Each week that I talk to someone about getting fluent, they say to me, “I know. I know. I have to move to Mexico if I really want to learn the language.” This is 100% not true. 1. It’s easy not to learn a language in another country. 2. It’s hard to learn a language even if you’re in another country. and 3. You will only learn, no matter where you are, if you want to learn and you speak with someone in the other language.
Let me tell you my tale of woe about Spanish.
I remember when I first moved to Mexico. I had taken over 15 semesters of Spanish, including a semester abroad in Spain. Everyone had told me that if I moved there, then I would magically learn the language. They were so, so, so wrong.
If you aren’t speaking the language one on one in a meaningful and comprehensive way, then you won’t learn the language whether you’re living in another country or not.
I learned this the hard way in Spain.
5 months of living in beautiful Madrid, and every moment outside of class was spent with a gorgeous Hawaiian boy with crystal green eyes. I didn’t learn crap that semester except for the many different colors of green that I had fallen in love with. Bad Micah.
4 years later, even worse at Spanish after 4 years of living and working in Boston, I decided to move to Mexico and finally solidify this language that I had now spent over 8 years trying to learn.
Don’t get me wrong, I could say a lot, but I didn’t feel like I was where I should have been after so many years of formal Spanish lessons!
Formal lessons is where I went wrong. Where we all go wrong, actually.
Current day Micah:
Let me tell you, as a current speaker of three languages and working on my fourth, learning a language DOES NOT have to take 10 years, nor do you have to move to another country to become fluent.
Learning a New Language is All About Conversation
How I finally learned: Let’s go back to those first few months in Mexico in 2008. I met a boy, and, surprise, surprise, he was not Hawaiian at all. Even better, he didn’t speak a lick of English. THIS is how you learn a new language (no, not by getting a Mexican boyfriend), but by simply speaking with someone for many hours every week over a long period of time. This is the only formula you need for true language acquisition. No conjugating, No memorizing. Just TALKING!
This one on one time and patience (which a private instructor will have) will give you a new language. Think about when you talk to a baby or a small child. You speak simply, you show the baby things, you repeat things, you try to help the baby say things. This is how it is when you learn a new language with a private instructor each week.
Now, think 2013, just back to the US from Mexico, had just opened up my language school in Dallas. Now that I knew HOW to learn a new language, any language (2 hours (at least) or more a week with someone one on one speaking the target language), I decided to try French as well, but I decided to learn it in the OPPOSITE WAY that I had learned Spanish. No grammar, no memorizing, just soaking it in.
I signed up for a conversation class. Yes, I know, seems ridiculous seeing as I didn’t know any French, but by the end of the 6-month class, I could finally say a few sentences. Yes, it was confusing. Yes, it was a bit frustrating at times, because I started to understand, even though I still couldn’t put a good sentence together. But sitting there, listening, putting 2 and 2 together as I watched the teacher talk and draw and write on the board and show us things, I began to understand.
After about 2 years (YES! It still takes time!) of 2-3 hours weekly of one-on-one lessons in French, I could speak well. After the 1-year mark, the sentences started to flow out of me. Just like a baby suddenly starts speaking after listening for years.
Was I PhD material? Of course not. But could I have a conversation about any topic? Absolutely. This is the definition of fluent: speaking accurately and easily in a language. I had become fluent, really fluent, by SPEAKING the language with a private instructor.
So, my point being made again. You DO NOT have to go abroad to become fluent, but you DO have to have comprehensible input coming at you, preferably in a one-on-one situation for optimal results. What are you waiting for? In 2 years (less if you take more hours per week) you could be fluent. Do it. And in February 2018 we can go grab a drink together in Spanish, or French, if you like. By that time I might be able to even chat it up in Japanese (but I have a feeling this one might take longer… : ( )
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PS You only become fluent if you want to and if you spend hours and hours trying to speak to someone in the target language. Think about all the people living in the US that are not fluent in English. It’s the same for you in another country. Just because your feet are on the soil, doesn’t mean you’ll soak up the language. I knew a girl that lived in Mexico for over a year and never learned Spanish. Why? She didn’t want to.