Each week that I talk to someone about getting fluent in Spanish, 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 becoming fluent in Spanish.
Becoming Fluent in Spanish Is Not About Semesters Abroad
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. It turns out 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.
I spent five 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. Four years later, even worse at Spanish after four years of living and working in Boston, I decided to move to Mexico and finally solidify my fluency in this language that I had now spent over 8 years trying to learn.
Don’t get me wrong, I could say a lot in Spanish, but I didn’t feel like I was where I should have been after so many years of formal Spanish lessons! Formal lessons are where I went wrong. Where we all go wrong, actually. It’s not about how many hours you spend behind a desk or a computer, memorizing vocabulary and phrases. Now I know better; you have to practice and speak, and then practice and speak some more. You have to invest hours and hours of actually speaking the language to become fluent. Is it hard? Yes. But this is the only way to true fluency.
Fluency is Possible
Let me tell you, as a current speaker who is fluent in 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.
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, for becoming truly fluent. No conjugating, No memorizing. Just TALKING!
This one-on-one time and patience (which a private instructor will have) will give you fluency 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 U.S. 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 two 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.
Speaking = Fluency
Was I Ph.D. 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 two years (less if you take more hours per week) you could be fluent in Spanish. Or any language you want! What language should you learn? Do it.
P.S. 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 U.S. 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.
This is the bottom line. How do you become fluent in English? How do you become fluent in Spanish? How do you become fluent in any other language? Get instruction or a class that allows you the time and opportunity to speak with others. If you want to learn a language even more quickly, here are other ways you can practice every day.