to come far slower than it may otherwise. When you are speaking sentences every day and learning new phrases that you will be able to rely on, irrespective of how many mistakes you are making, your skills will develop far faster than if you stick to simply reading and listening to your target language. Not only that, but you will find that the more you speak the more people are willing to speak to you.
2. The more effort you put in the more help you will receive
People are phenomenal at recognizing when someone is putting in genuine effort. When you are working on a new language, one of the most important things you can do is make concerted efforts in front of native speakers who might be able to help you. Over time you will develop your own communication strategies, but when you are getting started, the best thing you can do is come with good questions.
When you can ask a technical question in your target language, you will find people are excited to help you and explain the correct usage, if they can. If you really struggle with speaking to people, the best way to be interesting is to be interested. Something many language teachers lack is genuine interest in the things about which their students care.
3. Curiosity is interesting
For those who are learning a new language without the intention of speaking to people, this is less relevant. However, if you intend to travel and make friends and spend time immersed in the world in which your target language is spoken, then being genuinely curious about the lives of others is imperative. The ability to recall small details about the things that people share with you over time and continuing conversations within the same context is proof that your language skills have developed well.
Most people want to help you in one way or another, but if they don't know what you struggle with they will have a difficult time sharing their knowledge. By bringing questions relevant to the difficulties you are facing you not only ensure you will learn something, you also give the person a way to be helpful. Everyone wants to feel useful and something most people overlook is that many native speakers also struggle with the rules of their native language.
When someone succeeds at teaching you something about their language, they often will want to help more. With that in mind, it is worthwhile to have more than one question in mind, just in case you run into a generous soul who wants to help you to fluency. That is what happened to me when I was learning French. One of my closest friends to this date taught me about the French counting system and the technical reasons for its intricacies. From there we spoke of politics, school, life, and much more, even though all I did was make mistake after mistake.
Being interested in his life, in his perspective, and in the things he found interesting led to him taking an interest in my life, my perspective, and the things I find important. It does not have to start out as something big. All that is necessary is genuine curiosity and a person who knows enough about their native language to guide you along and answer your questions. It never hurts to share a bit of what you are interested in as well. Remember, real life is not school.
Don't Study as You Did in School
Public education stifles curiosity. While no students are forced to avoid studying the things that interest them in their free time, most students have so little free time that they are likely to spend it doing anything but studying a language. With this in mind, by taking control of your education, you can focus solely on the things that hold your interest and you can jump from subject to subject, within reason. More importantly, you will have as much time as you need.
The ability to go at your own pace is a but of a double edged sword. On one hand you can speed run language learning and pick up new languages left and right. On the other hand, you can procrastinate and avoid advancing because you are afraid to reveal the fact that you are an amateur. But in order to master anything you must risk being bad at it.
Language learning is no exception to this rule and every single person who learns a language struggles with an aspect of it. The other issue is that people will run into material that seems outside of their ability. When it comes to overcoming this feeling, the best way is to take what you are interested in and run with it.
Going down rabbit holes is unironically one of the best ways to ensure you continue getting comprehensible input when you are doing your language studies. Usually, when you find yourself going down a rabbit hole it is at least in part a form of procrastination. By procrastinating in another language, you are taking advantage of the loophole and being a productive procrastinator.
That is why this week's Spanish Resource email contains resources for true and unsolved crime. If you have been around since the start you should have seen that come through, however for those who are new to the newsletter, know that it is coming! For those who are interested in joining you can sign up here:
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While we are working on resource newsletters for other languages, those will not be available for the next couple of weeks, there will be an announcement when they are ready to go! As of now we are working on French, German, Portuguese, Italian, and Russian. If you would like your language added to this list, please comment below which language and it will be added to the list.
Don't Worry About Grammar
Ever controversial, I am a vocabulary maximalist. Yes, grammar rules are important and you should not ignore them outright. However, when you have a vast vocabulary, people are able to understand the things you say, even when you are saying them incorrectly. While it certainly is not fun to be corrected all the time, this is the fastest way to learn; and if your pride can bear it, you will also earn the respect of those around you with whom you are speaking.
Understanding basic conjugation is going to be mandatory, but more important than that is the willingness to use the words and phrases that you have learned. While you will undoubtedly make a ton of mistakes, the more you make now the fewer you will make in the future. Getting to a point where you make no mistakes is not a reasonable goal. Even native speakers make mistakes almost daily with their mother tongue. If you are really struggling to start speaking, you may be trying to speak too fast in order to cover up mistakes. You are not alone in this.
Speak Slowly—and Increase Your Wait Time
Most people tend to try and speak quickly when they are just getting started in a new language. The reasons for this vary, but most of the time it is because there is an assumption that speaking quickly will mask mistakes. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. When you speak quickly, not only are you more likely to make mistakes, you are also more likely to have to repeat yourself.
Though it can be intimidating, speaking slowly and placing focus on annunciation and pronunciation will get you further faster than trying to speak as quickly as you can. Similarly to speaking loudly, speaking quickly does not inherently make you sound more correct. By making a concerted effort to do things right the first time, you will notice that you end up making less mistakes and needing less time to master new concepts you come across.
The best way to practice your cadence and voicing of different words is by listening to and repeating sentences you hear. Whether it is from movies, television shows, or audiobooks, mimicking that which is being said will provide you ample speaking practice. If you do this in private, you can rest easy knowing that you made most of the mistakes you will mistake in front of yourself. Do not put yourself in a place where you have to qualify your linguistic abilities by saying, "I can read and understand, but I can't speak".
Curiosity is a superpower when it comes to learning a new language. In fact, it is a superpower when it comes to learning just about anything. If you are able to harness your curiosity to propel your language learning, you will have no problem reaching fluency. When combined with a fearlessness in the face of being bad at something, curiosity can carry the day even when you are feeling less than enthusiastic.
Whether you find yourself going down rabbit holes, expanding your competence in areas where you are already proficient, or discovering new things about a culture you are fascinated by, feeding your curiosity will pay off. Most importantly, though, you need to make sure you are speaking every chance you get. That is the only way to really become fluent.
Learning a language is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
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