Learning to Speak a Language from Day One

By Nomadic Matt | Published January 2nd, 2012

benny the irish polyglotThis is a guest post from Benny Lewis from Fluent in 3 Months.

This new year, many travelers may have made one of their resolutions to be about learning a foreign language. However, experience has told me that if your New Year’s resolution is to “speak Spanish/French/Japanese,” you are probably bound for failure.

But fear not! After learning and becoming fluent in many languages, despite only speaking English until age 21, I have developed a few tips that will make it easier achieve your goals with your target language and start speaking from day one:

Have Definite Goals

Let me stop you right now and suggest you abandon your extremely vague resolution to “learn” a language and have a tangible goal to actually aim for.

Set an end-goal like:

  • Speak conversational (your language of choice) within two months.
  • Have a 30 second chat in the language by the end of two weeks.
  • Be able to make phonecalls by the end of the month.

What’s different here is that you have something solid to aim for (rather than a vague end goal of speaking “perfectly”) and a very tight deadline to do it in. If you want to speak conversationally or fluently, then define these terms in a real way.

For example, fluency is not the same as being bilingual, so it’s quite OK to still have an accent and make occasional mistakes, although obviously both should be much less than from when you started. Conversational could mean that you can take part in a one-on-one chat with someone, but have trouble keeping up when natives are talking amongst one another.

Whatever it is, define your goal very specifically and set an ambitious time to reach that goal. Even if you just reach 90% of this, you will have made an impressive amount of progress in a short time! It will give you something more concrete to work towards and help keep you motivated to learn.

Stop Learning and Start Speaking

Another major issue those with aspirations to speak a language have is that they waste too much time on academics, drown themselves in grammar and vocabulary study, and devote little time to actually using the language.

Language is a means of communication between human beings, not a list of facts to be memorised. Because of this, you need exposure to humans (not books) if you want to make fast progress. As the saying goes, you need to “use it or lose it.”

Immersion works not because you are physically in a country, but because you are forced to use your language skills, no matter what, all the time. When anyone is truly immersed and enthusiastic about learning, they will always learn the language, regardless of “natural talent”, age, workload and many other excuses people tend to fall on. [Editor's Note: This point is very true. When I lived in Thailand, I picked up a lot of Thai simply because I had to. It was the only way for me to be able to communicate well with the locals. By the end, I was very conversational in Thai and I am probably one of the worst language learners in the world!]

It is hard at first, but if you wait until you are “ready” you may never speak the language. The best way by far is to let go of your doubts and just speak. Make mistakes, but learn while doing it so you make fewer next time. Locals will be happy you are learning the language and help you become better at it. This process of speaking regularly and gaining confidence in your abilities is by far the quickest path to fluency.

Meet Up and Speak

It’s important to remember that the purpose of a language is communication, and thus requires you to be social. If you feel you are an introvert, you should try hard to get out of your shell and meet up with people. There are many ways to do this that don’t involve walking up to a stranger and, as such, are more accessible to the less extroverted among us.

It’s easier to find speakers of major (and minor) languages than you think! Most places in the world, especially big cities, are filled with people from all around the world that speak all kinds of languages, some of whom may be happy to help you learn, as well as fellow enthusiastic learners at the same level as you. I have been able to regularly practice any language that I choose in almost any location using the suggestions below, and have spoken French in Bangkok, Italian in Amsterdam, and German in Colombia.

A few ways to meet other language speakers:

  • Meetup.com: This site’s goal is to gather people with similar interests, to get unplugged from the Internet and to actually meet up in person to share and discuss that interest. It has many regular meetings based on a huge range of interests, including language-specific meetups.
  • Couchsurfing.org: If you read any travel blog, it’s quite likely you’ve heard of Couchsurfing by now. But have you tried using it in your own city before travelling? There are regular meetings where you can meet natives of many languages, and one of the most incredible unused features of the site is that you can search your home city by language and simply message people directly to meet up. Of all social network participants in the world, Couchsurfers are much more likely to be open minded and certainly understanding enough to meet up with you to help you with your target language.
  • Other social networking sites: Try searching Facebook for [your city name] and [language name] and clicking Events. You can usually find some language events that way. You can also put an ad on Craigslist, or even use a dating site to find language partners. I did speed dating in Amsterdam in order to help improve my Dutch for the three months I was there.
  • Offline methods: Ask in your local library or town-hall to see if there are cultural events you could take part in, or ask your friends, or walk up to tourists and try to be helpful!

What to talk about?

When you meet up with native speakers for the first time knowing only a few dozen words or phrases, you may feel intimidated and want to retreat to your books for many more months or years, but there are MANY ways to get started talking to them! I’ve found many ways to keep conversations flowing when my level is basic, making sure they don’t ever get bored  with my hesitations, and using particular phrases that encourage them to keep talking without making me snap out single word answers.

The problem with speaking a language in the early stages is much more about lack of confidence than lack of vocabulary. Keep on learning the vocabulary (a flashcard app and an active imagination can really help) and grammar, but get out there and use the little you know NOW. Before you know it, you will be speaking the language confidently!

Benny Lewis is a professional “language hacker”, but is definitely not naturally talented in languages. He only spoke English when he was 21, and managed to spend an entire six months in Spain initially without learning Spanish. Despite this, he discovered that simply getting out there and speaking with people, even when his level was basic and he was making lots of mistakes, lead to rapid improvement in his language abilities. He blogs full time about his lacking hacking “mission” on fluentin3months.com. He recently started a video project about how to speak from day one.

comments 6 Comments

Great advice! In spite of being an introvert I have learned Spanish through the art of conversation. This is truly the best advice – I have yet to meet anyone that criticized my efforts. The response I get from native speakers has always been praise.

The best way to learn a language is always to speak! But it is not that easy. I lived in Italy for a year, I can understand Italian but never was forced to speak so I still can’t speak :D

Katie at Connect

I absolutely agree about forcing yourself to go out there and interact with people in their first language, even if you make plenty of mistakes. Another great way to keep them interested in the conversation is to learn just a few colloquial phrases or words that are only common to that specific area – trust me – they’ll be impressed with your local knowledge! For instance, if you are a foreigner in Buenos Aires with limited Spanish, but you mention the terms bondi (bus) or guita (money) or a million other words that they only say in Argentina/BA, that is sure to keep the conversation going as no one will be able to understand how a foreigner like yourself throws around these Argentinisms! Anyway, I just wrote a blog post highlighting the importance of this in the context of Ireland: http://www.connect-123.com/blog/1533/irish-slang/

I completely agree with what you wrote about learning grammar and vocabulary but not practicing conversation. I have been in Spain for 3 months and have been talking away in Spanish and it’s been great. I’ve learned so much and met so many interesting people this way. A simple ask for directions can turn into a stimulating conversation for sure.

People from other countries appreciate when you say even a word of their language and TRY. If you don’t give an effort, then it makes it that much harder for you. Have no fear when speaking in a foreign language. Beginning is always hardest part but once you get past that step, it becomes easier.

Great post, with a clear difference between just ‘learning’ and ‘speaking’. The German city I live in is very international, so it is no problem to speak English with anyone. Still, some people learn German almost fluently within a year or two, whereas others still stick to speaking English after 5 years.

I find, those who learn German quickly will use their German skills, no matter how bad, at every possible occasion. Sometimes it gets very irritating, since it prevents from having a fluent conversation or discussion with someone who is still in the process of learning, but those with a strong desire to learn a language are extremely persistent.

These are some really great and clear-cut tips on learning a new language. I really love the notes on “set your goals” and “stop learning and start speaking.” I would definitely consider the article worth the read for those who have vaguely wandered into language learning.

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