Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Benny the Irish polyglot who writes at Fluent in 3 Months.
Imagine being able to blend in undetected in another country.
Imagine exchanging inside jokes at a foreign restaurant in another language.
Imagine being invited to a festival in the countryside on the other side of the planet, eating with a local family and having no need for an interpreter.
Sounds like something out of a Jason Bourne novel, doesn’t it? Fortunately, fiction this is not. Today, you’re going to learn how and why you should start learning a foreign language to become a better man. This information could save your life one day. Or at the very least it could make it way more interesting.
Your education starts now.
Why is that when we think of languages and language learning, we tend to think more of women? I used to be a translator and the vast majority of those in the industry of translation and interpretation are indeed women.
If you think back to school, you may remember the girls having a better knack for languages than the boys. It must be genetic, or have something to do with women’s better ability to communicate, right?
Hogwash! Men are excellent language learners, and there are ways we can use our manly differences to our advantage. The sad truth is that most of us don’t.
Many Famous Language Learners Were Men
The majority of the world’s most famous polyglots (someone who speaks multiple languages) throughout history were actually men. William James Sidis (1898 – 1944) estimated that he could speak more than forty languages. Harold Williams (1876 – 1928), a New Zealand journalist is said to have known 58 languages, including several dialects.
More recently, Pope John Paul II (1920 – 2005) used 9 of the 12 languages he had learned quite extensively during his time in the church, regularly giving Mass in these languages.
If there is a language gene reserved exclusively for ladies, someone forgot to tell these guys!
“Language-Talent” Is Used as an Excuse, Let It Go
I grew up with this same idea that foreign languages are for girls, but in recent years I am glad to say that I’ve learned to ignore such a useless de-motivator. Right now I can speak fluently and socialize actively and regularly in eight languages (and even know some American Sign Language). At the moment I’m learning yet another one and plan on speaking it at a confident conversational level in just two months. Crazy, right?
While you may be tempted to dismiss me and others as savants, irrelevant to your situation as an adult that may just speak one language, it’s important that you know in my case, I actually had to take speech therapy when I was younger for simple issues learning English (my mother tongue; I’m from Ireland). I actually did quite poorly in languages in school.
When I was 21 years old, I still only spoke English. The German level I had reached from years of schooling resulted in barely a pass in my final exams, and I was not able to use the language even when opportunities presented themselves. I later even managed to spend almost six months living in Spain without learning any Spanish.
So what changed?
I stopped making excuses, giving in to self-fulfilling prophecies (“I’m bad at languages, therefore what’s the point in even trying?”) and I started to be a man about this language learning thing. One day in Spain, I just swallowed my pride and started using the very little I knew actively until I had no choice but to improve quickly.
I took control of the situation, knew that I could do it, and was successful because of that.
The advice I want to give you today has nothing to do with studying right, or which books or software you should buy; instead, it’s about embracing your manliness and getting over lazy excuses that are the real reason you haven’t been able to learn a second language.
Speak It from Day One
Yes, from day one. I’m serious.
Stop planning the language into the ground and stop holding off until someday when your level is perfect. There are seven days in a week and someday isn’t one of them! You are ready whenever you decide you are.
Perfectionism will kill your ability to ever use a language. Don’t be afraid of a few mistakes; you really do need to speak it now if you are serious about making rapid progress.
But I only know five words! How can I speak now?
If you know five words then use them! Sprinkle gracias or s’il vous plaît or Buongiorno into your normal conversation. It’s a simple step, but it’s a very important one.
The Thousands of Words You Know Before You Even Start
Actually, you know way more than that, especially in European languages!
Due to centuries of Norman-French rule in England (starting in 1066), English received a huge influx of French vocabulary. This vocabulary also happens to be vastly the same or very similar in many other languages like Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, etc.
You see, in these centuries during the “Dark Ages,” the lower class would maintain their “Germanic” Olde English, while the noblemen and rulers would be speaking in something very related to French. Eventually this led to a single language, leading to modern English, where formal register would require the French-style words, and informal would use the older “original” English ones.
So if someone knocks on your door, you could say “come in,” or if you think about it, the more formal (somewhat pompous on occasion) way would be “enter.” This alternative is actually the way to say “to come in” in Romance languages (entrer, entrar, entrare).
Instead of saying you want to give someone a piece of your mind (a phrase used in informal register), you could think to share your opinion, perspective, or point of view. In French: point de vue, in Portuguese: perspectiva, in Italian: opinione. These cognates actually give you a dramatic boost in the language before you’ve even started!
You start off with literally thousands of words. It’s true that you have to get used to pronouncing them differently and recognizing them, but with some in-the-field practice this really becomes second nature.
If the language you are learning comes from some other language family, then rather than say you will be stumped, keep in mind that nowadays there are no impenetrable barriers, especially in languages. Most words for technology and the Internet, as well as brand names, truly are international. Nearly every language in the world says Internet, Facebook, Pepsi etc. even if they might do it slightly differently.
Starting from absolute scratch is impossible. Find out the words you already know and then use them!
Next, Learn What You NEED, Not What the Grammar Book Says
So many of us have studied a language before, possibly even for years. The problem is that the academic approach is based on a black-and-white/right-or-wrong attitude. Every mistake is punished, rather than good attempts that get the job done being rewarded as they are in the real world.
There is a much more practical hands-on approach than simply trying to learn the entire language’s structure. If you are good with your hands, can repair things, or have ever employed temporary duct-tape style fixes, you’ll know what to do here!
Since I didn’t have a talent for languages, I actually ended up studying and getting a degree in (electronic) engineering. An engineering philosophy involves tweaking something until it works. Then you ship it. When it does work, then you improve on it in later upgrades. This philosophy is simply more practical since you can use something now even if it isn’t perfect, and it works so well because of that.
This is what us men do when we learn so many things in the world, including our native language. Why not learn a foreign language in this way? Trying to learn everything before even using any of it is a recipe for disaster.
It’s true that being prepared is a huge advantage. It’s great when there are instructions for you on things like changing a flat tire, but most of us actually learned these things by trial and error and know them better because of this. We have a better feel for it thanks to the experience, an experience that no set of instructions can fully convey.
So put aside the grammar book and get yourself a travel phrasebook instead (they are small and only cost a couple of dollars). Learn the essentials in a few hours that would be pretty universally needed as the core of basic conversation, and then learn what you want to say.
A standardized word-list can’t cover this; I need to say that I studied “engineering,” and that word is usually a low priority in generic courses. I find what I talk about and learn that and talk about it with natives or other learners.
There are many ways to actually learn these words, and I’ll mention two that I like. The first is image association.
For example, if I want to remember the word playa is Spanish for beach, I’ll picture a player–some overconfident pick-up-artist with too much gel in his hair–walking along a beach in Spain trying to pick up girls in their bikinis, probably getting a few slaps in the face in the process.
It’s a silly image, but it works! The association of beach to player to playa works both ways; when you want to say it and when you want to recognize it. If I asked you what playa meant (presuming you didn’t know it already) this time tomorrow, it’s very likely you’ll remember if you properly visualized this story. Same as if I asked you how to say beach in Spanish.
After this, another trick for vocabulary is flashcards that you look at when you have a moment.
My favorite method to learn new words is a program that is free on your computer, and a free app on Android phones and jailbroken Apple devices (or a paid app on normal ones): Anki. Decks of vocabulary are prepared in advance and as they come up you can dismiss the easy ones and see the hard ones come back repeatedly until you know them. You can also simply delete words that are irrelevant to you, making your study time much more efficient.
Face Your Fear and Just Use the Language! Your Instinct Can Get You Far
With an intensive dive into the language, to learn what you absolutely require to get by, you should be ready to use it right away.
When someone speaks back to you, you may not understand everything they say, but you can try to be analytical outside of all the grammar and vocabulary. This is when intuition comes more into play. In the situation and context you can see what they are talking about and based on key words that you do understand, you can fill in the gaps.
For example, I’ve found that all over the world whenever I go shopping in a chain supermarket, before I hand them money they usually always ask me, “Blah blah blah blah?” I don’t need to actually know the specific language when this happens. I can see their finger hesitating over the till to close the receipt before telling me the price, in most countries there is no “paper or plastic” question, and I’ve heard this many times before: It’s: “Do you have our club-card?”
Of course they’ll phrase it differently or mention the name of the club-card, but the context is key here; it tells you so much that helps you fill in the gaps while you are learning. In this case going with your gut is essential because there are so many cues outside of pure language that we are excellent at picking up!
In school, not knowing every single word earned you a big red X. In the real world, you can still make comfortable progress without knowing everything and function at an incredibly high level of efficiency.
What it all comes down to is fear. A perfectionist (academic) approach to language learning is based on fear of being embarrassed, fear of disappointing people, fear that you aren’t good enough, etc. Every mistake is the end of the world!
But in reality, when you make mistakes, people are very forgiving. In fact they are usually so pleased to see an English speaker genuinely try to learn their language that they will encourage you to go on, and you’ll have the momentum to keep communicating. Progress is a natural consequence of this.
Resources to Speak with People
Of course this advice is hard to follow if you don’t have a native to practice with, so here are a few very useful resources:
- Livemocha and Busuu. In my opinion, the courses presented on these sites are terrible and should be skipped. However, both sites are quite popular in many countries and can connect you with many natives of your target language on the other side of the world for free. Get their contact details and start Skyping to help one another!
- Meetup.com In many cities you will find meet-ups arranged via this website specifically to practice the language you may be learning. Go meet up with other speakers face to face!
- Couchsurfing.org While this site is better known for helping young people travel without having to pay for accommodations, I have a very different use for it. I host those travelers, from all over the world, and practice the language with them! You can also attend the regular meetings arranged in many cities, and search per language within your city to see if a native or fluent speaker would be willing to meet up for a coffee.
Of course, going to the country would help, but this is not necessarily solving the problem. Too many people do move abroad and just fall into an expat trap and end up learning nothing; constantly reminding themselves that they aren’t good enough to try.
You can do most of everything you need in reaching fluency in a language without ever buying a plane ticket. If you do go to a country, then using the language confidently will ensure that you aren’t just another tourist, and that you genuinely do interact with locals.
Constant Use With Other People Is the Road to Fluency in a Short Time
There is no magic number of exactly how much time you need to reach fluency. What I do is give myself a very tight deadline of just two or three months. Then I have to make as much progress as possible! You can reach your target, or at least very close to it, if you simply don’t give yourself the choice.
A tight deadline will yield results.
With lots of practice and feedback, your initial mistakes soon disappear entirely.
To me learning a language is facing my fears, going with my gut, being confident enough to use what I have with people, and making sure that I talk about things that interest them. Aren’t these all the kinds of manly qualities that we are striving for on this site and in life?
They really do work in many fields, and I can tell you from living in many countries and having many local friends that language learning is definitely something that men can do well.
If you stop looking at a language as a list of grammar rules and words to learn to pass an examination, and more as a backyard project that you keep adding things to and tweaking, while constantly using it all the time, then you will start to use it for what it was meant for: communication with people.
Once you’ve got your flow, then you can always come back to the academics to tidy it up a bit (as you would when you wanted to get more serious on mechanical projects) or work towards a more professional level. But to get that flow you need to dive in now!
Benny Lewis is a language hacker who takes on a new intensive language ‘mission’ every few months. Subscribe to his blog Fluent in 3 months to follow these stories and get his best tips. Read his best strategies for speaking any language in his Language Hacking Guide, which has been translated into over twenty languages. On the same page you can see a video of Benny introduce his guide while speaking in eight languages!