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Frequently asked questions for an experienced language learner

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Last week I shared some FAQs for a long-term traveller, and taking a bunch of questions that readers have been sending me on Facebook, twitter and the LHL email list, now I'll discuss some language learning issues that people have been wondering about.

Note that I discuss FAQs about the website and my missions separately here.

As you can see, half of these are requests for advice and the others are curiosities about my personal experience as a language learner. Feel free to ask more questions in the comments (after searching the site to see whether I've answered it already or not), and you can get an interesting more in-depth discussion about what is causing you problems if you ask the Fi3M community in the forums.

How do you stay motivated to keep learning through the long intermediate stage?

This one is never a problem I have because my work in a language is not study focused. [Or when it is study-focused I have a short term looming deadline I can't escape, like when I sat the C2 German exam.]

Studying over the long term can get boring quickly, but I aim to practically use my language as often as I can. If I have a looming coffee date in the language that I've set up even if I'm not in the country, then my motivation to study is very strong and I'll do some SRS flashcards, maybe read some text to have hard words highlighted, or even study grammar to fine tune my mistakes.

This way I am doing more than simply speaking, but speaking is always the core. The fact that I know I'm going to use the language for real means that I'm motivated to improve it ever so slightly just before the meeting. Each one of these “last minute” study sessions adds up.

When you are learning and using it, and serious about improving, the motivation will always be there.

Have you ever used a foreign language you know well to learn another one?

Yes – one of my favourite books to help me get the basics of a language is the Assimil de poche series, written in French. I learned a lot of my Hungarian, Turkish and many other languages with this book. Interestingly enough, I find their Irish one (L'irlandais de poche) to be among the best introductions to the language that I've come across; way better than so many English attempts.

And there have been countless times where someone helps me to learn a language, explaining it in another language to me, which is not English. Many of my Italian friends are those I met in Spain, on the Erasmus exchange program. So when I visited them in their home town, they helped me advance in Italian, constantly explaining things I didn't understand in Spanish, since they wouldn't speak English themselves.

How can you join in on a conversation when you don't understand every word?

This question screams perfectionism to me, which is a terrible mentality to have for language learning.

You don't need to understand “every word” to join in on a conversation!

When I'm learning a language, there will be many times that I barely understand half of the words I'm hearing. This is obviously to be expected. Accept it.

What you can do instead is learn to extrapolate, based on the mountains of context and non-verbal cues, and fill in the gaps thanks to the one or two words you do understand. I gave a detailed example of how I did this in the initial stages of re-learning German here.

And for your part of the conversation, don't forget to use connectors to ease the flow.

What about keeping up with a group of natives?

This is an intimidating situation, but you can't just skip over the frustrating bit, study passively until you are “ready” and then feel comfortable “some” day. You have to dive in and force yourself to get used to it. When you are focused and trying to engage, or at least keep up, with time your skills will improve.

To ease along this process, just try your best to keep up and fake it a little. Nod politely and guess what they are saying. Encourage them to do all the talking, to ease some pressure off yourself.

When not with them in person, expose yourself to as much natural content of natives as you can! Download podcasts (NOT language learning ones, real ones), listen to online radio or watch a movie without subtitles. The level you should have here is more or less the same for keeping up with a conversation two natives are having in front of you. These speakers will not slow down for your benefit.

If you've downloaded audio, then use a tool like Audacity to slow it down, so you can hear things a little easier if they are speaking too quickly for you, and send tricky segments of the text to Rhinospike to have a native help you out with a transcription.

Then turn on the subtitles on the movie, but only have subtitles in the language itself to help you associate the sounds with the written word. Translated subtitles are next to useless for learning a language, because most people will just read them and not need to listen at all, perhaps only picking up random new vocabulary, but not training themselves in focusing on understanding the native language on its own merit.

As with everything, try, try, try again and with time your skills WILL improve in keeping up with natives. Accept that it will be frustrating, and that this is totally natural, but will pass.

Do you feel like a different person when speaking different languages?

Yes. Part of the way I separate languages in my head and not mix them up, is to create a ‘personality' that I associate with the languages.

So everything changes for me when I switch to that language; my body language, the topics I would be likely to discuss, if I'm chilled out, or more outgoing, etc. based on what's more appropriate in that language and culture.

There are so many benefits to attempting this. It convinces that person not to speak English with you, when you lose major typical English-speaker traits, and thus makes them more comfortable around you and feel less that you are a “foreigner”, and open up to you more.

I curse way more in some languages than others, and act like a clown or more cultured, based on what I know works with people my age in that place. Ignoring such cultural aspects is a huge mistake when learning a language.

What language do you dream in?

I'm no expert on dreaming, but it seems to me that language is not an aspect of dreaming in any real sense. Language is a means of communication between two people and at best you can consciously force yourself to self-dialogue during the day in the language as I suggest below. But if you've spent all day with some noise on in the background and you think you were dreaming in that language because of it, it's really just that. You THINK you were.

I could think that I speak Japanese in a dream, without ever studying it or knowing a single word of it. The same way I can think that I'm flying, or that a supermodel is tearing my clothes off. It's a figment of my imagination.

So in my dreams I will think that I'm speaking some language with someone depending on where the dream takes place, and I'll generally do this for any language that I'm actively working on or using.

But the fact that I think I'm “speaking” the language in my dream is meaningless as far as I'm concerned, since apart from distinguishing actual words on occasion, a dream flows in a way that makes actual “conversations” or even full sentences to simply not take place nearly all the time. It's an illusion of speaking that you will remember in a blurry way in retrospect that we tend to with dreams. It didn't really happen!

Shorter, less cynical answer: Probably half in English, a quarter in the current active language, and another quarter in a language I have learned before, even if I've forgotten it.

How do you stop thinking via English?

Thinking in English and translating it is a terribly slow way to communicate. Through constant real-life exposure, you will be forced to think quicker and the words will come out without you having to go via English.

One way of helping this is to learn vocabulary by images instead of dictionaries, and to force yourself not to say the word in English in your head.

I don't think in English when speaking any language; the weird phrasing and direct translations and wrong word order make this an important point to work on.

Another thing that has helped me immensely is to force my inner dialogue to be in that language. So if I go to the fridge and it's empty, I won't think “Shite! I forgot to buy X!” but “¡Joder! Se me olvidó comprar X!”  if I wanted to encourage a Spanish mindset. This will be grammatically wrong and lack words in initial learning stages, but I'll still do it as much as I can and it's very effective in keeping up momentum and not switching back to English, even when alone.

Making sure the interfaces for all of your devices is in the target language also helps for virtual immersion when you aren't with people, and doing as much as you can (reading, watching movies etc.) in that language without “relaxing” in English can squeeze that nasty English right out of you! Abandoning English altogether was the reason I could learn to think in Spanish so quickly in the first place.

These are just some of the questions that I get asked a lot. I try to cover anything else I get asked on the blog, but in general I explained the vast majority of my learning process in the Language Hacking Guide. You'll also get the general gist of most steps I take in learning a language by reading through as many blog posts as you can.

But if you think there is a question I still haven't ever answered, feel free to ask it below. If it's a really interesting question I may devote a whole blog post to it! Otherwise I'll try to answer here or in a second FAQ post some time later 🙂

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

Fluent in 3 Months: The Challenge

Have a 15-minute conversation in your new language after 90 days