When I was 13, I had to decide which romance language to take in high school.
I chose Spanish and respectfully slacked off (averaging B’s) for 4 years straight.
Passing tests was the focus of our curriculum. Not creating opportunities to speak in the real world.
Somehow, those Spanish classes filled me with a curiosity. The culture, music, food and art were so rich, I thought. Still, I could not find the motivation to study my way to fluency.
Until one day, I simply decided to start.
But how? It was almost impossible to imagine myself as a fluent speaker. After 5 years of high school, I thought, shouldn’t I already be able to say more than “Hola”?
Well, that’s some shitty logic. But it is how a lot of us think about things we have tried but in which we have not yet found success. And it is that mindset which prevented me from learning for years.
Then, as if struck by lightning, I signed up for an hour class on italki.com for $10. 90 days later, I have practiced and immersed myself enough to reach a conversational level. I can talk with someone who speaks no english for 30 minutes on average without any problem whatsoever, depending on the topic.
And I realized that in all those years, there were 8 things I had to overcome to do that.
Maybe you have heard some people say these things about learning a language:
1) “You’re a natural!”
I thought that some people can just “do” language. They have a gift and I don’t. This is a product of adults who have failed in their own dreams. They attribute acquired skills to a natural ability. It helps them to rationalize why they can’t do something. It’s miserable. But it is what most people do in the face of disappointment.
2) It’s too late to start
Saying it is too late to start learning a new language is like saying it is too late to update the operating system on your computer. No matter what your age, you can do it. It is a simple time investment and willingness to do the work.
3) There’s a fast, easy way to do it
The truth about language learning is, while some may pick up languages faster than others (especially those who have already learned a new language in the past) there is a certain amount of time you must invest in order to reach a certain level of fluency.
No matter which way you approach language learning, you will have to invest time.
If you are learning the language for the right reasons, the time period you must invest should not matter much. It is all about enjoying the process. In essence, language learning is like a good conversation in your native language.
You don’t talk with a friend for an hour so that you can walk away with bullet points and information, you talk because you want to enjoy and share experiences.
4) You need a good teacher
False. The only thing you need is someone to help you get excited about the language. I was lucky in high school. Even though I was a tremendous slacker, I had language teachers who cared. They made classes fun and I owe a lot of my current curiosity to them.
Moments from now, you can sign onto italki.com and sign up for a language class.
It can cost you less than $10 (USD). Some of these teachers may not have degrees. It does not matter. All that matters is that you click with them. The fact is, a good teacher is helpful but they cannot insert words and grammar into your head. Language learning is dichotomous in this sense: you learn by talking with people, but you also learn by studying.
The studying is solitary, the talking is social. Do both.
5) You need to Live abroad
You don’t need to live abroad. Talking with people online is better, in my opinion. At least to start. They have the same goal as you. I’ve found the best way to learn is by setting aside an hour to talk with a native speaker of the language you want to learn.
Spend 30 minutes talking in your language and the next 30 minutes in their language.
6) You should start with x language
Start with whatever language excites you most. Don`t be put off because people tell you one language is harder than another. It’s not harder. It takes more time. It is the difference between driving from New York to Chicago or New York to L.A.
Is one drive harder than another? Not really. It is simply a question of time. The effort you will exert is the same at each station. The number of hours it takes is unimportant.
7) It will help you “get ahead”
You should use whatever motivation best suites you to learn a new language. But in my experience it is not really external motivations that stand the test of time. More often, it is an internal satisfaction. Friendships you make. New perspectives realized.
Okay, it will help you get ahead in the sense that your worldview will change and you will be better off than folks who remain ignorant to the billions of other people who do not speak English.
8) “You did it!”
The truth is, language learning is never finished. Nowhere is this more apparent than with our native language. I’ve found, through studying Spanish, for example, that I have learned more about english than I ever did in any high school grammar class. Truth is, I still make mistakes in english and most people use “good” when they should use “well.”
As a second-language speaker, you will never have it perfect. It doesn’t matter. All you have to do is start, and stick with it.
The keys to the castle, as it were, seem to be this:
Find someone who is as motivated as you to learn a new language and keep a consistent schedule of language exchange with them (skype is great for this.) I shouldn’t have to say this, but your relationship will be best if they want to learn your native language and you want to learn theirs.
Make lots of friends on italki.com. (This will not only help you learn language, but it will motivate you and open up travel opportunities.)
Immerse yourself with books (literature, movies, tv shows, music).
Establish goals ranging from small to big. Challenge yourself.
Don’t give up.
P.S. Here is something you don’t hear: you may tell yourself you want to learn a language, when in reality it is a blatant lie you are telling to yourself.
Similar to how people feel about writing novels or screenplays; most people do not want to go through the process of writing, they want to have already finished a novel or screenplay, without sitting down to write day after day, year after year.
And you know what?
If you feel this way about learning a new language, that is fine. Don’t sweat it. But don’t allow yourself to get frustrated dreaming of something you don’t actually want.