It’s about time I discuss one of the biggest questions I get asked by readers: What’s the rush?
Not just about my time-restricted objective, but in general – why try to learn a language so fast? Shouldn’t you take a few years to absorb it?
I’ve discussed before that my 3-month deadline is not some promise or claim, but it’s a target I aim for based on my lifestyle. I’m a traveller and tourist visa limits tend to be 3 months long. So this basically explains why, and if I have to leave the country anyway then no amount of you saying “take your time” makes much sense to me; I might as well speak the language as best as I possibly can given my time limit, as that will allow me to interact way more with the locals and have some amazing experiences with them that would have otherwise been impossible.
It’s like a foodie telling you to take your time eating your dinner even though the restaurant is about to close and you’ll get kicked out. You may as well gobble up everything since it’s good food that you’ve paid for. The doors are going to close and no amount of arguments that “savouring every bite is so wonderful” actually matters. Eat more so you’ll be less hungry. Simple as that.
But there’s another reason that I want to get into today, which is another huge motivator for me having such tight deadlines even in cases where visas are not an issue (such as when I’m in EU countries, and technically if I dealt with a bit of bureaucracy I could get around the visa issue in some countries easily enough), and that’s quite simply: I am not interested in wasting time. I’m impatient, and I see that as a good thing because it ultimately leads to much better results.
What can you do right now is what matters, not “some day”
Intentionally slow learners are obsessed with the long term and can’t do jack in the short term because of it. I prioritise the short term, and all benefits I reap will also help me in the long term (as long as I keep up the language, which I will be doing in Chinese).
A long-sighted learner is only interested in one thing: they want to be equivalent to a native. Three months or any other short period where you set yourself an ambitious goal is clearly not enough to reach native level, so they have this idea that anything else is not good enough.
Well this attitude is not good enough. It’s wasteful and impractical.
It seems logical – of course we all ultimately want to speak the target language excellently, so it makes sense that you should hold yourself to their standards in your studies. It makes sense… but it’s wrong.
You see, you absolutely can NOT just learn learn learn, and expect that one day in 5 or 10 or 20 or whatever years, your brain will suddenly go “bing” and you’ll magically be as-good-as-a-native. This is never going to happen.
I want to know what can I do right now to make sure I am speaking better right now. This approach is so powerful and has worked so incredibly well for me and many other learners, that it drives me crazy when people get their minds clouded with long-term issues that don’t matter to them in the here and now.
My impatience to solve the biggest issues I have right now, mean that I’ll get somewhere quicker. And my awareness of how quickly I can get somewhere very useful means that I will indeed want to do this in months and not years.
My stepping stone approach: do something tangible and do it better than you did last time
I’ve been finding a lot of the comments on my videos over the last few weeks incredibly annoying, mostly because when unnecessarily critical, they are coming from perfectionists who don’t have a clue what I’m actually trying to demonstrate. Since I’m hoping to speak Mandarin very well in early April, they mistakenly think that every video I upload is some kind of preview of the final product or “mini fluency”.
It’s nothing of the sort – I don’t care about fluent behaviours right now because I’m well aware that it’s outside of my current capabilities. There are much more important things for me to worry about. Every single week I ask myself “What are the biggest problems I have this week that I can solve?” and I get busy.
To illustrate this, here has been my vague stepping stone plan over the first weeks of this mission:
By week 2 point: First be able to say key pleasantries, then be able to say longer sentences, then be able to say those sentences with good pronunciation. At first reading a sentence from the phrasebook or smartphone is fine to say it a few seconds later. Next work on remembering all of this so you can say any of it at a moment’s notice.
Is this debating politics? No – it’s completing actionable steps that are totally within my reach having started the language, and my absolute priority since that will allow me to order food and ask for help. Learning some sentences off by heart is a small enough feat that I can take it on as my “mini goal” and achieve it and put it into use immediately.
By being impatient enough to want results right now, I got results. Perhaps it’s not so impressive – and that’s kind of the point. When you break any “impressive” feat down into the steps it took to get there, you’ll see they were always things that any mere mortal could do, although sometimes it takes quite a lot of sacrifices.
So I uploaded the video to show that I could recite off lots of Mandarin from memory. It was mostly understandable but with many problems. Some people told me what the problems were (too many pauses between syllables and speaking too slowly), and some people complained that I’ll never speak Mandarin if all I care about is reciting some learned off lines – even if this newfound skill is actually getting me tangible things and helping me interact superficially with people. I don’t care if you think I won’t be fluent in April. I’ll worry about that in April when I’m tweaking my language level then. In my early weeks I need to remember to say things and I achieved that.
The priority should never be the long term. If I am in the here and now and fixing my biggest priorities for communication then I am going in the right direction, and doing so quickly.
By month 1 point: So over the next two weeks I worked on my next biggest issues – I fixed the main problems I was having in terms of being understood and started clumping words together as units, and speaking a little faster, while sacrificing some tones in the process. I’ve also increased my store of vocabulary and practised way more on natives.
I was at the stage where if I knew the words I could spontaneously form my own sentences and they would be fully understood by natives. It’s not reading a newspaper or watching the news or other fluent-y things, but it’s a very important stepping stone. My sentences still have lots of problems with wrong word order and such but I’m almost always understood by human beings.
If I sit a test I might fail it – but I’m doing what I need to do in the real world. Why would tests devised for people in classrooms matter more than results in the real world?
So I uploaded the video to show that I can interact with natives in a way that they’ll understand me. My wrong utterances were corrected just before I said them on camera – a big step forward compared to learning them off for an entire week that I needed for the first video. But actually, the point of the video was to share a cultural nugget – I thought I could use the language to share something useful, but that’s probably not so true because many people ignored the content and focused on the fact that I’m not conversing with the natives or showing that I understand all of their replies.
I’d been learning the language a month – I wasn’t aware that I had to perform miracles! Everything I’m talking about and blogging about is quite achievable when you break it down. But there are big priorities for my first month and comfortably conversing spontaneously about a complex topic was not one of them.
Putting any kind of long-term goal standards (even when that goal is just a month or two away) on what you can do right now is a mistake.
By the mid-point:
Quite happy with my ability to say things fine if I know the words, my biggest issue was of course not understanding replies back to me, so it was not possible to have a conversation. I knew lots of words, but hearing them all come out at lightning speed from natives in succession just wasn’t something I could handle.
But I don’t have time to whine about such things, so I (reluctantly) set up 3-hours of spoken time in Mandarin per day. I wasn’t “ready” for this, but I had solved most of my previous main issues and needed to nip this in the bud. The first class was incredibly exhausting – I needed every sentence repeated many many times and conversing was slow.
The next time was a little easier, since I was hearing a few patterns I had already recognised before. And the next time slightly easier. Never any huge jumps or light-bulbs going off that I’m suddenly speaking the language where I wasn’t 5 minutes before, but each time I am doing better.
And now this week I can have more varied conversations, whereas I could only talk specifically about me / my travels / my work in the first meet-ups. Lots of listening means that I’m slowly able to distinguish the words and piece together meanings. My first teacher spoke incredibly and unnaturally slowly to allow me to try to understand, but now I just need someone to speak a little slowly, and have been able to express myself even with natives that are not at all used to speaking to foreigners, with relatively long conversations.
It ain’t pretty – I still hesitate a lot, and my sentence structure leaves a lot to be desired, and there’s still plenty of words left to learn, but I can talk to people – I can interact with them, within many limitations that I’m well aware of.
Next week I’ll share a video of me speaking spontaneously. It’ll be riddled with problems, and very far from a natural comfortable conversation, but it will be a stepping stone.
And that’s the thing – I’ve gotten this far with stepping stones and I will indeed get much further with even more stepping stones.
Soon I’ll have enough words to discuss way more varied topics, while I’ll also be working on sentence structure so my strange sentences don’t slow the conversation down too much, then shortly after I’ll improve it further so there is no slowing down needed at all, and I can understand more complex statements from the other person. I’ll continue the ridiculously large amount of practice (about 20 hours a week one-on-one with people – it’s like a half-time job!!) so that I’ll get used to people speaking enough to let them speed up, and get used to me speaking, while constantly getting feedback so that I know what to improve.
There is plenty of work left, but everything is a problem that I can solve once I am focused enough to prioritise what needs to be solved NOW. And this is the key of it all. All of these minor things add up to bringing me closer and closer to speaking Mandarin very well – not some day, but within a matter of weeks.
I’m not interested in trying to act like a fluent speaker right now. I am pushing myself that little bit more outside of my comfort zone every day. It’s all baby-steps, but I’m doing it with an intensity that leads to very fast improvement.
The slow traditional academic approach is for impractical perfectionists
I’ve run into a few perfectionists/preferred long-term learners in recent weeks – none of them natives of Mandarin, although their level is excellent after many years of working on the language, and it’s been so interesting to see how conversation flows differ.
I ask a native a question with bad Mandarin, it’s understood (occasionally after some rephrasing) and I get an answer. Language successfully used to communicate.
I ask a perfectionist a question with bad Mandarin and the wrong tone on my 5th syllable is pointed out, while I’m reminded that I should put the time component of the sentence before the verb and not after it. Language successfully analysed at high standards not important to me right now. My actual question is ignored until I say the sentence perfectly.
This really conveys my frustration with letting perfectionists take control of language learning. At the time, my biggest priority wasn’t tweaking my tones to be precisely right or having the right word order – all of these are of course very important, but if I’m understood then they are low priority. Tidying my language up is something that is more appropriate for my final run towards fluent level. Right now I have bigger fish to fry, like vocabulary issues and distinguishing words when natives say them quickly. Problems here will hinder communication way more than a wrong word order which any native can understand anyway after thinking for a second.
So when you say that I’m impatient like it’s a bad thing, I say that all this long-term nonsense is (ironically) incredibly short sighted.
I have a triage system set up where I try to figure out what should I fix right now to improve my ability to communicate. Ultimately the collection of all of these little things leads to fluency – I will indeed be tweaking my word order in the next couple of weeks, and then my pronunciation much later, but I need other problems solved right now.
My impatience is actually a very selective prioritisation – I want to speak better now, and am doing what it takes to do that. Fixing low-priority errors is wasting my time until I’m at the stage where those are the “biggest” problems I need to fix, which will be a great time indeed as I’ll be quite comfortable in the language by then.
Taking your time is for people who are not interested in results
The impatience I’m talking about isn’t the fact that it’s “just 3 months” – it’s that I want results right now, and long-term learners (with more patience from one point of view, and less of a practical way of using the language from another) prefer to use their language in real-life situations some day, when they can mimic the natives much better.
As I wrote in the last post, I find language learning boring, and yet I love speaking foreign languages. This may sound like an oxymoron to some of you, but to me it explains one of the biggest misunderstandings in the entire world of language learning, and that’s the misconception that the rest of us should learn languages in the same way that those of you designing the courses would learn them.
Almost every single person presenting a language to you in a learning environment has got perhaps a degree in linguistics or instead a lifelong background in language learning, and generally a passion for languages that they’ve had their entire life. So yes, they’re an expert, but they don’t know what’s going on in your head. They can’t possibly understand because to them the language learning process is so beautiful – “Why would you possibly not want to do grammar exercises and take your time?” they think to themselves.
It’s something many ESL teachers without a background in languages have picked up on by presenting a language through games and real communication.
Perhaps the fact that I boldly say that I find studying languages boring is insulting to those passionate about languages, but I am equally annoyed by such people not using the language for true communication, as quickly and as often as possible.
The “result” that a take-your-time approach is looking for is “speak like a native some day”, or more likely “pass this exam”, “prove that you know x words” and other such nonsense that has little value in the real world. When I walk up to a native, I don’t want to show them a certificate, I want to confidently speak to them in their language.
The only way I see this as being realistically possible is by getting there via stepping stones of having used the language to communicate in simpler situations, while progressively making them more complicated. Every day I am expanding on the possible situations I can handle, both linguistically and socially.
And this is because I am impatient enough to want results right now.
If you enjoy the process of learning a language over a long time, then that’s great – but me and many many other people don’t. We want to speak them, and we want to speak them now. “Good enough” is a good place to start and work from. The high standards that you want in the long term don’t concern us and are of very little actual importance in the short term, nor do the natives we speak to mind at all.
The world needs more impatient language learners. Who’s with me?
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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