This post has been a long time coming.
Teachers and linguists are going to hate me for this, but it has to be said:
You can never speak a language by just studying it, no matter how much you study
Yes, you read that right. Studying is the wrong thing to do if you want to speak a language. I’m totally serious.
Last night I ran into some English speakers and heard the same thing I’ve heard thousands of times about other languages: they have been studying German for years and don’t speak it yet, even though they now live in Berlin.
Every day, I get dozens of e-mails from aspiring language hackers sharing their tales of woe with me; they’ve spent a small fortune on workbooks, CD audio courses etc. and have spent probably thousands of hours locked up in their rooms studying tables of rules and vocabulary lists. And they still can’t say anything.
Most people think the reason that this happens is because the material/teacher isn’t good enough. Or perhaps the language really is impossible and it’s the “hardest one in the world”.
I get asked all the time what my study method is, and precisely what books I buy. If our study materials were better then surely we’d finally speak!?
There is only one thing study is good for
The purpose of this post isn’t to tell the world to stop studying. However, you have to realise that studying a language has a very specific purpose and if you are not aware of this then you may end up stuck in the vicious circle of never speaking: Studying will never help you speak a language, but (as long as you do it right) studying will help you speak a language better.
Most people don’t see the difference here. That one crucial word changes absolutely everything you need to take into consideration.
If you already speak but your conjugations aren’t great or you need to quickly increase your store of vocabulary about a specific topic, then by all means study. Need to pass a test in school? Sure, study for it. When the goal is to pass a test or improve your grasp on something specific, then study is the way to go.
But if you don’t speak the language confidently right now, then it’s time someone broke this news to you: studying is not the way to get this confidence!
But I’m almost ready!
When you study, you acquire vocabulary, you improve your grammar and you do exercises. Logically enough, your level improves. With time, your potential increases and you can understand more and you can theoretically join in on a wider scope of conversations. “One day”, when you’re ready, you can finally start speaking confidently. Not today though – maybe you just need to study a little bit more.
Theoretically & Maybe.
Based on my experience and accounts from thousands of learners I’ve met who need their language in the real world (not tests), “theoretically and maybe” translate to never. The academic system seems to have drilled into us that studying is the way to speak a language. Studying helps you improve (and to pass a test you do indeed need to know your grammar/vocab better… because that’s what the test is usually about) but it is an artificial means of acquiring or improving the language. Some artificial ways are quite useful, but they are still artificial.
When you look at a language the same way you look at geography or history or other subjects in school that can be tested, then you simply don’t know what a language actually is.
Stop looking at conversations with human beings as a test that you have to pass (so, every time you make a mistake you get a big red X and if you make a certain amount of them, then you fail). It doesn’t work like that!!
A language is a means of communication. It’s not a table of grammar rules in some dusty old book, or a piece of paper that you have to spread ink across in the right way for your teacher to be happy. German isn’t a rough sounding collection of Datives and Accusatives, it’s families sharing what they did that day. Czech isn’t a frustrating collection of consonant clusters, it’s young couples flirting with one another and someone buying his morning bread.
These are not things that you can put under a microscope. They are people living their lives and sharing experiences with one another. That is what a language is for. When you are locked away in your room you are avoiding this contact and that’s why so many people never speak. They still think about everything they don’t know and see the world that speaks their target language as one big test that they are doomed to fail.
How do you learn to speak then?
So, if studying isn’t how you learn to speak a language, then what is? I’ll tell you, and it’s going to blow your mind.
Are you ready?
Are you sitting down? Brace yourself!
You have to speak it! Yes, I know – it sounds absolutely crazy, doesn’t it! To speak a language you have to actually speak it.
It will be hard at first – you won’t know how to say things, it will be embarrassing, you’ll hesitate a lot and feel frustrated that you can’t say things precisely the way you want to. This will happen even if you study for decades. Until you actually use the language in its natural context (or at least in a course that gets you to speak to people) you will always have this barrier to get through. You simply have to break through it. If you practise often enough and enthusiastically enough you will get to the other side quite quickly. You can do this in person if there are natives or other learners close by, or over the Internet with millions of natives.
However, you can’t study to get this confidence. Confidence isn’t hidden somewhere on page 182, it’s getting into an actual conversation and proving to yourself (Obama style) yes you can.
Too many people study to gain confidence – this is an oblique way of going about it. You have to simply get used to speaking the language. Know how it feels to have the words come out of you rather than in an artificial test in which you have several minutes to think about things.
Last night with the English speakers I had the almost magic ability to turn them into German speakers with nothing more than a 5 minute pep-talk to boost their confidence and give them some language hacks. I didn’t teach them any actual German or tell them to study in a particular way. They had the potential to speak the entire time, no matter what their level was.
You haven’t learned enough to say anything yet? Hogwash! In many European languages you have thousands of words before you even start. In all languages you can study for a couple of hours (rather than years) to get basic phrases and then use them. Use what you know and go from there. Then you will see what you do need to work on (usually it will be something very specific and relevant to your situation rather than “chapters 1 to 7″), and then very specific study will help you improve how you are speaking so you will be able to express yourself a little better. But you already have the ability to say something right now.
There are a LOT of ways you can speak a language in the first weeks even if you didn’t study it much yet. So many ways that I had to write 30,000 words to describe them.
So what do you think? Picking on the academic system is such an easy target because it does such a miserable job in so many places and wastes the time of millions of people when it comes to language conversing ability. There are exceptions, and there are great courses to take, but that is usually because they have students converse in as natural a way as possible. Once the focus changes from studying to actually using the language to communicate with people then the road to speaking well, and doing it quickly, is opened up.
Don’t have this attitude of Leave me alone! Can’t you see I’m learning your language?
A language is a social tool and being locked up in your room studying it is, frankly, antisocial. You can’t avoid studying to improve your language skills, but if you want to speak then stop studying and just speak already!!
Of course, I wrote in depth about how I learn to speak languages with as little study as possible in the Language Hacking Guide. If you are a blogger check out information about becoming an affiliate.
I’m sure you can all understand how passionate I am to get this message out there – speaking a language does not have to be a chore! When I hear so many people complain about grammar I feel like they are looking at their language wrong and focusing on the wrong things. Stop complaining about it and just start speaking! You’ll make mistakes, but you will get over the barrier and start on the path to fluency
Looking forward to your comments! Feel free to call me crazy (as always…), but offensive or irrelevant comments will be eaten up by the Smoke Monster from Lost.
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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