After years of investigating what separates successful language learners from unsuccessful ones, I believe I have found the one thing that those who ultimately succeed and speak the language fluently, all have in common.
It's not the course materials they use, or their ability to travel, it's not a particular aspect of their “method”, it's not their wealth, and it isn't even their natural born intelligence.
Oh, but I'm passionate already! I “really really” want to speak the language! you may say – not good enough.
In fact, that's way off what I'm talking about and even if you “really really” want it, you can still ultimately fail, as many have. The desire to speak a foreign language has to be so important to you that you would do anything to achieve it.
What are you willing to do to speak the language?
As part of the audio of the Language Hacking Guide, I had the chance to interview some successful language learners like Khatzumoto from AllJapaneseAllTheTime, Moses McCormick, Professor Arguelles and several others. Some of them may have extremely different approaches to learning a language compared to me, but each interview (each one about 45 minutes long) was nothing but agreement.
Rather than nitpick at our differences, I wanted to see what we all have in common despite our different backgrounds, end-goals and reasons to learn languages. If I had to summarise it briefly it's simply that we would all do anything to reach our goals.
To show you what I mean, here is an excerpt of the interview with Moses McCormick. Definitely have a listen to see what he is willing to do to get some practise of his target languages: (click through to the website if you are reading this by RSS/e-mail).
Do you see what I mean? Moses was so passionate to get some practise of Hmong, that when people didn't want to help him practise he did what was necessary to make it happen.
Would you have done the same in his situation? No? Then I'd say you aren't passionate enough about your language.
I could party with other foreigners the entire time in my travels and that would give me a short-term “fix” of fun, but instead I decide to embrace making mistakes, avoid speaking English, and socialise almost exclusively with locals for the purposes of my language mission.
Sometimes it is very hard and stressful, without any of the glamour of travel you might think of – but I'm passionate about my goals, so I get results. In the short-term I make certain days much more difficult for myself, but in the long-term I reap the benefits of truly exploring local culture.
Would you be willing to do these things if you were abroad? If you “really want it” then the answer may still be no. Nearly all expats I meet who never learn the local language still “want to” learn it. Their problem is that they simply don't care enough.
Stop comparing yourself to others – it's your own journey
Maybe it's easy for me because I travel? Or it's easy for that some guy you know because he can afford private tutoring? No. These things don't make a difference if you aren't passionate. Any “perfect” method or situation is wasted on someone with no passion.
To continue from this, Khatzumoto gave an excellent metaphor of comparing language learning to the Olympics and how futile it is to just look at the end result of other people's language learning and feel like you could never achieve that:
[The full version of both of these and more interviews are included in the Language Hacking Guide]
If you are truly passionate then you are willing to put in the work to reach that end-goal. Don't look at me or Khatz, or Moses or your friend who learned a language and think we have some advantage you don't. Each one of us had to go through our own struggles and have put more hours of work into it than you can appreciate.
Speaking a language (or running in the Olympics) is an amazing thing, but the steps needed to get there are something that anyone can do. The problem is only the truly passionate will put in the work to make it happen, so this is why it's so “rare”. The true passion is what is really rare.
There have been days where sometimes the thought comes to me that maybe I'm not “good enough” to speak this language – maybe I'll fail miserably and it isn't even worth trying. These days happen to everyone – rather than letting that pessimistic view dominate my mission, I squash it whenever it appears and get back to work.
Can you become more passionate?
Your devotion to your language learning project is your choice. If you are too lazy and want to just learn a language while you sleep or do something else, then frankly you don't care enough.
If you are willing to make the time to get some genuine focused work in every day, and to get over your fear of talking to strangers to give yourself opportunities to practise in person, or to do whatever is needed in your own situation to make sure you are constantly making progress, then you are passionate and you have paved the road for things to happen.
Stop telling yourself that you are too stupid, or that you are making too many mistakes. These “mantras” are what are holding you back! I've met many many people who tell me that they are “too stupid” to learn a language and I can tell immediately that they most certainly are not. This idea of them being too stupid is what is holding them back.
Make a new mantra of I will master this language no matter what and do what it takes for this to happen. Change your vague “want” into a desire that goes well beyond even I need to speak this language. Make it a priority in your life and it will happen.
…or just nod as you read this and think “that makes sense” and get back to a vague half-assed investment and wonder why you aren't making progress at a useful rate. The choice is yours.