This post has been a long time coming.
Teachers and linguists are going to hate me for this, but it has to be said:
You can never speak a language by just studying it, no matter how much you study
Yes, you read that right. Studying is the wrong thing to do if you want to speak a language. I'm totally serious.
Last night I ran into some English speakers and heard the same thing I've heard thousands of times about other languages: they have been studying German for years and don't speak it yet, even though they live in Berlin.
Every day, I get dozens of e-mails from aspiring language hackers sharing their tales of woe with me; they've spent a small fortune on workbooks, CD audio courses etc. and have spent probably thousands of hours locked up in their rooms studying tables of rules and vocabulary lists. And they still can't say anything.
Most people think the reason that this happens is because the material/teacher isn't good enough. Or perhaps the language really is impossible and it's the “hardest one in the world”.
I get asked all the time what my study method is, and precisely what books I buy. If our study materials were better then surely we'd finally speak!?
There is only one thing study is good for
The purpose of this post isn't to tell the world to stop studying. However, you have to realise that studying a language has a very specific purpose and if you are not aware of this then you may end up stuck in the vicious circle of never speaking: Studying will never help you speak a language, but (as long as you do it right) studying will help you speak a language better.
Most people don't see the difference here. That one crucial word changes absolutely everything you need to take into consideration.
If you already speak but your conjugations aren't great or you need to quickly increase your store of vocabulary about a specific topic, then by all means study. Need to pass a test in school? Sure, study for it. When the goal is to pass a test or improve your grasp on something specific, then study is the way to go.
But if you don't speak the language confidently right now, then it's time someone broke this news to you: studying is not the way to get this confidence!
But I'm almost ready!
When you study, you acquire vocabulary, you improve your grammar and you do exercises. Logically enough, your level improves. With time, your potential increases and you can understand more and you can theoretically join in on a wider scope of conversations. “One day”, when you're ready, you can finally start speaking confidently. Not today though – maybe you just need to study a little bit more.
Theoretically & Maybe.
Based on my experience and accounts from thousands of learners I've met who need their language in the real world (not tests), “theoretically and maybe” translate to never. The academic system seems to have drilled into us that studying is the way to speak a language. Studying helps you improve (and to pass a test you do indeed need to know your grammar/vocab better… because that's what the test is usually about) but it is an artificial means of acquiring or improving the language. Some artificial ways are quite useful, but they are still artificial.
When you look at a language the same way you look at geography or history or other subjects in school that can be tested, then you simply don't know what a language actually is.
Stop looking at conversations with human beings as a test that you have to pass (so, every time you make a mistake you get a big red X and if you make a certain amount of them, then you fail). It doesn't work like that!!
A language is a means of communication. It's not a table of grammar rules in some dusty old book, or a piece of paper that you have to spread ink across in the right way for your teacher to be happy. German isn't a rough sounding collection of Datives and Accusatives, it's families sharing what they did that day. Czech isn't a frustrating collection of consonant clusters, it's young couples flirting with one another and someone buying his morning bread.
These are not things that you can put under a microscope. They are people living their lives and sharing experiences with one another. That is what a language is for. When you are locked away in your room you are avoiding this contact and that's why so many people never speak. They still think about everything they don't know and see the world that speaks their target language as one big test that they are doomed to fail.
How do you learn to speak then?
So, if studying isn't how you learn to speak a language, then what is? I'll tell you, and it's going to blow your mind.
Are you ready?
Are you sitting down? Brace yourself!
You have tospeakit! Yes, I know – it sounds absolutely crazy, doesn't it! To speak a language you have to actually speak it.
It will be hard at first – you won't know how to say things, it will be embarrassing, you'll hesitate a lot and feel frustrated that you can't say things precisely the way you want to. This will happen even if you study for decades. Until you actually use the language in its natural context (or at least in a course that gets you to speak to people) you will always have this barrier to get through. You simply have to break through it. If you practise often enough and enthusiastically enough you will get to the other side quite quickly. You can do this in person if there are natives or other learners close by, or over the Internet with millions of natives.
However, you can't study to get this confidence. Confidence isn't hidden somewhere on page 182, it's getting into an actual conversation and proving to yourself (Obama style) yes you can.
Too many people study to gain confidence – this is an oblique way of going about it. You have to simply get used to speaking the language. Know how it feels to have the words come out of you rather than in an artificial test in which you have several minutes to think about things.
Last night with the English speakers I had the almost magic ability to turn them into German speakers with nothing more than a 5 minute pep-talk to boost their confidence and give them some language hacks. I didn't teach them any actual German or tell them to study in a particular way. They had the potential to speak the entire time, no matter what their level was.
You haven't learned enough to say anything yet? Hogwash! In many European languages you have thousands of words before you even start. In all languages you can study for a couple of hours (rather than years) to get basic phrases and then use them. Use what you know and go from there. Then you will see what you do need to work on (usually it will be something very specific and relevant to your situation rather than “chapters 1 to 7”), and then very specific study will help you improve how you are speaking so you will be able to express yourself a little better. But you already have the ability to say something right now.
There are a LOT of ways you can speak a language in the first weeks even if you didn't study it much yet. So many ways that I had to write 30,000 words to describe them.
So what do you think? Picking on the academic system is such an easy target because it does such a miserable job in so many places and wastes the time of millions of people when it comes to language conversing ability. There are exceptions, and there are great courses to take, but that is usually because they have students converse in as natural a way as possible. Once the focus changes from studying to actually using the language to communicate with people then the road to speaking well, and doing it quickly, is opened up.
Don't have this attitude of Leave me alone! Can't you see I'm learning your language?
A language is a social tool and being locked up in your room studying it is, frankly, antisocial. You can't avoid studying to improve your language skills, but if you want to speak then stop studying and just speak already!! 🙂
Interested how I do it exactly? Check out Fluent in 3 Months Premium – the essential guide to speak another language fluently in the shortest possible time.
Benny LewisFounder, Fluent in 3 MonthsSpeaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, IrishFun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.View all posts by Benny Lewis
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“I’d love to speak another language, but…”
Over the years, I’ve heard more reasons not to learn a language than I ever would have imagined. I even used to make excuses for myself, before I learned my first new language, Spanish.
I’ve yet to hear (or come up with) a single good reason for not learning a language.
That’s right. Nada.
What about good reasons to start learning a new language? I know hundreds, and hear new ones every day! Every language learner I’ve met so far has their own personal reason for wanting to speak another language.
Why learn another language?
Here are a few of the best I’ve come across. Speaking a second language will…
1.Open Up a World of Job Opportunities
Learning a second language opens up a ton of career opportunities. I’m not just talking about freelancing or working location-independently either, though these are excellent ideas which I’ve personally used. There are lots of other ways that speaking two or more languages can improve your employment prospects.
The world is changing fast. More companies than ever are doing business in several – often dozens of – countries around the world, but they can’t do it without hiring globally-minded people who can speak at least one foreign language. Ever wanted to be like those people you see in the airport travelling to foreign countries “on business” all the time? That can be you.
Even in small, local companies, chances are that the ability to speak a second language will set you apart from other applicants.
2. Give Your Brain a Boost
Speaking a second language each day really can keep the doctor away! Study after study has demonstrated the cognitive benefits of learning another language, no matter how old you are. Memory improvement, longer attention span, and a reduced risk of age-related cognitive decline, are just a few of the known positive effects of speaking two or more languages.
3. Establish Deep Connections and Cross-Cultural Friendships
I’d bet that at least once in your life, you’ve felt a pang of regret during an encounter with someone from a different culture, when you realised how the experience could be enriched by knowing that person’s language.
Has this ever happened to you? You visit a food stall at a local market while on holiday (or even in your own city), where the employees are chatting away together in their native language. You order something, in English, interrupting their fun conversation.
Another local comes by while you’re waiting, orders some food in the local language, and starts talking cheerfully with the cook about…something. A minute later, the cook stops talking and hands you your plate with a simple “Thank you, bye!”
You just missed out on an authentic cultural experience because you couldn’t join in .
Or what about this? You have a friend from another country who you enjoy hanging out with, but you only speak to each other in English. You feel a connection with that person, and think they’re a great friend. And then they mention one day about this other group of friends, who speak their native language, that they meet up with all the time. But you’ve never been invited, because you wouldn’t understand what anyone is saying.
Ok, so you can’t learn every language in the world and have an intimate knowledge of every single culture out there. But if there’s even one culture that you’d like to understand better, or even one person in your life you’d like to know better, then one of the best ways you can start is by learning to speak their language.
4. Get an Outsider’s Perspective about Your Own Culture
Trying to understand your own culture exclusively from within it is like trying to understand what a bus is like if you’ve only ever ridden inside it. You can’t see the bus’s wheels, the exterior colour, or the engine that drives it.
Want the bigger picture? You need to get off that bus and examine it from the outside.
I strongly believe that language and culture are intimately linked. Learn another language and you’ll have insight into another culture. You’ll get to “ride on a different bus” and not only see what it’s like inside and even get comfy in there, but get a clear view of your own for the first time.
Too many people go their entire lives never questioning the universal “truths” they take for granted in their own culture. But step outside this narrow scope, and it’s like stepping out of the Matrix; once your eyes are truly opened to that new perspective, you can never go back.
5. Become More Interesting and Meet More Interesting People
If your first language is English, the second most common language in the world, and yet you’ve made the effort to learn another language rather than expecting the world to accommodate your monolingualism, then you’re a rare breed indeed. This makes you interesting. People will approach you. They’ll want to talk to you. They’ll want to know what motivated you to “bother” learning another language.
Believe me, if you’re a native English speaker who speaks two or more languages, you’ll have many more lively, engaging conversations about a variety of topics than you ever would have had otherwise.
Sure, you could spend your life getting by in English everywhere you go, but that’s boring. Be fun! Be interesting! Be multilingual!
6. Stay Smart in Touristed Areas
There’s always a danger of obvious tourists being targets, or getting hassled by touts, which can ruin your experience of a place where people are actually warm and genuine. The “obvious tourist” tends to be whoever is speaking English, or some other distant tongue.
But everything changes when you use the local language.
I had heard countless stories of how a visit to the Pyramids of Giza is nothing but a frustrating chain of shooing away one tout after another, but by dressing/acting like a local and replying in (my albeit broken) Arabic the entire time, I actually didn’t feel hassled by a single person all the way there. It was actually an experience I’ll never forget!
In over a dozen years travelling the world, I’ve managed to stay sane and stay safe by attempting to blend in as best as I can, as well as responding confidently enough in the local language that potential scammers will believe you’ve been there a while, and they’ll think twice before trying to pull a fast one on you.
7. Become a Better Learner
Every time I learn a new language, I find it easier than the one before. The reasoning is simple: with every new language I study, I figure out ways to learn more efficiently. In other words, I develop language hacks.
Because of my extensive experience with this sort of trial and error, I’ve already identified many common hindrances that I can help you avoid right from the get-go, as well as language hacks that can help you learn faster.
As you spend time learning your first foreign language, you’ll identify your own inefficiencies and eliminate them. You’ll start gaining momentum in your chosen language and learn more and more quickly. Then you’ll be able to hit the ground running with the next language. You’ll be on your way to polyglotism before you know it.
8. Conquer Your Fear of “Looking Stupid”
If a foreigner walked up to you to ask for help with something like directions, and they struggled to find the right English words, and made many mistakes but were obviously trying hard, would you feel like laughing at their effort? I doubt it. You’d more likely be impressed with their courage to walk up to a stranger and speak a language imperfectly. That’s a person who has conquered their fear of making mistakes in front of others, and has managed to communicate with you and gotten help with what they need.
Can’t imagine having that sort of courage yourself? Well, if you decide to learn a language, and you start by speaking from day 1, then you’ll get over your fear very quickly. Not only will you be able to communicate effectively (note that I didn’t say “perfectly”) in a new language, but your confidence will get a huge boost, and you’ll never be held back from trying any new skill. Ever wanted to try dancing? Creative writing? Public speaking? How great would it be to shed your inhibitions and just go for it!
9. Bring Out Your Inner Mr Spock
This may sound surprising, but studies have shown that when you make a decision in your second language, you’re more likely to think logically and avoid basing your decision on emotion. In other words, you’ll become more like Star Trek’s Mr Spock.
There’s no way around it. Humans are emotional creatures. Everyone is guilty of making decisions too hastily and too emotionally. But if you learn to speak another language, you’ll learn to think in that language. And when you think about your decisions in a foreign language, that emotional bias tends to go away and you end up choosing the more logical outcome.
Live long, and prosper!
10. Enjoy Works of Art in their Original Language
Bollywood films, manga, telenovelas, Swah rap – the world is full of non-English works of creative art. Don’t you wish you could appreciate some of them in their original language rather than relying on badly-translated subtitles or English dubs, which lose much of the charm that made the original product popular to begin with?
You may find translations, but you'd be surprised what is lost in translation.
If you’re a fan of any type of foreign media – or you’d like to be, but aren’t interested in experiencing it in English because of all nuances lost in translation – then this is an excellent reason to start learning that new language. You’ll already have a very clear goal in mind, so you’ll know what type of vocabulary will be most useful to learn, and you can use those materials as a study aid as you progress in your new language.
11. No More Paying the Sticker Price
Tired of overpaying for gifts and souvenirs at markets when you go on holiday? It’s common knowledge that at many of these places, there are two prices: one for locals and one for tourists.
Even if you bring your best haggling game to the table, if you try to haggle exclusively in English instead of the local language, you might not get very close to that coveted “local price”. But if you make the effort to learn the local language, then you’ll start the game off with a better hand, and end up saving quite a bit more money than you would have otherwise. And the best part is that you’ll also be participating in an authentic cultural experience in the country you’re visiting.
12. Discover You Can Do It!
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve heard pretty much every excuse that people give for failing to learn a second language. Too old, not enough time, wrong genes. None of them hold water.
Whatever doubts you have, you really can learn another language. You could even hold your first conversation just seven days from now.
So What are You Waiting For?
Everyone has their own unique reasons for wanting to learn another language. But while the reasons may be different, they can all be put into action in the same way: by committing to stop making excuses, and to start speaking the language you’ve always wanted to learn.
Once you’ve held your very first conversation in a foreign language, trust me: you’ll never look back.