Today I’m going to share the most important decision I have ever made in learning languages.
This choice changed me from a hopeless “I’m not talented with languages” person to eventually become the polyglot that I am today. The change happened in one day; November 1st, 2003.
If it wasn’t for that one decision I would have given up with my first foreign language, and all later ones, and all of the wonderful experiences of the last 6 years wouldn’t have been possible. Let me explain…
[Edit: For a much more detailed explanation of how I learn languages quickly, check out the Language Hacking Guide]
Months of work and still not speaking
I had spent almost 6 months in Spain (in Valencia); I loved the people, the fiestas, and life in general there. I wanted to stay longer, and I really wanted to speak Spanish.
I was trying so hard! I was studying every day, I even tried expensive courses for a short time, and I was speaking it every chance I got; in the supermarket, at parties with strangers I met, after giving an English class to a child I tried conversing with the parents, etc.
But I still couldn’t actually speak Spanish.
I was just struggling with repeating the same words and phrases over and over. I didn’t get it! I really wanted it; I was motivated! I was working hard. Surely after 6 months I should have been speaking much better than I already was?
I would go to my English speaking friends, and my Spanish friends with good English, because I could properly express myself with them and let off some steam. I would say how maybe Spanish is just too hard for me. Other foreigners were also having the same problem, and yet a few others were so easily picking up the language with apparently little work. [Sigh] Maybe we’re just not the kind of people who will ever pick up languages quickly…
Then I realized something! In a great Eureka moment, I saw both the problem, and the solution. It’s so obvious and yet people still don’t actually get it…
Stop speaking English!!
This may seem like a pointless statement to make when you live in the country already, but I have seen the same pattern hundreds of times and I am seeing it once again here in Prague.
Expats hang out with other English speaking expats and complain about how hard the local language is, or talk about life in general in English. They chat to their boyfriend/girlfriend/friends in English. All of the local friends they have also talk to them in English. They only actually use the local language when they have to; English is actually the language they socialise and relax in most of the time.
I have met some English speakers who have lived in Prague for up to TEN years, and after just a few weeks I already speak better Czech than them!! This does NOT make me feel smart; it makes me feel sad and frustrated for them! And I will meet more people like this in other travels who will look at me like I just have some special gene for languages or something. (Let me say again, that I did horrible in languages in school, and when I was 20 years old, the only language that I spoke was English; up until this crucial decision I was the Average Frustrated Learner).
These people that I keep meeting don’t realize that their English speaking social circle is protecting them from ever speaking the local language. They already have enough of the local language to get by, so why would they need more?
MY PLAN: A very difficult and frustrating month in exchange for the best years of my life
So the decision that I actually made that changed everything was to stop using English entirely. Absolutely no English EVER, except for work, since I was a part-time English teacher, and for weekly phonecalls to my parents. Every other second of my life was to be in Spanish.
I couldn’t conjugate any past-tense verbs, my vocabulary was pathetic and my pronunciation was extremely English, but I decided not to care any more. For the moment, I’d use the present tense and wave behind me or emphasise “yesterday” to try to make it clearer, and I’d use the few words I knew to explain around what I wanted to say, and of course I used a lot of hand waving and gestures until someone got what I was trying to say.
I decided that for exactly 30 days, (the entire month of November) I would speak no English. I warned all of my friends of this in advance, and did some final cramming of words and grammar and then the hardest month of my life began.
Frankly, it was horrible. I couldn’t ask for simple items (always refusing to just say the word in English when the other person would likely know), I couldn’t have a discussion about anything important, so I was as good as a 5 year old for conversations (actually worse), and I couldn’t share my feelings.
It was also frustrating for those who kept insisting that I just say what I wanted to say in English. Most of all, it was exhausting. At the end of the day I’d come home so tired and frustrated. Anyone learning a language in the country knows what this feels like, but imagine not being able to rely on those English-speaking hours for support and to relax! There were many times when I just considered abandoning the plan and be able to express myself properly, but I didn’t give in.
The end of the month came, and you know what? I wasn’t speaking fluently. I still had horrible grammar and a strong accent etc., but eventually over that month something clicked in my mind: I didn’t really need English. It was indeed possible to communicate in the language, even if you don’t speak it well.
Despite the frustration and the need to be able to communicate like a literate adult, I actually felt good about being able to express myself, albeit limited, in Spanish. And even if I hadn’t reached fluency, I was speaking much better than how I was at the beginning of the experiment. I had learned so much because my motivation changed from “I really want to speak Spanish” to “I really need to speak Spanish”! This is an extremely important difference.
By December I had made new friends who didn’t speak any English at all. I decided to continue the experiment a little longer… and it actually turned into a new lifestyle!
Time to make a tough decision!
If you are truly serious about learning a language to fluency as soon as possible, then I recommend you make a similar decision (presuming you are also living in the country). If your English speaking friends understand even a little of the language, then tell them that from now on you are only going to speak to them in it.
If they respond in English, or if a local suggests an English word for what you are trying to say, then that’s fine! But you must only answer them in the language you are learning, or maybe occasionally use the word in English, or a quasi-mixture of English and their language if you must, but don’t actually speak in English.
Stop depending on those English speaking friends and make new ones. In that month I lost a few friends; I realized that some of them were only using me to practise their English, and some of them just simply didn’t have the patience for me and my crazy project. This didn’t help when I actually wanted support and encouragement! But in exchange, I have made some wonderful new friends and have had so many wonderful experiences with people who don’t speak English, ever since then.
When I reveal this to expats I meet in passing, they always give me lots of excuses why it isn’t possible; they have family and friends, they need to relax at the end of the day, it’s too hard etc. I’m not saying it’s an easy decision, but if you are truly serious about speaking the language sooner rather than later, then it’s a decision you may need to make.
If you are new in a country, or about to move there, then decide right now that you will very simply avoid speaking English, even if you have to avoid English speakers themselves. And STICK WITH THE DECISION. Ideally, you can still hang out with the English speakers, but you should all practise the local language instead of speaking English, no matter how weird it seems, or how tempted you are to just use your own common language.
It may seem somewhat antisocial, but not really trying to speak the local language is being even more antisocial with the vast majority of people you could be making friends with. Even if you go to some far away village where nobody speaks English, you may still learn the language slowly if you have just one (likely other foreign) friend that you mostly socialise with in English.
This method continued to this day for me and I now quite dislike speaking English unless it’s necessary (apart from when I’m actually in an English speaking country) and make this very clear to people when they first meet me. This has meant that I rarely socialise with other English speakers; despite all my travels to cities with plenty of expats, I don’t have many American or British or Australian or Irish etc. friends (apart from those I met in Ireland & USA for example). Instead I have a lot of Brazilian, Italian, Argentinian, Spanish, French, Quebecois etc. friends.
This has greatly expanded my cultural horizons and really given me a much better feel for the places that I have lived in. If this includes the price-tag of missing out on having English speaking friends, then so be it. Of course, there are plenty of people who speak fluently in the local language and socialise in English. You could also adapt a less extreme version of my idea and decide to speak at least 3 hours daily (for example) just in the language in question. There are plenty of ways to reach fluency, and I can already tell that mine are quite disagreeable for some! Like all my posts, this is just a suggestion.
Do you think you could make the same decision? Maybe you have a less drastic solution to the problem that I was having in Spain? Has anyone else tried this too? Please do share in the comments! If you’ve been enjoying these posts, but haven’t commented yet, please do say hello to let us know you are out there!
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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