How to Become Fluent in a Language in 3 years

 

In today’s global economy, proficiency in a foreign language can lead to a wider range of job opportunities.  Many international companies want hires that can speak the language of that company’s homeland.  Unfortunately, most of us believe, falsely, that to master a foreign language, we must be innately gifted.  That is not true.  The problem is that languages are taught with an emphasis on written rather than spoken work.  For example, I wanted to learn Japanese but when I went to college I found that the introductory course required hours of homework to master hundreds of the thousands of Japanese characters that comprise the Kanji alphabet.  Without any context, simply learning foreign characters alone did little to improve my Japanese.  It is important to learn the characters, but the “learning” needs to be tied to support a particular word such as “water”.  For me, memorizing a bunch of random characters was confusing and of marginal value. Therefore, I realized that I had to turn the accepted approach on its head by developing a curriculum that allowed me to build my language skills efficiently so that my time spent was not time wasted.  I created my own study program that within 2 years has allowed me to hold conversations in Japanese, listen to Japanese radio and TV with general understanding, and read Japanese books on business.  Here’s what I did- and most important- continue to do.

 

  1. Find a partner who speaks the language you want to learn
    1. Talk to that partner in their language in three 50 minute sessions per week. During this time, do not use your native language (do your best not to, of course this will be difficult those who are just beginning to study the language. If necessary, use some of your native language).
    2. Everything must be in the foreign language, so you need to learn how to say phrases such as “how do you say this” or “can you repeat that” in the target language. Once you know these two phrases, do your best to ask how to say things you want to say and then try to say those things. (In the beginning, feel free use hand gestures to help convey what you are trying to say.)
  2. How to find a partner
    1. Pay a tutor: Costs money but you will learn from someone who has great mastery in the language. Highly recommended for those who seek a high level of fluency or want to learn rapidly. Make sure the tutor has the training and experience to correct your grammar and pronunciation.
    2. Language exchange partner: May not provide as good instruction, but is free and may be an opportunity to practice a language without the pressure of having to “say it correctly”. I strongly recommend that you use this approach in addition to a tutor.

 

Both tutors and informal speaking buddies can be found online. The sessions can be conducted through Skype so that you can have face time. The Mixxer (http://www.language-exchanges.org/) is a great and free site available online to find language exchange partners for many languages.

  1. Learn the alphabet and practice reading

a. For languages that have different characters such as Chinese and Japanese, it is important to study some characters every day. Studying 2 or 3 characters a day will make the process less overwhelming and help you learn fast. Then, once you gain confidence, you can increase the daily number of characters until, after several months, you can learn 10 to 20 characters over a three day period. The key is consistency.  Cramming 20 characters one day and then resting for a week is not the way to go.  You want to be the tortoise here, not the hare. If you follow this approach the characters you know will really start to add up. If you can manage new 20 characters ever 3 days, after a month you’ll have learned 200, after a year 1,600! This means that after 1 year you’ll be able to read almost anything, and continuing to study characters will allow you to read more difficult and scholarly materials. This works for other languages such as French or Spanish where the characters are familiar except you can probably build your vocabulary at a faster rate, (i.e., 3 to 6 words a day. The goal is to coordinate reading, writing, and speaking so that each exercise is related to similar subject matter.  For example, if I hear the word “water”, I want to learn the characters that form the word and then try to type the word.

 

b. Learning to read your foreign language is critical. The problem is that foreign language courses trivialize reading by using the mundane “Dick likes Jane,” approach formerly used to teach English in grade school (until Dr. Suess arrived). In order to learn to read you must want to read. Read by finding simple articles in the foreign language that relate to areas that interest you such as sports, cooking or any other topics of interest.  Remember, the desire to learn must spring from an interest in a subject.  No one wants to hear about Dick and Jane, whether it is written in a foreign language or English!!!

 

Learning to read is a trickier for those learning languages with different characters such as Chinese and Japanese because if you have not learned a character you most likely will not be able to read the word. Do not despair. The solution is this: read books that have both a digital/paper copy AND an audio copy. This way, you can “read” the text by listening to the audio.

 

Even for languages other than Chinese and Japanese I recommend reading along with an audio book to improve your pronunciation and listening skills. Initially, allocate up to 30 minutes a day and increase your reading time as you improve.   It is important to balance between easy and difficult materials. Easy reading materials/books are good for reading for long periods of time, but hard ones are very important for vocabulary and a deeper understanding of the language. Even when just starting out, don’t be afraid to read something above your level. Reading harder materials is what helps increase your language level.

  1. Type using the language:

a. Now, it is not enough to just read, you have use the language as well. I recommend typing because it is fast. For most languages, feel free to practice actual handwriting, but for Chinese and Japanese do not learn handwriting as a means of become fluent. Learning the writing system is not necessary and is time consuming. Furthermore, most people use typing as a meaning of written communication, making handwriting unnecessary. If learning rapidly is your goal, it makes more sense to focus on reading the characters and typing them. If you are simply curious or want to learn how to write the characters by hand for fun, go ahead. Once you are able to read well without a dictionary, then it is time to go back and master the writing system.

In the beginning, it is highly effective to try to write a summary of each chapter/ portion of a book or material that you are reading. It forces you to focus, try to remember, learn from context, use words from the material, and develop your ability to explain. This is more powerful than simply learning phrases in a target language because the phrases you are connected to facts, making them easier to remember and teaches you the context for using them. It also is a more natural way of using the language. Rather than studying it like science, it becomes used and practiced like a sport. Once you have become skilled at developing summaries, you can move on to more complex reports to fine-tune your skills, such as argumentative/ opinion-based reports, research papers, etc. Have someone correct your writing. The site lang8 is a great free site for this and getting a tutor or friend is a great as well.

 

  1. Watch movies/ shows in the target language and listen to the radio/ podcasts

Watching movies or shows can be helpful. Subtitles can be helpful, especially at the beginning when your vocabulary is limited, but try to limit your use of subtitles once you are able to understand some of the conversations.  Remember, subtitles can help when you are dealing with a mass of unfamiliar words, but subtitles can become a crutch that prevent you from learning new vocabulary. You can also listen to radio shows and podcasts too.  Whatever you choose, make sure that it is a topic that is fun and interesting to you.  I improved my Japanese by watching Japanese anime cartoons.  It was slow going at first, as I chose not to use the subtitles, but over time my understanding of the conversation grew until I could follow almost all the dialogue.

  1. Study Grammar

This can be helpful but is not essential, especially if you have limited time but getting a grammar book and learning a new grammar point every few days can help as well.

And that’s it. If you follow a routine and study consistently you will see results quickly. Remember, consistency is the key to learning a language.  A person who spends 15 minutes a day will have better results then another who spends 1 hour once a week. Initially, I recommend that you set aside between 30 minutes to an hour a day for language study.  As you improve, you will see that the time you spend with the target language will increase as your skills improve. By consistently utilizing the approach I have outlined, I was able to carry on a basic conversation in Japanese after 6 months and now, 2 years later, I can speak comfortably with my Japanese friends, watch Japanese shows with complete understanding and read Japanese newspapers and books.  If I can do it, you can too!

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