Mastering a foreign language is at once extremely complex and predictively simple.
On the one hand, you have to learn the nuanced meanings of thousands of words, internalize hundreds of grammar patterns, and be able to understand and use these terms and structures at rapid speed.
On the other hand, most of the complexity happens at a subconscious level. Our brains do almost all of the heavy lifting for us if we get enough exposure and practice. In essence, you just have to show up.
But how you show up matters.
Contrary to popular belief, we don’t learn languages by osmosis. Just being around foreign languages is not enough.
You need to add three essential ingredients to make sure this exposure will actually lead to fluency:
As The Beatles sang:
“Love is all you need.”
Well, we should probably add water, food, and shelter to the list. And probably the opportunity to self-actualize, too. But hey, this expanded list wouldn’t have made for as snappy of a tune…
Though love may not be all you need, it turns out that it is one of the essential ingredients in learning a foreign language.
Let me explain…
I’ve been learning and teaching languages for over two decades, and in that time, one of the most consistent patterns I’ve seen is that internal motivation is much more reliable and effective than external motivation. Language learners who truly love the language, culture, and learning process get much more fluent, much more quickly. Those required to learn a language for school or work struggle along for years making little progress despite lots of time and effort.
Ultimately, it comes down to having a strong enough WHY for learning a language. And “love” is one of the strongest WHYs around.
This is one reason that I don’t think foreign language education should be compulsory in school. Or at least not one specific language. Students should get to choose whether to learn a language, or at the very least, which language to learn. Such a system may mean that fewer total people study languages in the short-term, but I believe that it would lead to more fluent speakers of foreign languages in the long run.
Freedom and choice cultivate a far more fertile environment for passion to sprout and fluency to grow.
And one of the keys to making this love-centered, freedom-fueled approach work is letting learners choose their own topics and tools. Required textbooks and standard syllabi may be convenient for schools and teachers, but they are not ideal for language learners.
A little structure and standardization can certainly be helpful, but too much is stifling. The most important thing is giving learners the room to fall in love with the target language and culture, and such space rarely exists between the covers of a textbook or the walls of a classroom.
So if you are a teacher or school administrator, do everything you can to give language learners the freedom to choose resources that fit their unique interests, goals, and learning preferences. Design curricula and syllabi around common learning objectives, not required materials.
If you are an independent language learner, then you already have such freedom. So use it!
- Don’t force yourself through boring resources. Follow Wikipedia rabbit holes in your target language. Watch foreign films, TV shows, or anime. Listen to foreign language podcasts on topics you love. Read comic books. You do you, boo!
- Don’t stick with ancient or ineffective tools. While there is a time and a place for paper books, digital tools are often far more effective for language learning since you can instantly look up unknown words and get a better balance between listening and reading input.
- Don’t spend time on topics you think you should learn about to appear more erudite. There are no extra points for reading about high finance or geopolitics. If you love these topics (and read about them in your native language), but all means consume content about them in your target language. But don’t avoid topics simply because some find them less prestigious.
Follow your curiosity. Follow your intuition. And above all, “follow your bliss” as comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell advised his students at St. Lawrence College many years ago.
Once you treat language learning as the adventure it truly is, fluency is only a matter of time.
“We do not master languages by hard study and memorization, or by producing it. Rather, we acquire language when we understand what people tell us and what we read.” —Stephen Krashen
What one of the keys to acquiring a language is getting tons of “comprehensible input.”
By “tons,” I mean hours a day of meaningful exposure to the target language over enough months and years to internalize common words and patterns.
By “input,” I mean listening and reading content. (Input’s linguistic sibling—“output”—refers to speaking and writing.)
By “comprehensible,” I mean that you can understand the basic gist of what is being communicated.
“Comprehensible” does not mean you know every single word or understand every single grammar pattern. In most cases, there may be a large percentage of vocabulary items and structures you haven’t seen before. And that’s totally okay. That means you have opportunity to learn!
If you understand 100%, then the material is too easy and you should choose something a bit more beyond your reach.
Ideally, you want to read and listen to foreign language materials that are in the linguistic “Goldilocks zone”: not too hard, not too easy, but juuust right for your current level.
How can you tell? There is no universal rule here, but comprehensible input should allow you to understand the context and answer the basics of “who,” “what,” “where,” “when,” and “why” and “how.”
Some polyglots I’ve interviewed on the Language Mastery Show also suggest using the “rule of 20” when selecting foreign language books to read:
If you have to look up more than 20 words per page (on average), choose a simpler book.
In practice, few materials will perfectly fall into this zone, but comprehensibility is still a powerful filter for choosing what resources to use now and which to save for later in your language learning adventure.
The third essential ingredient is repetition.
The third essential ingredient is repetition. (Hee, hee.)
Your brain will only go to the trouble of encoding new words and patterns once you’ve encountered them a number of times in meaningful, comprehensible contexts. Otherwise, your stingy neural accountant won’t approve the costly expenditure of building new connections or layers of myelin (a fatty sheath created around nerve fibers that enables skill acquisition).
How many times does it take? Some claim that the magic number of repetitions is 13, but there aren’t any good studies (that I’m aware of) to support this. Truthfully, I don’t think we ever will find an exact number since encoding is so dependent on context (there’s that word again!), emotion, and individual experience.
What matters is simply that you keep flooding your brain with interesting, comprehensible input every single day. The most common words and structures will naturally show up again and again, providing amply doses of repetition without any conscious effort on your part.
But there are a few useful ways to help speed up the process and increase the rate of repetition:
- Use “narrow listening” and “narrow reading.” Want to get repetition without getting bored out of your mind? Try consuming a variety of articles, books, videos, etc. on the same basic topic. You will inevitably encounter many of the some terms over and over, but with the novelty of diverse voices, writing styles, and points of view. See Use Narrow Listening & Reading to Get Repetition Without the Boredom for more.
- Use a spaced repetition system (SRS). Spaced repetition systems use advanced algorithms to automatically schedule repetitions for optimal memory. Instead of wasting your precious study time on information you already know, SRS apps like Anki will prioritize weaker memories that need more reps. See FAQ: What is Spaced Repetition and Why Should You Use It? for more.