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How Can You Become Fluent in Another Language?

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Did you know that new research cannot find a direct link between age and the ability to learn? Yet many people who'd still love to learn a foreign language, or be able to speak one they've already studied fluently, blame their age for their inability to acquire the language successfully.

These are two areas where independent learners often go wrong: not having quantifiable goals and measurements about their progression in the language, and not keeping the learning relevant and interesting to their lives.

And did you know the general downward trend in language acquisition among adults is actually more closely related to external factors, like reduced study time or using incorrect or ineffective acquisition methods? Children aren't necessarily better language learners than adults, they're just born into fully immersive environments, naturally and automatically employ effective techniques, and, best of all, have no shame.

If you want to actually speak a language fluently, there are best practices and methodologies to follow. The best news is you don't have to travel overseas to do it -- though it certainly helps! -- but you do have to be knowledgeable about the right tactics.

What is Fluency?

It's important to have an understanding of what you're trying to achieve. According to the Common European Framework of Reference for Language, someone who speaks a language fluently can:

  • Understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Summarize information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

There are also different kinds of fluency, which some language experts break down into "micro environment" vs "macro environment" fluency. Micro environment fluency is being able to navigate your own personal life, work, and relationships comfortably in another language, where macro environment fluency is being able to navigate any situation in any realm of society in that language. Clearly, a familiarity with a broader base of vocabulary is a big difference there.

Decide What Degree of Fluency You Want to Reach

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A critical point in determining if learners are going to become fluent or not takes place at the very onset: what's their purpose for learning a language? Whether it's for a business trip, a relationship, living long-term, permanently overseas, or just for fun, this helps determine what degree of fluency is necessary, practical, and motivating for the student.

More practically, it'll help you decide how long you want to study the language for. For example, if you've never learned a word of Spanish in your life and want to become fully fluent, that could take you 7+ months of full-time study. However, if you're just trying to get to the next level, 2 - 6 weeks might be more appropriate.

Find a Language School with Immersive and Customizable Teaching Techniques

To begin to develop the correct framework for language learning, let's take our cues from some of the world leaders in language education, Education First (EF), whose philosophy is to "live the language". They incorporate the most widely-accepted best practices for achieving fluency in a relatively short period of time.

EF teaches the fundamentals of the language (pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar) through a general class and supplement those with conversation classes that focus exclusively on speaking (right from the very beginning!). They utilize technology in iPad and iLab classes for listening and writing assignments (variety of learning methods) and place students with a host family to fully immerse them in the new language. Their system creates a comprehensive, 24/7 education for language learners and can be mimicked or adopted by students of all ages and learning abilities.

Two of their practices are especially noteworthy:

  1. The iPad and iLab classes allow EF track statistics on each student's progress, so they have quantitative information on where exactly they are doing well and where they are struggling.
  2. EF offers special interest classes in topics like marketing and journalism which help students gain fluency by teaching what's interesting to them. It directly connects the language learning process back to students' careers or personal lives, and helps keep them interested and engage

These are two areas where independent learners often go wrong: not having quantifiable goals and measurements about their progression in the language, and not keeping the learning relevant and interesting to their lives.

As we mentioned before, the people who gain fluency are usually those who know exactly why they are studying a language (one of the most famous polyglots out there is an opera singer who has to sing in everything from Russian to French -- talk about immediate, necessary application of the language!) and by having a relevant framework for benchmarking their progress.

Take the next step and look at courses:

Learn Vocabulary the Right Way

Take advantage of the fact that, in every language, some words are used more than others. In English, 300 words make up 65% of our written material. Start by learning (or double-checking your existing vocabulary for gaps) the most frequently-used 1,000 or 2,000 words of a language, which can allow you to read 80% of most texts right off the bat. Using a software tool like Anki helps a lot (see below).

Acquire Vocabulary without Using English

Fluent speakers do not translate from English into the target language when they read, speak, or listen. There's an automatic understanding of to what those words correlate, and a great way to do this is by eliminating translations in your study.

Half of the battle of learning a new language is syntax.

Use pictures of the words instead of writing their English equivalent when creating flashcards or use more basic words in the target language to define the new word. You can even try taking grammar / class notes without using English!

Focus on Phrases vs. Individual Words

Half of the battle of learning a new language is syntax -- how the words are used in context. You may be able to use a word to be understood, but fluency demands using your vocabulary just as a native speaker would. Record entire phrases where the word is used along with its no-English definition.

Recreate the Immersion Experience at Home

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You don't have to go (or stay!) abroad to learn another language -- that's a popular excuse for failing to learn a language well. After all, the opposite is true as well: how many people do you know who've spent months in Spain and came home barely able to order a beer?

Re-create the immersion experience right in your own home: read books in the target language, watch TV and movies from that country, live-stream radio, read popular blogs, write your journal in another language, post a video of yourself speaking it on YouTube, make your grocery list in the other language, Skype with native speakers, and more.

There's a million ways to use it all the time if you're proactive and aware of how important all these methods are. Explore the tools section at the end of this post to help yourself get more "immersed" without leaving the country (or stay immersed if you are overseas).

Read, Read, and Read Some More

Children acquire new languages quickly because they are constantly reading. But here's the key: read what interests you. Find local newspapers, magazines, books, and blogs and devour them. Keep track of new vocabulary (focusing on phrases) and plug it all into your Anki.

Listen to Music, TV, Movies, Podcasts, etc. Often

Watch TV and movies, listen to the radio, have the TV on in the background. You'll pick up syntax, common phrases, proper pronunciation, grammar, and culture this way.

Interact constantly with the language and keep constant, organized notes.

If you can observe native speakers, listen to how they order food or talk about politics or exchange greetings and imitate them as best you can. This is what babies do to learn languages too.

Set, Keep, and Track Goals for Yourself

Remember EF's language learning methodology? Students speak every day and keep metrics around their progress and goals. Make a goal to speak for an hour or half hour every day in the language you're learning, learn 10 words, or listen to 2 hours of radio, etc.

Keep a Dedicated Language Learning Notebook on You at All Times

Make sure you know how to say "how do you say..." and "what does... mean?" in your target language and don't be afraid to ask what a word you hear all the time means. Make notes after every conversation of new words you picked up or things you didn't quite catch so you can look it up later. Interact constantly with the language and keep regular, organized notes.

Revisit the Grammar Periodically

Sometimes grammar lessons make much more sense when you're speaking the language every day and constantly listening to native speakers. Go back and "tidy up" grammar as you learn more. Even basics may make a lot more sense and be able to be perfected once you're over a certain plateau.

Improve your Accent and Intonation

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This is why listening to radio, TV, news, and native speakers in general is so important. It helps you naturally improve your pronunciation when coupled with consistent conversation practice. Not only that, but it also helps you understand the rhythm and the intonation of the language (or the musicality, the rise and fall, and stress on words), which is the true marker of a fluent -- actually, native -- speaker.

The Best Tools for Gaining Fluency

There are plenty of tools available for language learners out there. Here's a few of our favorites:

  • Anki for vocabulary building. Flashcards that implement a spaced repetition system (SRS) show you words at strategically spaced intervals, rather than going through the same deck in the same order every time. Plug your frequency decks in and do an hour a day to learn 5,000 words in 3 months.
  • TuneIn.com for live-streamed radio from countries all around the world. Use it to hear the language in action, as spoken by native speakers for native speakers.
  • Omniglot Intro to languages
  • Youtube for videos that are trending in that country
  • The top news stations in many countries provide free video content online
  • Follow popular blogs in your target language
  • BBC languages’ intro to almost 40 different languages

And this is to just name a few!

For formal classroom instruction, which is always recommended for those serious about becoming fluent in another language, EF offers first class, immersive instruction in French, English, Spanish, Italian, German, Chinese, and Japanese. Courses are semester or year long and are available for everyone from high school students to adult learners.

Don't Be Afraid to Make Mistakes

Aspiring to speak another language fluently is a life-long challenge, and, as such, comes with a lifetime of mistake-making. That's part of the deal. The sooner you get used to sounding stupid on occasion, the more likely it is that you'll eventually learn to speak that language very, very well.

I've been in meetings where I spoke Spanish with CEOs of top companies in South America, and I inevitably made mistakes. Occasionally, they'd be so ridiculous that we'd have to interrupt our serious discussions to laugh and make appropriate self-deprecating jokes, but no language slip ever stopped me from signing 6-figure deals or even interviewing the President of Paraguay. If anything, it fostered a more authentic connection between me and my business partners by showing my human side and giving us the chance to let our hair down.

So speak fearlessly and make it a goal to make mistakes every day. Whether you're trying to become fluent in another language or undertaking any other of life's many worthwhile challenges and adventures, it's not until you're learning on the very edge of your current abilities that you're able to truly realize your full potential.

Find language courses and reviews of EF Language Centers.

Photo Credit: EF Alumni and Visual Hunt.
Elaina Giolando

A former NYC management consultant turned legal nomad, Elaina Giolando writes about the intersection of career, life, and travel for today's 20-somethings. She currently works as an international project manager and has traveled to over 50 countries and 6 continents for both work and play. In her spare time, she focuses on providing her peers inspiration to proactively create rewarding and unconventional lifestyles. You'll find her writing here on Go Overseas and also on Business Insider, Fortune, Fast Company, and Huffington Post.