Getting Past the Silent Period of Second Language Acquisition
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! Very few people enjoy speaking the language they are learning, at least when they are just getting started. Unfortunately this means the language learning process will take much longer. In order to reach fluency speaking is absolutely necessary. Whether you are speaking every day or you choose to speak sparingly, the more you do it the less time it will take you to reach fluency. While everyone knows mistakes are part of the process, it does not make it any easier. If it cannot be easy, then it might as well be fun.
You should enjoy the process
Over the past couple of decades it has become clear much the public education system has let most students down. The fact that students do not have a default reaction of uncontrollable excitement when they think about second language acquisition is proof of this failure. When the options are limitless, the ability to bore a child with language learning content is almost impressive.
Though it might be said the primary issue is the standardized proficiency tests, there are many ways to achieve the same goal. If you or your child or someone you know is not enjoying the process of language learning, it is time to re-evaluate the approach being taken.
Without a doubt the most important thing you can do to ensure success in your second language acquisition is focus on the things you enjoy. There is no reason to be doing anything you do not enjoy, especially if you are not learning in a public school setting. If something is being done, discussed, or theorized about in your native language, it is going through the same process in your target language.
In fact, by reading about and listening to information about the things you already are interested in you will likely come across new information you would not have found in your native language. The best language teachers ensure their students focus remains on things that will keep them coming back.
It's easier when you are willing to go back
What separates a good language learner from a great language learner is the willingness to go back through the things you have done and make corrections on your own work. However, since that is something most people are hesitant to do, it helps to have something you are engaged with to return to from time to time. There are a few things that most people may not consider "studying", but if you do them in your target language then you will progress. Here are some things to consider if you have been struggling for ideas:
- Play videogames
People shy away from games, but when you are engaged in a new world it can be easy to get lost in the language. If you do it often enough you may even find yourself differentiating between the real world where you speak your native language and the virtual world where you speak your target language. Depending on the game, you may find yourself faced with vocabulary words that are rarely used, but this will only give you an opportunity to ask questions when a native speaker brings it up.
If you have played the game before, and this would be ideal, you already know the story. This means you can use what you know about the story, what words you know in your target language, and fill in the blanks with context. Unfortunately, there will be no explanations of grammar rules or key words, but if you take your time and stick with it everything will make more and more sense as you progress.
Aside from the story mode of the games you can follow, playing on foreign game servers with people who speak your target language natively is also phenomenal. Most of the Germans who speak perfect English learned how to speak online talking to other gamers and through television and movies.
- Watch reality TV
While games will have subtitles, when it comes to television you have an even greater opportunity to work on your listening comprehension. Foreign languages are everywhere and while writing and reading are fantastic, having subtitles is a good way to learn to read while focusing on listening comprehension simultaneously. The ideal progression is going to look something like this:
1. Audio native language, subtitles target language
2. Audio target language, subtitles native language
3. Audio target language, subtitles target language
4. Audio target language only
Following this as you learn your new language is important, but if you find a different order is better for your learning style, try that. Everyone learns in a unique way and while this is what works for me and my students, it is worthwhile experimenting with different configurations to find what works best for you.
That said, the reason reality TV is so good for language learning is because it involves real people. Are the situations real? Rarely. Even so, you will have ample comprehensible input and you will come across the correct usage of different phrases that may otherwise take you years to learn.
Real people have real conversations, even if they are being artificially placed into unique situations. Not only that, but you will have a variety of communication strategies on display which can help you pick and choose what you like for when it is your turn to speak.
The advantage of listening to these conversations is you not only have subtitles, but the ability to rewind and listen to the sentences as well. Depending on the context of the conversation, you can try to put your focus on different portions of the conversations. When necessary you can pause and look up the meaning of any phrases they are using.
By writing down these phrases and any key words you recognize are used often you will be able to progress rapidly towards conversational. Often the best goal someone can set is to reach conversational and reality tv is the perfect way to get there. Of course, if reality tv is not your thing, there are always YouTube rabbit holes you can venture down.
- YouTube rabbit holes
This is where putting emphasis on the things you are already interested in carries the day. Chances are you already have a variety of skills. Learning how to do those things in a new language you are not only going to further develop the skill, but your language skills as well. Every time you learn a new word you may notice it is the same or similar to the words you already know.
Technical languages often have several overlaps and further investigation is generally warranted, especially if you are focused on something in which you already have a background. The advantage of YouTube is not only will you have access to closed captioning, you will be able to slow the video down.
Irrespective of what you choose, and trying them all might be the best option, having your goals outlined is important. You want to make sure you are developing your language skills in a way that is conducive to your success. Without having a target to aim at you may find it difficult to progress. Fluency is a great goal, but until you are able to speak and hold conversations it may feel like it is nearly impossible. If you need some help you can check out some methods of self evaluation and goal setting discussed in this article:
- Setting up your goals (abridged)
In short, language learning goals need to be time bound and specific. Aiming for conversational in 3-6 months is fantastic. Most people wait years to start speaking the language they are learning, but that is because they never have defined goals. By adding the above things into your language learning routine you will be faced with conversational speech almost every day. With that in mind, the more voices you hear the better because it will make it easier for you to understand more people. Along with that, since you will be hearing so many voices, you can start working on your accents.
Mimicry is a powerful tool and you can essentially choose your accent if you do it correctly. That is just another reason why diversity of comprehensible input is so important. Find the voice or voices you want to emulate and practice early and often. Repeat sentences, learn to speak fluidly even if the words are already written out for you. Reading aloud is like riding a bike with training wheels. Repeating after people is like this with even more help. You can stop, rewind, play again, as many times as you need. Finding voices you enjoy listening to and mimicking the accent as you repeat after the orator is something many language learners neglect doing and it will help you get to conversational faster.
Finally, the best part about this sort of stimulus is you will recognize more and more words every single day. After a month you will be able to recognize full conversations and fill in the gaps using context clues. Hearing these new words and recognizing a new language while watching television will make the progress real, even if the studying does not exactly feel like it is helping at all. When all you have to do is that which you do habitually and a bit of vocabulary work, language learning is enjoyable. That said, you will need to be doing the extra work to learn more vocabulary words in order to get the absolute most from it.
Language learning should be fun. It is a travesty of justice that so many people have been so turned off of becoming bilingual because of their experience. That is why following your passions is one of the best things you can do when it comes to developing your language skills. It is already going to be difficult, but that does not mean you need to force yourself to do things you do not enjoy on top of struggling to think in a new language. Whether it is video games, television, or YouTube, whatever you choose to do should be something you look forward to coming back to for the foreseeable future.
Learning foreign languages is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. Using the language learning strategies listed here can and will enhance and accelerate your language learning experience, it will not be easy. 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.
Be sure to check out Second Language Strategies to catch up on anything you missed, find me on Twitter or Instagram for some short form content. For access to all the guides we have to offer, be sure to check out the "guides" section of the website. There is a mixture of free and paid guides that is constantly being updated with new content to enhance and accelerate your language acquisition. I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.