3 Questions To Answer Before Starting To Learn A Language

Having seen a lot of language learners, I am convinced that only motivated learners achieve fluency.
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Getting fluent in a foreign language is a matter of motivation. Having seen a lot of language learners, I am convinced that only motivated learners achieve fluency.

The TEDx talk by professor Scott Geller is highly relevant to the pursuit of fluency in a foreign language. In particular, the three questions that are asked in the video.

Can I become fluent in a foreign language?

I know that I didn't really believe I could do it over 50 years ago, until I did it in French. I have never doubted my ability to learn another language since then.

Unfortunately it is only possible to acquire this sense of confidence after having learned at least one language. Then the more languages you learn, the more competent and confident you become. I am a better language learner at age 72 then I was at age 16 because I have done it so many times.

I firmly believe that we all have the innate ability to learn foreign languages. We just need to believe in ourselves, stay with the process and become autonomous learners. We need to develop new habits and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt.

Will it work?

In my view, the most effective learning strategy is one devoted to massive input, listening and reading, using interesting content you have chosen. Of course we need to start with beginner material that may not be so interesting, but we can move to authentic and interesting material surprisingly quickly.

This means that you seek first to acquire a large vocabulary and a high level of comprehension as the base upon which to build other language skills. I am convinced of the effectiveness of this approach both from my own experience of learning 17 languages and from reading research on language acquisition. I know that reading interesting language content on my iPad, or listening to an interesting audio book while walking my dog, is not only enjoyable, but constantly improves my language skills.

If we are familiar with the language, with the way of thinking of the new culture, and if we learn lots of words, the ability to express ourselves naturally and clearly in the new language can easily develop. On the other hand, starting with a concern about grammar and hoping to speak meaningfully when we have trouble understanding what people are saying is putting the cart before the horse.

There are many people, however, who believe that we should speak from day one. If they believe in this approach and enjoy it, and if they stay with it, I am sure it works for them. Make sure you find a method that you believe in and one that you find enjoyable.

Is it worth it?

Do you want to become fluent in a foreign language? Do you like the language? Do you like to be with people of that language group? Do you want to access some aspect of that culture, such as books, movies, music etc.? Do you want to travel to the country where the language is spoken? Do you need the language for our work or to communicate with friends or loved ones? The more times you answer "yes" to these questions, the stronger your motivation will be.

Aside from these obvious advantages of being able to communicate in another language, learning a language is a healthy habit. Research has shown that learning and speaking another language is good for our brains, strengthens our cognitive skills, keeps us young, and helps stave off dementia when we are older.

Language learning requires a commitment, and therefore it is important that we feel the effort to become fluent in a foreign language is worth it. When I start out in a language, I struggle with language content that is not very interesting and yet difficult to understand. Usually within a few months I can access content of interest to me, which is still more difficult than reading in my own language. When I start to speak in the language, I struggle to understand and to find the words I want. Is this self-inflicted pain really worth it? For me it is.

I know that eventually I will be able to enjoy books, movies, and friendships in the language. I feel fortunate to be able to speak 16 languages (English, French, Spanish, German, Swedish, Portuguese, Italian, Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Romanian, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese and Korean). I can't begin to describe the enjoyment and benefit that the ability to communicate in each of my languages has given me. My only regret is that I don't have the time to focus more on each one of them.

Each language is a window to a new world, a new expression of what it is to be a human being.

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