How to Really Learn a Language
Imagine that you arrive late to a magic show. All the seats are taken, but you’ve already paid your entry fee. The theater staff offers you a chance to watch from a seat backstage and refunds your money. You gladly accept, take your seat, and start watching the magician perform a card trick. At one point during the trick, you observe a subtle hand movement made by the magician that everyone else in the audience would be unable to see. You realize he has cards up his sleeve, yet everyone else perceives his trick as magic. Several different sleight of hand tricks occur in this manner, and you happen to see the hidden movements of each trick, revealing the secrets behind them all. You are the only person in the room with this visual advantage
After the show, the magician gives a question and answer forum for the audience. Most questions have to do with the way certain tricks were performed. Instead of answering, the magician asks the audience if anyone can figure out the answers. You just happen to know how he performed every trick, so you speak up to reveal the magician’s secrets. After the show, several people approach you astonished at your “ability” and “gift” of discernment and deduction. They have no idea that you aren’t gifted at all. You simply saw the show from a different perspective.
People often accuse me of having a gift for languages. I’m just trying to invite them backstage. I guess I should introduce myself, then. My name is Jeff Martin. I am a Master Certified Spanish Court Interpreter. I currently have no college degree. I have never lived in a Spanish-speaking country nor household. I, like many of you, took Spanish for a few semesters in high school, but was still unable to speak and understand the spoken language. Despite all of this, I was somehow able to pass one of the most difficult language tests in existence to become a Master Certified Court Interpreter.
I first began to really learn foreign languages at the age of 17. A few months after graduating high school, I went on a youth mission trip to Brazil. After just three days of being in Brazil, I found myself being able to hold basic conversations in Portuguese. After our two-week trip, we returned to the U.S., and I immediately looked for Brazilians to practice with. I became friends with several native Brazilians in my local community, stayed in constant contact with my friends in Brazil, and quickly progressed in Portuguese.
Later that year, I started my first full time job working at a turkey plant. The first thing I noticed was the massive amount of migrant Hispanic workers. At first, I had no desire to learn Spanish, but after my one-week orientation, I was introduced to one of my supervisors. During a conversation with him, we were interrupted by one of the Hispanic workers, and I witnessed my boss speak what seemed to be fluent Spanish with ease! Amazed, I asked him where he had learned it. He replied that he just picked it up at the plant by speaking with the workers and had become fluent in seven months!
It was at that point that I made a goal to test my abilities and become fluent in less time than he had. After three months, I had become fluent enough that many supervisors would ask me to interpret for their staff meetings. While working there, I was exposed to other languages as well. From other migrant workers I learned the basics in Chinese, Korean, and a Mayan dialect called Mam. Thirteen months after I started my first full time job as a factory worker, I left in order to pursue a career more related to my newfound passion for languages.
People ask me all the time how to learn a language. In the past, I would simply tell them the names of some language courses that I like. Very few of the people who have asked me for advice in the past ever reached fluency, which is what led me to write this book.
When I first began learning foreign languages, people told me I had a gift. I believed that to be true for a long time until I met a guy who ended up becoming one of my best friends. I first met Derek Miller while I was working as a guitar salesman at Musician’s Toy Store, in Jacksonville, NC. By that point, I had already become fluent in English, Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and had learned the basics in French, German, Swiss German, Mandarin, Hebrew, and had dabbled in several other languages. So, it was easy for me to believe that I had a gift, especially since I hadn’t met anyone else who could do what I do.
Since Derek was immediately impressed with my language abilities he, like most people I met, asked me how I did it. I honestly never really knew how to answer that question, so I simply recommended a particular language course that I had recently stumbled across. The course that I recommended to Derek was an all audio course that I had used before my first trip to Europe in 2003. I recommended it to everyone that ever asked me about languages. Not a single person who I had recommended the course to became fluent, which always baffled me. It was easiest to assume that everyone was right about me having a gift for languages.
The following year, after I had begun working as an interpreter, Derek called me out of the blue and asked me for the name of that course I had recommend to him. He said he wanted to learn Spanish. I gladly gave him the information and a few tips on how to use the course. A few weeks later, Derek and I were having phone conversations in Spanish! While he was going through the course, and obviously afterwards, he spent lots of time with native speakers and became really fluent. A few months after our first Spanish conversation, he landed a position as a medical interpreter for a local clinic! That was when something in me shifted. If Derek could do it, and I could do it, couldn’t anyone?
Thus began the long process of pondering and analysis. I decided to start giving Spanish lessons to my coworkers to see if I could discover how people learn foreign languages. The problem was that not one person had success in my class. It wasn’t until years later that I realized I had set them up for failure by teaching them the Spanish alphabet on day one. In retrospect I believe that each one of them would be super fluent in Spanish or any other language by now if they had only been given the information you’re reading in this book. It wasn’t until my wife and I had children that I finally began to understand how people learn languages. The process became quite obvious to me while going through the experience of teaching our first daughter how to speak. I feel bad for my first language students. Right now, they are probably a lot like you: led to believe that some people have it and most don’t.
Over the years I have heard a plethora of excuses as to why a person cannot learn a foreign language. I’m sure you’ve heard those myths too. I personally believe that those myths began when the current system for learning languages was established. When a person sets out to complete a task and fails, what is their natural response? Justification. Most people can’t cope with failure, so they justify to themselves why such failure occurred, usually blaming external forces beyond their control: I’m too old. I started too late in life. I am not gifted. I’ve never lived in a foreign country. I wasn’t exposed to the language before a certain age.
Let’s take a moment to consider a scenario. If you were the same race you are now, but were born and raised in China, wouldn’t you speak Chinese? What if you moved to Syria at the age of 5? Wouldn’t you also speak Arabic? Certainly! But what about now? Don’t you have the same body and mind that you just claimed was capable of learning Chinese and Arabic? Picture yourself standing face to face with a Chinese person. Don’t they have a similar anatomy to yours (aside from gender, perhaps)? Aren’t their speech organs similar to yours? Then why do you believe that you can’t learn to produce the same language sounds as them?
Over the years I have met a handful of people that can speak other languages and sound just like a native. They all have one thing in common. They spent a considerable amount of time with native speakers. Are those people more talented at language than you? I don’t think so. I personally believe that you are, in part, multilingual.
How many versions of English can you speak? For example, you could be talking on the phone to your best friend, using mostly “street slang,” then on the same day go to court to pay a ticket, where most of the language you would use is of a high register and filled with legal terms and formalities. That evening you might attend a political rally, followed by a church service. Later that night you read your 5-year-old daughter a bedtime story. You would speak in at least five different registers of English on just that day alone.
It might not seem like that big of a difference to you, but try speaking street slang in the courtroom or talking politics with your 5-year-old. Each situation calls for a different “version” of English. Does this make you multilingual? Perhaps not, but the complexity of your language abilities in your native language is obvious. You see, in essence, you are a language master. Your ability to learn your first language amazes me much more than myself or anyone else learning a foreign language. I believe that if we apply the same skill set and techniques that we used naturally to learn our own language to learning a foreign language, we can become just as fluent.
So now I ask you to come with me on a journey- a language journey, if you will. You just may catch yourself believing in you.
01 System Failure
ASK YOURSELF THESE TWO QUESTIONS:
How many bilingual people do I know? How did they become bilingual?
Let’s pretend you are planning a trip to Mexico next summer, so you decide to learn Spanish. How would you learn it? Most people would either register for a Spanish class or buy a course, right? Chances are you or someone you know have already done so. In fact, millions of people have taken foreign language classes or purchased courses, but how many of them have achieved fluency?
Shortly after I became fluent in Spanish, I had an experience that began to open up my eyes to the existence of a problem in the way languages are being taught. One night, while I was at work, one of the plant section managers called me over to him, asking me to speak Spanish to another employee. By then, I was quite used to people prompting me to speak Spanish in order to show off my ability, so I thought nothing of it. I was shocked, however, when he responded back to me in Spanish. He spoke very slowly, and with a heavy American accent. When I asked him how he had learned it, he said that he was a Spanish major in college. I was astounded! He had a degree in Spanish but sounded like a beginner!
Since then I have encountered countless similar situations. A friend of mine who is an attorney, Tyrell Clemons, once told me that I inspired him, because every time he sees me interpreting he wishes he could speak Spanish. He added that he studied Spanish for eight years in school and still can’t speak it. When Hispanic clients come to his office, the only thing he can say to them is “un momento.”
Working as a court interpreter, I’ve met many more attorneys that studied Spanish in college, but only a few of them are even close to being fluent. But, why? Attorneys are highly educated, and most are extremely intelligent. There must be an explanation.
I could list hundreds of other examples of people who have “learned” a language either by taking classes or purchasing a course, most with little to no actual results, which points out the existence of a serious problem – where are all the bilinguals?
Of all the people I know, only a very small percentage of them are bilingual, most of whom are either children of immigrants to the U.S., have lived in a foreign country, worked closely with or have been in a relationship with one or more native speakers. I have yet to find one person that has become fluent by using a course or taking a class. Can this be explained by simply claiming that languages are hard to learn? Do you have to be gifted to learn languages?
Almost everyone I know speaks a language. You are not born speaking your native tongue, rather you must learn how to do so. This skill is not one that is lost after childhood. In fact, it is refined over and over again until you graduate high school or college. Even after that, you have to learn the jargon required to function in any given situation in life. Also, new words are constantly being introduced into our vocabularies via technology, pop culture, cinema, television, literature, the internet, etc.
You see, we are natural language learners, and our mastery of language grows ever increasingly until we eventually lose our mental faculties due to old age or illness. The problem is not that we are unable to learn languages; rather, we need to become aware of how we learned our first language and apply that knowledge to learning other languages. The best way to achieve said awareness is to observe how children learn language. Better yet, let’s look back at how we learned our first language.
Before we were born, at around 18 weeks after conception, our ears were developed enough to hear. It was at this point that language first began to make an impression on us. Through our sense of hearing, we are aware of an endless stream of sounds, a large percentage of them being spoken words. Obviously at this point we don’t even know what language is, but nevertheless we are perceiving it. We spend the next 4.5 months or so mostly listening.
Once we are born we are no longer surrounded by embryonic fluid, therefore sounds become clearer than ever. Plus, we now have the ability to make sounds. On day one we begin to use our mouths to cry, laugh, babble, etc. We are also aware of sounds that emanate from the mouths of others. We recognize Mom’s voice right away, as hers was the loudest while in the womb.
As babies, we are constantly being coached in speaking. Our parents hold us close and speak directly to us. They speak slowly and often use “baby talk,” repeating the simplest of words; such as “mama” or “dada.” We have the wonderful advantage of face time, and we marvel as we watch their mouths move to produce the words, as well as the facial expressions that go along with them.
Over the first several months of life we gradually develop the ability of mimicry. That’s when the magic begins to happen. We’ve already been able to identify some things through context, but now that we can mimic, we are able to learn at an exponential rate. The words we mimic produce responses in other people. When we say “mama” our mother responds with such delight. These responses trigger emotions in us and help us to identify people, places, and things in our life.
We then continue to progress by listening, repeating, and connecting sounds (words) with objects, people, and actions. We eventually begin to group words together. First, two words at a time, then three, then four, until we are finally able to speak in sentences. With time, practice, listening, and helpful coaching, our accent and pronunciation improve, causing us to sound less like a toddler, and more like a native speaker. This process continues until we are finally fluent enough to begin kindergarten. It is at this magical time that we are taught how to draw sounds.
By the age of 5, most of us already know about 5,000 words. Around this age we begin school, start to learn how to read, write, and use proper grammar. When we learned the alphabet, we were taught to assign sounds of our native tongue to each letter or combination of letters, sounds that we had already learned how to produce. Those are the same sounds we can mentally “hear” while reading silently.
Compare this to the common classroom approach to learning foreign languages. The student learns the new alphabet on or about day one. If the alphabet uses Roman script, the student tries desperately to assign new sounds to letters that they have been pronouncing a certain way their whole life, which is extremely difficult. Most students have a natural tendency to pronounce the new alphabet with sounds of their native language, the only language sounds they have mastered. Once the alphabet is “learned,” the student proceeds to learn to read and write in the new language but continues to pronounce the words using his or her native language sounds. (When they see the Spanish word estar, mentally they are still hearing English sounds.) Added to this almost unavoidable trap of mispronunciation is the company of peer learners, the accents of whom are no better. This fosters a sense of social proof, subconsciously leading the student to accept this way of speaking the foreign language. Furthermore, if the student receives passing grades in said class, they can only gather that they are doing a good job. To make things worse, there is a likelihood the teacher is not a native speaker, having studied along this same path and received a college degree, yet never having mastered the correct pronunciation, perpetuating this verbal folly. If a student happens to be in a classroom in which the instructor is a native speaker, and focuses on correct pronunciation, they may be considered luckier than most. However, being introduced to the written language in the beginning will serve to be an immense obstacle.
This approach results in little to no comprehension of the language when spoken by natives, little to no verbal fluency, and almost always a horrible accent. Although the student may become proficient in reading and writing, the lack of focus on listening and speaking leads to the common proclamation, “I can read it better than I can speak it.”
Most self-study language courses follow a similar approach, in that the learner is exposed to the written language from day one. However, in this case there is no live instructor. Probably the only advantage the classroom setting has over self-study is the human interaction and correction from the instructor, provided the instructor sounds like a native speaker.
Compare the average beginner language student to a 5-year-old native speaker. Who is more prepared to start kindergarten? After all, this common classroom approach to foreign language instruction is almost like a second kindergarten, only in a foreign language. What is the difference in experiences between a toddler and an adult learner? The toddler is learning from a different source; native speakers. If we consider that the toddler sleeps an average of 10 hours per day, 5 years equates to 25,500 waking hours spent mostly around other people, who spend much of their time communicating with other native speakers. Therefore, the 5-year-old’s main advantage is the massive exposure to the language as it is spoken naturally by natives. They have received language coaching consistently throughout their life to this point and are therefore quite proficient. Additionally, their curiosity about life in general causes an endless supply of questions to ask, and be answered in kind, perpetuating their learning of life concepts and the language with which to describe them.
The beginner foreign language student, however, does not have any of the aforementioned advantages. Therefore, it is unfair to expect them to be able to perform at any level of proficiency no matter how many classes they take.
If the currently accepted approach to language learning is inadvertently yet inevitably designed for you to fail, how then, can you expect to really learn a new language? I believe the answer is simple. You’ve done it once before. Let’s do it again.
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