zen habits : breathe

Simple guide to speaking foreign languages

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post from Benny the Irish polyglot of Fluent in 3 months.

When I was 21 years old, the only language I spoke was English. I had done quite poorly in languages in school and believed that I was too untalented and even too ‘old’ to consider ever speaking a foreign language, even basically.

Now seven years later I speak eight languages fluently and can get by quite well in several others. In my day-to-day life I almost never speak English and my travels and scope of friendships have been greatly enriched because of this.

How I reached this stage was not by studying a lot or investing thousands in software or courses. It was by applying the simple principles outlined here.

Having the right learning approach

What mostly surprises people is my confidence that anyone can reach a high level of fluency in a language in just a few months. Many of us will have studied a language for years in school and are barely able to string a sentence together, so this idea might sound nothing short of arrogant.

However, considering what you are actually doing in school; a couple of hours of theory, using the language unnaturally for exam purposes, and some half-interested homework – this barely adds up to a few weeks of real work even over half a decade.

After just two months living in Budapest, with no previous exposure to the language, I was ready to be interviewed entirely in Hungarian on video. I am not smarter or more talented than anyone else who might attempt this, but I am much more committed and serious about reaching my goals.

You don’t have to devote your life to the language, but you must invest at least an hour a day, ideally more, which involves focused use of the language.

Casual interest can only get you so far – if you just ‘want’ to speak a language, that gives you no edge. Who wouldn’t want that? To make real progress, that want has to become a need.

With focus and your full attention you can learn much quicker

And there is only one way the language will become a true necessity: you need to start speaking it with other people, now.

Stop learning the language, and start speaking it!

If I had to summarize what definitely separates those who fail in attempts to reach conversational fluency and those who succeed, based on my experience of meeting thousands of language learners, it is simply the fact that the latter group actually use the language. Not for exams, not for listening to podcasts or reading, but to communicate with human beings.

If your goal is to be able to read perfectly or understand the radio perfectly, then lots of reading and listening will be precisely what you need.

However, to speak well, you need to speak often! You can’t avoid this, it’s kind of the whole point!

Seriously, stop studying the target language so much! A language can’t be treated like a subject in school such as history or biology; in the real world you cannot ‘fail’ when you make a certain number of mistakes. Other people are very helpful when you are genuinely trying to speak with them.

People told me that in Berlin I would find it hard to convince Germans to not speak English to me all the time, but even when I was initially struggling they would be very helpful and patient with me as I spoke. They could see that I was serious about speaking their language and rewarded me for my efforts.

I can assure you, if you start speaking now with the little you know, you will indeed make mistakes but other speakers and natives will forgive you for this and you will realize that you always had the ability to communicate and get your point across.

Thanks to this practice, any studying you do will be focused on real use of the language relevant to your life, rather than theoretical applications recommended in generic courses.

Don’t wait to finish the course – take matters into your own hands!

What so many courses miss is that no matter how much you study, unless you start to use the language with others on a regular basis, it will have no real context in your mind and it’s very hard to make any real progress.

I know people who are like walking dictionaries – they know the most obscure words in the foreign language and can explain precisely how the grammar works. And yet they are still not confident enough to speak.

One of these was another foreigner I lived with in Spain who could run circles around me if you put the two of us in an examination. Despite this, Spaniards I met when we were together would tell me that I spoke much better than he did. I wasn’t thinking too much about saying things perfectly – I just let the conversations flow.

People focused on perfection still need to learn ‘just a little more’ and they’ll be ready ‘some day’. There are seven days in a week and ‘some day’ isn’t one of them!

Those with much less theory behind them, but more experience actually speaking, will outdo the academics every time. This has nothing to do with natural talent, it’s about simply opening your mouth and really using the language.

A language is a means of communication. If you think of it as a list of vocabulary to learn off, or a table of grammar to memorize, you are missing the point entirely.

When you start practicing, you will improve on your speaking skills dramatically. It won’t be easy, but once you accept that you simply cannot skip the stage of making mistakes and try to enjoy it, then the mistakes will disappear quicker.

You don’t need to travel to speak the language

Successful language learners don’t aim to speak well some day – they use it now. Make all of your focus on immediate use of the language. Study can help, but it is most effective when it has immediate applications.

Find natives and other learners to practice with and arrange to meet up with them immediately. It will be hard at first, but you need real pressure if you want to make real progress.

Rather than downloading podcasts and buying too many courses, meet up with actual people and use the language! A few resources I like to use include:

You can do this in your home town.

The only reason I feel that travel really does make a difference for some people is because of the pressure to perform being constantly there.

But many expats still waste the opportunity. I met a man who had been living in Prague for ten years and still didn’t speak any Czech, even though his own children did. He had created a bubble of his mother tongue that ‘protected’ him via his social circle and routines.

If he can do this in a foreign country, why can’t we do it from home with a foreign language? You don’t have to avoid your mother tongue (that is not a realistic solution for many due to work and family / friends), but you can create a ‘bubble’ where everything you do is in the target language, even if just for that hour a day.

A positive attitude is the key

No matter what language I learn, I always try to look at my cup as ‘half full’. It’s possible to answer this post with a list of reasons why learning a given language would be too hard for you, but this bogus focus on excuses is what actually makes it hard for many people.

You can also make it easy by deciding to have a positive attitude accompany you in your language learning journey.

This positive attitude creates a feedback loop in your mind where you will look for more evidence to support the idea that it isn’t that bad after all and this will further fuel your openness to learn more without creating any invisible barriers. Progress will flow and you’ll be speaking confidently before you know it.

So stop reading about it, stop listening to others doing it, and stop over-studying and dreaming about ‘some day’. It’s time to get out there and speak it!

Benny 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.