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How fast could you learn a language… if you totally avoided speaking English?
How difficult would it be to live completely outside your native tongue, starting with just the basics of a brand new language?
Could you become reasonably fluent in just three months?
There are the questions my friend Vat and I set out to explore in our recent year-long trip around the world.
ONE YEAR WITHOUT ENGLISH: 4 LANGUAGES IN 365 DAYS
Vat and I went to four countries – Spain, Brazil, China and Korea – chosen for geographic diversity and personal interest. We spent 3 months in each country, aiming to learn as much as possible of the local language by following one simple rule: don’t speak English.
How well did we do?
Here’s a brief, unscripted video you can see of us speaking in all four languages, so you can judge for yourself.
The short answer is that because we had no choice but to dive into each language, we learned a lot in all 4 languages. But did we become fluent?
The only exam I took to measure by ability was China’s official exam for testing fluency in Mandarin Chinese (the HSK 4), which I passed with a 74%. The creators of the exam state an official correspondence with this and a B2 level, however that’s not without some controversy.
For the other languages, I’ll have to use more of an informal assessment.
My rough estimate is that we reached upper intermediate level in Spanish, and intermediate Portuguese. Vat’s Chinese was somewhat worse than mine, probably reaching a lower-intermediate level. However my Korean was somewhat worse than his, with him reaching an intermediate, and me reaching a lower-intermediate level. (This wasn’t too surprising, since Vat was excited to learn Korean from the start of our trip, whereas I’d gotten really into Chinese. Motive matters).
This means that in Spanish, we’re functionally fluent. We make grammatical mistakes and have an accent, but we can easily have long conversations with strangers about any topic, without a dictionary. Portuguese a little less so, although still conversational. Chinese and Korean are difficult to compare to European languages, since they don’t follow the same difficulty curve, but we were both comfortable using the languages for daily life.
LESSONS I LEARNED FROM SPEAKING NO ENGLISH
The four languages of this trip weren’t my first time learning a foreign language. That was French. I had spent a year studying in France as part of my university course.
Like Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Korean, I had only minimal practice in French and wanted to become fluent during my stay. But unlike my recent languages, I didn’t throw myself into the language with no English. I worked hard and I studied hard, and I left with an intermediate level of French. But unfortunately it was often painfully difficult. Even six months after I started, holding a long conversation was exhausting.
Contrast that with Spanish, where Vat (who had no prior experience with Romance languages) and I both outdid a year of living and studying in French in just three months. I couldn’t believe that it was possible to learn a language four times as fast, especially since my time learning French was strenuous and didn’t feel particularly slow.
Today I want to share the methods we used that led to such a huge difference in efficiency and effort. Hopefully you can apply them to speed up your own learning tasks.
Spain: Why Opting for Zero English Actually Makes Learning Easier
Spain was the first country in our journey. We were nervous about the no-English rule. After all, what if it simply proved too difficult? What if our idea to limit English for a year was actually a vow of silence, if learning a language in three months was beyond our abilities?
Because of this pressure, Vat and I were extremely strict about not speaking English. We permitted some necessary calls to family back home, or English in emergencies, but otherwise we spoke only in Spanish to anyone we met, including each other.
Sometimes this had funny consequences. Benny happened to be living in Valencia, Spain at the same time we were doing our Spanish project. Benny speaks fluent Spanish, but unfortunately his partner Lauren does not. That meant Benny ended up translating for us back to English whenever the four of us would hang out.
From the outside, this sounds painfully difficult. Heck, even looking back I’m amazed we were able to be so stubbornly consistent about applying the rule in Spain.
From the inside, however, it was a different story. The first two weeks were hard, especially on Vat, who didn’t have as much prior practice. But after that initial grind things got a lot easier. So much easier that by the middle of the second month we didn’t even think about it. We were learning intensely, but life itself was fairly relaxed.
If there’s one lesson from our trip it’s this: going no-English is hard in the beginning, but it quickly becomes much less strenuous than learning a language by any other method. Putting up with an intense first month allowed me to quadruple my previous progress in French, where I was also working hard at the language and living in France.
Brazil: Immersion Trumps Studying
Our experience learning Portuguese in Brazil was a lot bumpier than in Spain. For one, our practice was extremely limited. When we arrived, I had done four hours learning some very basic expressions and Vat hadn’t done any.
On top of this, we had some temporary problems upon arrival. Our prebooked apartment was a nightmare, so after cancelling the rent, we were temporarily homeless. Finding a new apartment was difficult since nobody spoke English or Spanish and everything had been booked for the holidays. Language learning was no longer a fun excursion; it was necessary for survival.
We wandered up and down the small village we lived in, with a pre-memorized phrase saying “We’re looking for an apartment for two months.” After several days and dozens of rejections, we finally found someone who might be able to rent us a place that was supposed to be for sale. This led to an interesting experience seeing the Brazilian bureaucracy at work, with lawyers being brought in, contracts being signed, fingerprints taken and family histories written down. Perhaps a little excessive for two months of pre-paid rent.
Despite that rocky start, we both picked up on the Portuguese quickly and in less than a month we were back to our normal lives. Neither of us studied very much, preferring to learn while taking surfing lessons or at the local samba bar. Vat was even working full-time on his portfolio for architecture school most of the trip, and it didn’t slow him down.
Studying is great, but it doesn’t substitute for immersion. If you can’t get the immersion of living in the country, you can at least try to avoid your native language during Skype lessons, or go to meetups where you only speak the target language. You’ll be amazed at what a difference it makes to the speed of your progress.
Click to tweet: “Studying a language is great, but it’s no substitute for full immersion.”
China and Taiwan: The Importance of Laying a Foundation
China was beautiful, fascinating and probably my favorite country. But it was also fiendishly difficult.
I know Benny doesn’t like to dwell on the assumed “difficulty” of languages. That’s an attitude that can trap you into thinking learning or immersion is impossible. I completely agree.
However, I think the difficulty of Chinese relative to Spanish or Portuguese was also very useful in reshaping our learning methods. While immersion with limited studying was more than enough in Spain and Brazil, in China this method started to show some defects.
For one, the entry barrier to communication in China is higher. The phonology is difficult, so people often don’t understand you, even when you believe you’re speaking correctly. Second, it has few cognates with English, so you must learn an entirely new pantheon of linguistic concepts and connections.
My solution was to spend more time building a foundation. Practice tone drills until you can produce them reliably. Learn to associate syllables to fundamental concepts, so you can recognize them when they’re built into compound words. I even chose to learn the characters, to help solidify this association between fundamental concepts and the words I chose to learn.
Chinese was a lot more work than Spanish or Portuguese. But it was also more rewarding. Unlike European languages which often link to similar religions, cultures, values and ways of conceptualizing the world, Chinese stands alone. So each conversation, while hard-won, was also a link to a completely different history and culture.
Chinese also becomes progressively easier to learn the larger your foundation. Originally, Vat and I found it much harder to learn new Chinese words than when we were first learning Spanish. Near the end, however, we knew enough of the building blocks so new words could be linked back to old concepts: panda is a “bear cat”, pumpkin is a “south melon”, wine is “grape alcohol”.
I had prepared more than Vat with Chinese, so I was able to shift into the no-English rule easier than he did. I still found it incredibly useful, but I also believe it takes more foundational work for it to be successful.
Korea: Don’t Let Other Language Learners Hold You Back
During our travels, we met a lot of foreigners who wanted to learn the local language, but weren’t making the progress they desired. Nowhere was this more abundant than in Korea.
While in Korea, the majority of Westerners we met couldn’t speak more than a handful of Korean sentences. Some had lived there for decades and still hadn’t reached a level where they could hold a basic conversation.
There are some reasons for this: many people go to Korea to teach English, and never fully form a plan for learning Korean. The English level of young people is quite good. Like Chinese, it doesn’t share any linguistic roots with European languages and it has some tricky pieces of phonology and grammar.
However, valid as these reasons may be, they almost created a cult of Korean impossibility. Everyone we spoke to complained about how difficult it was to make any progress in learning Korean.
Vat and I, at this point on our trip, were pretty exhausted. Nearly a year of travel and having repeated the language-learning immersion process three times in a row, we were hardly in our best shape. We had broken the no-English rule a number of times, and we were feeling guilty about not holding to the principles of our project.
Still, I managed to reach a working level of Korean in three months, with Vat’s improving even faster than mine. Korea was difficult for us personally, after a year of travel, but it certainly didn’t meet the standards of impossibility that many of our acquaintances complained about.
What I learned in Korea was that sometimes a language is difficult to learn, not because of difficulty, but because everybody is afraid to try. If you surround yourself with people who never really attempt to immerse themselves, the odds of success appear artificially low.
Unlike Benny, Vat and I didn’t intend our trip to become a permanent lifestyle. We wanted to take a gap year to explore and then return to our normal lives. Vat has gone back to study architecture and I’ve returned to writing in Canada.
That said, we don’t plan on giving up the language learning progress. Three months may be an interesting experiment, but the goal isn’t intermediacy—it’s fluency.
In the five months since we’ve returned, I’ve maintained a fairly consistent schedule of weekly conversation practice with each of the languages. I’ve focused more on Chinese lately, by finishing learning the first 2500 characters. I now plan to begin practicing handwriting and reading real books and articles. I also got to spend two weeks in Mexico recently, improving my Spanish.
The real advantage of the short-term immersion project, in my mind, was that it helped us both get over the frustration barrier of learning a new language. When you can’t do anything, practicing a language is frustrating. When you can have conversations, even basic ones, it’s fun.
How You Can Use No-English in Your Language Learning Missions
Maybe you’re not quite ready to embark on a year without your native language, and that’s okay. But there are still simpler (and cheaper) ways you can apply this advice into your own language-learning project to get past that frustration barrier and start enjoying it.
- Go no-English with a partner or roommate. Most of our learning came from communicating with each other. So you could get a lot of the same benefit just by committing to chatting to the people you live with, in your target language. Here’s an interesting video of two friends who did that with Spanish.
- Take a month of immersion in a country. Three months is a completely arbitrary time period. A month, or even two weeks, can still accelerate your learning. This is particular the case if it’s a language you’ve already studied for some time. With these languages, going no-English for even as little as a week can cause rapid growth. You may even discover that you’re close to fluent than you imagined.
- Set your first no-English tutoring session. I don’t agree that going no-English for tutoring is always the best idea (you may not be able to ask the questions you need to, in order to learn how the language works). But even if you don’t always go no-English, having chunks of time for conversation practice is something you can start from the very first day.
Click to tweet: “A month, or even two weeks living abroad, can rapidly accelerate your learning.”
Languages are a window to different cultures, people and ways of thinking. Unfortunately, it’s a window that’s often unnecessarily locked behind years of studying or false beliefs about what you can learn.
I hope my project shows you that the window is much more open than it first appears.
Want to take on your own Rapid Learning challenges, like the Year Without English? Then check out Scott's Rapid Learner course.