3 Truths & a Lie: What it really takes to be fluent

3 Truths & a Lie: What it really takes to be fluent

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Welcome to our second post in this language learning series. Click to read the 1st post “Why learn language?”

In the last post I wrote that most people are capable of learning a language, but that it won’t happen without hours and hours of hard work.

If you’re anything like me, you probably find that kind of statement remarkably irritating. Ok, I believe you… so… what should I do!? Give me the facts. Point me in a direction! How many hours? What are realistic goals?

What does it actually take the average person to be “fluent” in a new language?

Remember that icebreaker game where you have to make several statements about yourself, where one is a lie? Then the group has to guess which are true and which one is false, getting to know you better in the process. This article lays out 3 truths and 1 lie to give you straight talk on learning a language (though it shouldn’t be hard to guess which is which!).

Before we head off, I’ve got to define our destination. What exactly is fluency?

I’ve written on defining fluency before, including a free self-evaluation tool excerpted from The Whole World Guide to Language Learning by Terry Marshall. Head over to that article if you’re interested in evaluating your current language level and setting some attainable goals with my 15-minute exercise.

Remember the mentality we’re bringing with us from the “Why learn language” article? Language is a new life to be lived, rather than mere information to be acquired. If we define fluency as something like “able to use 10,000 words accurately in fluid conversation” we’ll miss the point entirely.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines fluency as “Capable of using a language easily and effortlessly.” That just leaves me scratching my head wondering how to define “easy” and “effortless.” So for the purpose of this article, here’s my definition of fluency: Language fluency is having an insider’s seat at a new cultural table – being a foreign, yet equal, participant in native-to-native conversation.

Yup, my standards are high. But not impossible. Zig Ziglar said “If you aim at nothing you will hit it every time.” The goal is taking our seat in the cultural conversation. We’ll always be foreign to some extent in our accent, mannerisms and thought process – even Sherwood Lingenfelter says full inculturation is impossible – but we can aim for participating in native-to-native conversation.

Ok, onward!

Learning a new language takes time, money, immersion and mental toughness. (Or does it?) Here are 3 truths and 1 lie.

1. The road to fluency takes TIME. Lots of it.

There are many estimates out there of how much time it takes to learn a new language.

Benny the Irish Polyglot maintains you can get to a certain level of fluency in 3 months. He’s even got a super popular and helpful language website called – wait for it – Fluentin3months.com. He argues that the quality of those hours are what counts, so full time study every day for 3 months (this works out to something like 1,000 hours) is what it really takes to be fluent.

The Common European Framework divides language learners into 6 levels, from beginner to master. Estimates say that getting to a C1 level in any language (what I consider “fluency”) takes in the range of 700-950 hours.

Greg Thomson’s 6-phase language program called the Growing Participator Approach (GPA) takes 1,500 hours. Not 1,500 hours “in country” or “using the language,” but 1,500 hours with a native-speaking language helper.

1,000ish hours. 700-950 hours. 1,500 hours.

I’m not sure what you were expecting, but those numbers seem pretty intimidating to me! Let’s break it down a bit.

  • What if you followed the GPA program and put in 20 hours with a language helper every week, plus some short, minimal homework? (GPA considers those parameters full-time.) You’d get to fluency in 1 1/2 years. Of course, that’s 1 1/2 years with no breaks, no illness, class cancellations, etc.
  • On the other hand, what if you did an evening class for 2 hours once a week? Fluency in 15 years!

The amount of time you allocate to study has huge implications for your experience in a new country. If relaxed small talk conversation happens around the 250 hour mark, for example, the full time student could get there in 12 weeks. Meanwhile Mr. TwoHourEveningClass reaches the same point in 2 1/2 years!

I understand the pressures of trying to get language learning in when you’re settling a family and adapting to a new culture are huge, but think of the daily stress from not being able to hold a basic friendly conversation with your neighbors for more than 2 years!

The good news is that if you put in the hours, you will most likely make it. It will take creativity and determination to log fruitful hours, but one faithful step after another will get you to your destination.

One last thing… what if you’re already in the middle of your language journey? Maybe you haven’t been logging your hours religiously and aren’t exactly sure of your level. Where do you go from there? How do you set goals to move forward if you’ve plateaued?

Betty Lou Leaver has been cited as saying that you need at least 100/300 hours of teacher-mediated language to be perceived as a “new you” by local speakers – 100 hours if you are at a low proficiency level, 300 hours if you are at a higher level.

Personally, I love that. Logging another 300 hours was the goal I set myself last February, and it gave me a clear target to push for.

2. Language learning is costly. If you want to be fluent, you need MONEY.

The resources of time and money tend to seesaw in language learning. Some methods of learning, such as classroom study or hiring private teachers, are more expensive. Other methods, like using online chat forums or learning with a language helper, can be much cheaper. But the unfortunate truth is there’s no free road to fluency.

Even if you found a totally free way to learn – not just self-study, but working with a native speaker who meets you at your current level and stretches you, and has hours of time to give or trade – it still wouldn’t be free. You’d be exchanging potentially paid work hours for those learning hours.

Maybe you’re on the slow road, fitting in language around a full-time life. Even then, if you dedicate hours to learning, something will have to give. You’ll trade cooking meals for ordering out sometimes. You may need to hire a babysitter to watch your kids or pay for daycare while you study. You may need to take more taxis to be able to cram more schedule into the day instead of getting to places on foot. You might find a great “free” way to learn language, only to realize another member of your family needs funds to learn! The point is, at some point down the line you will have to make costly choices to prioritize language acquisition.

Leaders, if someone has approached you about moving cross-culturally and they’ll need to learn a language, they need to have realistic expectations of the costs involved. Why don’t you encourage them to research what their learning options might be in their target location? For example:

  • What is the going rate for a language helper, for example?
  • Are there language schools in the area? How much do they cost?
  • What (and this is a huge question, sorry) is the anticipated cost of living for the first 2 years, plus initial set-up costs?

This would also be a good time to weigh the pros and cons of starting a job right away. Is there a way to delay the start of work for several months in order to throw yourself into those 1,500 hours?

More pointedly, what can be done to save the money that language learning requires? Should the person going try to fundraise that money somehow? Or delay going until they can save enough of a nest-egg?

There’s a ton more to say on this topic, but hopefully these questions are a helpful place to start.

3. IMMERSION is the golden ticket. If you live in a country that speaks your target language, you’ll pick it up.

[cough, COUGH!]

I’ve heard this implied many, many times; if you’re there, on the ground, immersion learning will happen by osmosis. You’ll just pick it up! (or so they say). I’ve heard this numerous times when people reference my kids, especially. “Kids are such sponges, they just absorb their surroundings.” Well… sort of.

We can get off on the wrong track here because we’re again thinking of language like learning any other subject.

Let’s take a moment to think about how you learned your first language: You started as a baby. You heard (most likely) just 1 language all day, in a totally immersed environment, but were unable to do anything to respond. You couldn’t even smile for your first weeks, except when “moved!” Haha!

I looked up a few baby speech milestones from the Mayo Clinic, and got this list:

  • At 3 months babies can usually: smile, make “cooing” sounds, recognize your voice, cry differently for different needs (yup, done “crying for different needs” as part of my language learning!)
  • 12 months: Try imitating words, say a few words, such as “dada,” “mama” and “uh-oh,” Understand simple instructions, such as “Come here,” Recognize words for common items, such as shoe
  • 18 months: Point to an object or picture when it’s named, Recognize names of familiar people, objects and body parts, Follow simple directions accompanied by gestures, Say as many as eight to 10 words
  • 2 years: Use simple phrases, such as “more milk,” Ask one- to two-word questions, such as “Go bye-bye?”, Follow simple commands without the help of gestures, Speak at least 50 words

When you learned your first language, you spent 2 years listening and hardly responding, 4 more years talking and listening, and then began to read and write in school. And this is a totally immersed language environment! Would you say your average 10-year-old Brit has just “picked up” English? Or would you say it’s a product of involved round-the-clock parenting, educational pre-school activities, interactions with friends and family, and 4 or 5 years of full-time schooling?

Forget babies for a minute, and think about foreigners who live in your own local context. Can you think of any examples of people who have lived in your area for years and years, but who don’t speak the language to a high standard?

Don’t get me wrong, being immersed has many, many benefits. And children do have advantages in how they’re able to absorb things like grammar and accent without the academic filters we adults put them through. But immersion alone is not the magic bullet. It takes a conscious effort to dive deep into a new culture as an outsider, and hours of effort to break down the wall of sound brick by brick.

4. Language learning is all in your head. The MENTALLY TOUGH succeed.

At this point your head might be spinning. If I had known any of the stuff above before moving, mine would have been too!

Ok, so I need to prepare for 1,500 hours of language learning. I’m going to need wads of cash to accomplish that. And while I’ll live there, just being in the community alone is not enough to get me to my goals.

But I’ve got minimal funds and no time to spare! Maybe 2 hours a week… which puts me on the journey to fluency in 15 years?! Help!

I started learning my 2nd language in 2009 (nope, I’m not counting Latin or a few words of Spanish). Since then language learning has been part of my daily life. Not just textbooks and flashcards, but all that comes with learning by immersion as well – constant stretching, extra line items in the family budget, and the stress of learning to live on hunches and educated guesses. Since beginning this language journey I’ve seen quite a few other people start also.

There’s something I’ve observed in the people who keep doggedly moving forward on the path to fluency: They believe they can do it.

They’ve got this kind of crazy glint in their eyes that says they’re going to make it. They’re mentally tough. Of all that I’ve learned along the way about language learning, this is probably the crux of it all for me – it’s all in your head.

One day you’re stretching the boundaries of all you’ve learned, the next minute you say hi and introduce yourself and get blank stares in return. Learning a new language is a game that ebbs and flows with so many variables. How many hours of sleep you got, what else is on your brain, how urgent the situation is, whether or not your kids are wandering into traffic… all these things dramatically effect how everything that’s in your brain comes out in the moment. It’s one big mental game, and the trick is to both keep your spirits up and your nose to the grindstone.

Henry Ford is credited with saying “Whether you think you can, or think you can’t – you’re right.”

A defeated outlook is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Doubt becomes a major momentum killer. Many cross-cultural adventurers become depressed (yes, I do mean clinically as well as figuratively) as they take a look around at the huge challenges of adapting to a new world. Depressed thoughts wear grooves in your mind. There’s no way for me to really get in the hours I need. I’m not learning much from those hours anyway. What’s the point of going on with it at this point? Before you know it, you’ve lost the mental battle.

Let’s be transformed by the renewing of our minds! Let’s stir our faith to believe the hard-wiring God put in our brains is clever enough to untangle a new language. If we put in the hours, we will get there.

I’m encouraged by the example of John Ethlestan Cheese, as recounted in Michael Griffith’s book Lambs Dancing with Wolves. He spent 46 years of his life in the Middle East, and never seems to have reached fluency. His travels resulted in a strange Arabic mix that was barely intelligible, yet his humility and gentle friendship communicated volumes. A British official reportedly asked some Somali chiefs if they knew Ethelstan. Their reply: “Of course, he is a Christian. We don’t believe what he believes – he is wrong and we are right. But he is without doubt the holiest man in all Somalia” (p33).

If we completely fail to learn any language at all… If we pour our time, money and best efforts into entering a new culture and totally fail… even that failure will preach. Our legacy will be one of entering as a learner, asking questions, working hard, seeking to understand. Our language learning is ministry.

If God sends us cross-culturally, he will also equip us for what lies ahead. Since he’s the great Exemplar of entering a new languacultural world we follow his example.

We opt for the long road of humility and self-sacrifice. We give our time and money. We take captive every thought and sort out the lies from the truth. Then we keep putting one foot in front of another.

 

What do you think. Have I missed anything? Reply and let me know! And if you’ve found this article helpful, would you consider sharing it? – Grace


Profile - GraceGrace Henry, editor of ToWinSome.com, feels so fortunate to be living a God-adventure in the MidEast. She loves God’s world-wide Church, being on the water, little kid cuddles, and late night chats with friends – especially the one she’s married to. Connect with her on Twitter: @bygracehenry

Grace Henry

Grace is the Editor of ToWinSome. She moved to the Middle East on a God-adventure with her husband and 2 kids in 2010, and is accumulating a long list of stories to tell her grandkids one day, where God is the hero. Twitter: @bygracehenry

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