The journey to fluency in a foreign language can be loads of fun at times, but it also includes inevitable challenges and setbacks. You will misunderstand others and be misunderstood yourself. You will unintentionally say offensive things or make cultural gaffes. You will butcher grammar. You will order the wrong food and get on the wrong bus. But as frustrating or painful as these mistakes can be, it’s critical to understand that they don’t block the path to mastery. They are the path to mastery. Screwing up and figuring out where we went wrong is an inevitable, mandatory part of the leaning process. The only true mistake is the one we don’t learn from.
The author Gretchen Rubin has long been fascinated by human nature, and wanted to know why some people easily adopt new habits while others struggle to change. After years of investigation, she realized these differences could be explained (and better managed) by identifying how a person responds to expectations. It turns out that certain people respond very differently to inner expectations like New Year’s resolutions or personal goals and outer expectations like work deadlines or requests from family or friends. The personality framework she developed—detailed in her book The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better—divides people into one of four basic personality groups depending on how they respond to inner and outer expectations: Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels. Read on to discover which Tendency best describes your personality and how to apply the framework in language learning.
While at a Christmas dinner party recently, I was asked the standard American icebreaker: “So, what do you do?” “I’m a linguist and an author who writes about language learning.”
“Oh? What languages do you speak?” “I’ve dabbled in a few, but I mostly focus on Japanese.” “Wow, that’s a really hard language! You must be really smart.” I knew this exclamation was coming since it’s the same response I almost always get when talking about language learning, but it still makes me cringe every time. Many people, even those who have never studied the language, assume that ① Japanese is difficult, and ② you have to be really smart to learn it.
So is Japanese difficult? And does it require great intelligence? Read on to see my answer to both.
Lots of people want to learn a foreign language, but the desire often gets buried by distractions and procrastination. We think to ourselves, “I will start learning Japanese once I finish this busy project at work.” This is just like the promise many of us make to “start eating well after the holidays” or to “start giving to charity when we can afford it.” We feel a little better in the moment by outsourcing responsibility and sacrifice to the future, but when that future comes, the procrastinated action rarely comes with it. We finish that busy project at work, and fill our new-found free time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram instead of opening the Fluent Forever app. The holidays come and go, and we find our mouth full of pizza and beer instead of veggies and salmon. We get a bonus at work, but let lifestyle inflation use up the surplus instead of sending a check to Give Well. No, the future does not hold any magical power to make your dreams come true. But the now does—if you are willing to prioritize and take action.
I believe in making language learning as fun as possible. Why? Because fun is fuel. And fun is, well, fun! The more you enjoy the journey, the more likely you are to keep going day after day. But “fun” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” The truth is that there is no completely pain-free path up Language Mountain. There is no route that lets you completely skip the “suck.” While I hope you will enjoy most of your language learning journey by choosing modern materials, topics you love, and effective self-guided immersion activities, you will inevitably encounter days when you are unmotivated to put in the work or are too scared to step outside of your comfort zone. When this happens, chasing fun is not enough. You have to rely on two decidedly less fun alternatives: developing discipline and facing your fears. I know, I know, not exactly a recipe for a party. But this is a recipe for long-term success.
The journey to full fluency in a foreign language can be roughly divided into what psychologists call the four stages of competence: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and Unconscious Competence. You can think of progress through the stages like climbing up a mountain peak all the way from sea level. Read on to learn more about the stages and how to keep going when the going gets tough.