how to learn a language fluently

How to Learn a Language Fluently from Scratch

Learning a language is more about the journey than the destination.

It’s about stopping to smell the roses along the way, right?

No, just kidding.

If you wanted to smell the roses, you would go take a walk in the park. You wouldn’t be spending hours hunched over foreign language books.

The hell with the journey. You want results, and you want them now—or if that’s overly optimistic, you at least want them in the foreseeable future. You want to get fluent fast.

Of course, some people will tell you that if you’re just starting out with a new language, it’s too early to even think about fluency.

They might even tell you that fluency is a pipe dream for adult language learners.

Those people can take that attitude and put it, well, the same place as those roses we were just talking about.

If you’re just starting to learn a language, now is the time to come up with a plan for getting yourself from zero to fluency. If you were driving across town, would you just start taking random turns in hopes of eventually arriving at your destination, or would you want your route mapped out from start to finish before even stepping foot outside the house? Call me unadventurous, but I’d rather know where I’m going and get there as soon as possible.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that if you just study the language you’re trying to learn really hard, you’ll eventually become fluent. But the reality just ain’t so. If you study the language you’re trying to learn really hard, you’ll just become a really good student of that language–which is different from being fluent in that language.

The earlier you start deliberately working towards fluency, the less time you’ll have to spend on the transition from being a good student to a capable, confident speaker in the end. And the more likely you are to avoid the dreaded mid-language learning crisis, that point when you’ve spent countless hours memorizing vocab and internalizing grammatical structures only to realize that despite all your hard work, you’d probably run screaming for the nearest translator if you were unexpectedly airdropped into a country where you had to rely on the language you’ve been diligently learning.

So to help you keep any such unpleasantness out of your language learning experience and to give you some ideas on how to start building towards fluency from day one, here are some tips on how to learn a language fluently from scratch.

How to Learn a Language Fluently From Scratch

1. Make as Many Connections Between Listening, Speaking and Writing as Possible

One major difference between language learners versus people who speak a language fluently is that listening, speaking and writing tend to be very separate activities for learners, but are much more interchangeable for fluent speakers.

As a learner, making connections between listening, speaking and writing reinforces the work you’re doing on all three and moves your mentality closer to that of a fluent speaker by breaking down the boundaries between these different ways of using the language.

A simple but powerful technique for making connections between the three is to listen to some material, then respond to it both in speech and in writing. If you have a Skype partner to do the speaking part of this exercise with, try the following three steps:

  1. Listen to a podcast or radio show or watch a film that your language partner is familiar with
  2. Write a reaction to the podcast, radio show or film
  3. Discuss the podcast, radio show or film with your language partner and compare your reaction to theirs

If you’re doing this exercise solo, here’s another way it can go:

  1. Listen to a podcast or radio show or watch a film
  2. Give an immediate, spontaneous spoken reaction to the podcast, radio show or film
  3. Write up a more structured review of the podcast, radio show or film

One of the points of this exercise is that you end up working with some of the same ideas and vocab across all three steps, tying together your listening, speaking and writing practice.

Even when you aren’t doing this exercise, though, you should still try to do some listening, speaking and writing every day. Keeping all three skills hot in your mind will go a long way towards making sure you’re really learning a language rather than learning to listen to a language, learning to speak a language and learning to write a language separately.

2. Use the Language for Things You Care About

If you want a disturbing insight into the foreign language learning process, try reading through a textbook on a language you’re already fluent in, like an English textbook if you’re a native English speaker. You’ll find that the content is excruciatingly boring. In fact, I’ll wager that most fluent English speakers simply could not read an ESL textbook cover-to-cover.

Of course, when you’re learning a new language, the dullness of the content you work with as a beginning language learner is a little less grating because you have your hands full actually trying to learn the language, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t missing a huge opportunity to learn faster and more fluently. No matter what level your language skills are at, you’ll internalize the language you’re working on much more deeply if you use it for things you care about.

It’s true that when you’re getting started, a certain amount of “Hello, my name is Niels. I am a person. I am eating a green apple.” is necessary to get the basics down, but you should aim to break away from focusing on this kind of dry good-for-language-learning-and-nothing-else content as much as possible, as soon as possible. Here are some ideas for ways to do that:

Cook a meal

Cook a meal (bonus points if it’s a meal traditional to a country that speaks the language you’re learning!) using only the language you’re studying from start to finish. Translate the recipe or find a recipe online in that language, write a shopping list and describe the process of cooking the meal out loud as you go along. All the better if you can get another language learner or a fluent friend to do this with you.

Keep a journal

There’s one interest we all have in common: ourselves. Keeping a journal about your life will let you use the language you’re learning to talk about a wide variety of topics you care about. Complaining about your coworkers and lamenting the state of your love life will never have been so educational!

Visualize your vocabulary

For many language learners, translating is inherently boring–after all, the point of translating is simply to repeat something that’s already been said, just in a different language. Worse yet, translating does nothing to help you towards fluency because it encourages you to use your native language as a reference point, rather than start thinking in terms of your new language.

So next time you’re learning vocab or translating a text, try translating into images rather than another language. It’s one thing to tell yourself that el parque means “the park” in Spanish. It’s an entirely different thing to visualize yourself lying in the lush, green grass with your eyes closed while the sun warms your face from the pristine blue sky and a deep, soothing voice says in your ear “el parque.”

Instead of just shuffling words between languages when you’re translating and learning vocab, challenge yourself to associate the words with images that have some sort of emotional significance to you. Visualize sentences as scenes unfolding in your mind’s eye rather than strings of words waiting to be changed into English on the language translation assembly line. Visualizing instead of translating is a technique that can save you countless hours if you start using it from day one.

Read about topics you’re interested in

If there’s a topic you’re interested in, read about it in the language you’re working on! Just head over to the Google homepage for a country that speaks the language you’re learning and look up whatever you’re curious about.

It can seem easier just to follow along textbooks and language courses as long as possible, but the sooner you go from learning the language to actually using it for things you care about, the more direct your path to speaking fluently will be. Techniques like cooking a meal, keeping a journal and thinking in pictures are all ways of doing this from the very early stages of language learning.

Reading about topics you’re interested in might require having a little more vocab and grammar under your belt–but with the help of a dictionary, not as much as you might think. In language learning, “no pain, no gain” is sometimes true, but in this case you stand to both gain a lot and save yourself some pain at the same time by making the process as interesting as possible.

3. Put Yourself out There

The biggest difference between learning a language and using it in real life is that textbooks are structured, linear and predictable while real life is anything but. The best way to make your mindset more like that of a fluent speaker than a language student is to start putting yourself in situations that stretch your language skills.

Don’t feel ready to do a Skype language exchange? Great, now’s the perfect time to start one!

Think you’re not ready to order a meal? Great, head on over to the nearest restaurant where they speak your new language! (Just make sure you go somewhere authentic–don’t try ordering in Italian at Olive Garden.)

By putting yourself out there and even sometimes ending up out of your depth you’ll be building a more flexible and, yes, fluent relationship with the language you’re learning.

4. Force Yourself to Think in the Language You’re Learning

The easiest way to stop yourself from learning a language fluently is by continuing to think in your native language even when you speak in the new language.

A good technique I’ve already talked about to avoid falling into this trap is to start “visualizing instead of translating” from day one. But you should also go out of your way to use the language you’re learning internally even in situations where you’re not translating.

Some effective ways to do this are:

Do an end-of-day recap

As you get ready to go to sleep at night, do an internal recap of the main events from your day and the things you want to do tomorrow–in the language you’re learning.

Besides acting as a sort of journal-in-your-mind where you can use the language to describe a range of different events you care about, doing an end-of-day recap lets you harness the benefits of language study right before bed.

Narrate mundane tasks

Every mindless task you do is really an opportunity to use your idle brain for language learning! Try narrating your actions next time you’re washing the dishes, for example. It makes life more interesting and helps you get used to thinking in your new language.

Being able to draw on the vocab and grammar you’ve learned automatically, intuitively and effortlessly is an important part of learning a language fluently. Getting used to not just communicating in a language but using it in your mind will fast-track your path to fluency.

Studying Smart to Learn a Language Fluently

In the end, if you want to start working towards learning a language fluently from the first step of your language learning journey, you’ll have to study hard–but more importantly, you’ll have to study smart. Fluency is about really internalizing a language, not just memorizing it.

Using the language for things that have personal meaning to you, making as many connections between writing/speaking/listening as possible, making yourself think in terms of your new language and putting yourself in situations that push your language skills to their limit will all help you really own the language you want to know fluently, rather than just speak it superficially.

But even if you didn’t really care about learning a language fluently, I would still say you should try these techniques. Why? Because the most effective fluency-building techniques are actually techniques for getting yourself to care about what you’re learning. The more you care about something, the more deeply you learn it. And regardless of whether your goal is to work all the way towards speaking fluently, caring will make your language learning experience more fun!

So I guess what I’m saying is that even though your aim is to get fluent fast, not necessarily to stop and smell the roses along the way, using these fluency-promoting techniques from the outset of your language learning journey will make the roses smell sweeter anyway.

That’s why ultimately the single most important, totally serious, kind-of-corny-but-still-pretty-darn-useful rule for learning a language fluently from scratch is: fun and fluency go hand in hand!

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