by Marc Anderson

How to be Mistaken for a Native English Speaker – 3 Ways to Language Fluency

Group of English or French students with the flag of Canada

What is language fluency?

To be fluent in a language means to be understood by both native and non-native listeners.  Language fluency includes the 4 skills defined in the above crossword:  reading, speaking, listening and writing. You have different levels of ability in each of these areas which all add up to language fluency.

How to Gain Language Fluency #1:  Immersion

Immersing yourself in the language yields the most rapid language growth.  Maybe you can travel to a region or country that uses that language. Maybe you can find language tapes, television shows, song lyrics and movies in that language. You might visit a grocery store or restaurant to sample foods or meet people from this country. Each of these ideas will help with beginning to think in that second language. 

The answer is to simply immerse yourself in the language and continuously hear the sounds, rhythms, and inflections of the language.  Soon, your brain will start to process and interpret the new language. You can force yourself to speak the second language most, if not all the time and associate less with speakers of your first language.  Volunteer work or having a job that uses that language will help speed up the process of acquiring the language. Making friends with those who speak the language will also help.  You could live with a host family, acquire a pen-pal and even write on Facebook in your newly acquired language.  When you immerse yourself in the music, culture, media, politics, sports and the community of that targeted language, you will become fluent more quickly.

You might have heard about some successful language learner programs like Middlebury, one of America’s top liberal arts colleges noted for its international and language studies.  It offers intensive instruction in 10 languages during 6, 7 or 8 week classes in the summer to high school and college students who sign a pledge to use the target language exclusively during this time period.  Then there’s Concordia in northern Minnesota that offers a choice amongst 15 language villages to students of all ages in summer and yearlong residential programs.  Again, the students speak only in the targeted language.

There are over 1,000,000 headlines and blogs about learning a language quickly by immersing either in that country or with a certain language method that guarantees to work in record time.  There’s the popular Foreign Service Institute’s language programs in which Lawrence Eagleburger, a former US Secretary of State supports, “I am a firm believer in the Foreign Service Institute’s language programs. I took the course early in my Foreign Service career, and thanks to the quality of the teaching methods used, was able to go from no competence in the language to an almost bilingual facility in only a few months.” The Berlitz Corporation teaches more than 50 languages and has over 550 company-owned and franchised locations in 70+ locations in the world. And you might have seen my recent blog about the Rosetta Stone language program that boasts language fluency with its five levels of language instruction, complete with interactive lessons, games and a learning community within one year.

Although there are many different choices to immersion, the goal is the same.  You use the language as much as possible in as many situations as available for a quicker path to fluency.

How to Gain Language Fluency #2: Passion


Develop a passion for learning. If you do, you will never cease to grow – Anthony J. D’Angelo, founder and visionary of EmPower to help students, educators and university executives build education (not just degrees) for the 21st century

Okay.  I’ll give you a few minutes to think of 3 things that you really good at. If you are like most people, and you think about your choices…you probably picked things that make you happy and, therefore, you spend lots of time doing them. This becomes a positive cycle.  Undoubtedly, some of you picked a sport or two, and maybe music or computers.  The more you engage in this activity, the better you get at it, and the happier you are.

That is the same philosophy behind becoming fluent in a language.  If you have passion towards learning that language and understanding the culture for whatever reason(s), the learning process will be more of a pleasant experience and you will naturally direct more time towards this.  And the positive cycle continues until you have gained fluency.

When you have passion towards learning a language, you want to accomplish your goal of learning the language at any cost. It doesn’t matter if you spend every free moment of every night studying, or you spend your savings on books and programs or that long-awaited trip. You don’t mind reading a foreign dictionary from cover to cover and listening for the 4th time to a language tape.  Your subscriptions to foreign newspapers, magazines or internet sites are worth the price.  And when you are around foreign speakers of the language you are learning, you don’t care about making mistakes.  You realize that you learn best through imitation, repetition of sounds and by not being shy or self-conscious. If your pronunciation or conjugation is off, who cares? You like watching facial expressions and how people move their mouths to say sounds, words and phrases. Eventually, you will think in this language and these sounds, words and phrases that you have observed will become yours.

Passionate learners set goals for themselves.  Maybe you tell yourself to have so many language conversations a day, or you strive to learn so many words a week or you seek to ask a certain number of questions at a given time.

That’s passion. And when you have it, your energy is directed and maximized towards your goal.

How to Gain Language Fluency #3: Perseverance


Our greatest weakness is giving up. The most certain way to success is to try one more time – Thomas Edison, prolific inventor and holder of 1,093 US patents

Can you think of a time in your life when you accomplished something like getting out of debt, graduating from college, getting that coveted job, building your own business, exercising regularly or eating a healthier diet?  Can you think of a time when you failed?  Well, accomplishing your goals is all about perseverance.  Perseverance can be learned.

You must believe that you can succeed, even when you falter and maybe even fail.  Think of others who have succeeded. You can read biographies about people who have succeeded in life. You can think of inspirational song lyrics to help you succeed. You can imagine what it feels like to succeed. Picture yourself speaking freely to others, listening in a meeting, reading a poetry book or writing a letter in the foreign language. How does that make you feel? Visualization is a key tool to help you accomplish your goals every step of the way.  Expect it to happen.

Another helpful suggestion is to break the long-term language learning goal into short-term goals.  This will help sustain motivation and move you forward toward your ultimate goal of language fluency. You could design daily goals to keep your enthusiasm high and focus on completing small steps toward that goal. Positive talk, charting actual progress and tangible reinforcements all have a role in helping you maintain progress.

Tell yourself that you are not allowed to think negatively about your long-term goal.  The phrases “I can’t do this” and “I’m not good enough to do this” are not allowed.  Put those aside, and replace them with “I can do this” and “I am good enough to achieve this”.  Soon these positive thoughts will be a habit to help you accomplish your goal.

As you focus more time on language learning, you will discover some secrets to persevering and to successful study. In interviewing some of my former students, these are some suggestions that worked the best for them:

  • Write it down, look it up and use it! After having conversations, jot down a word or phrase you don’t understand, then go back and look these up in your dictionary or ask someone about it.  Think of how the word and phrase was used and then model this as soon as you can in conversation until it becomes engrained.
  • Use cognates and link to the new language. Maybe you have begun to notice how some words are similar in other languages?  Words that appear exactly the same across languages are called “cognates”. Sometimes these words share the same root words or the same endings. This will be helpful for you in acquiring fluency.  For example, the word “abdomen” is spelled and used the same way in English, French and Latin. The word “accidente” is spelled the same way in Italian and Spanish; and means the same as “accident” in English and French. There are thousands of cognates that can easily be found by searching the internet. Not only will the history of these words build interest but the similarities will enhance your fluency, and with a high success rate in a short amount of time.
  • Learn 2000 frequency words. You can download words that are most frequently used in a language and begin to study and use these words in your everyday language. Soon you will be surprised at how many words you actually know and use. This base will be helpful to build on.
  • Think picture for memory. When you come across a new word either listening or reading, and you don’t know the meaning of it, you can think of a picture clue to help with memory. That way, you can better remember what it means. For example, the word “caber” in Spanish means to fit.  So you can think of a “(taxi) cab” with a “bear” riding down the street. 
  • Classes. Individual and group lessons can pay off in the long run.  They may be individualized to your specific needs.  So if you are more interested in finding out about cultural heritage or something related to a foreign embassy job, your instructor can target learning towards those interests. However, having others in the class can also help with practicing the language and fostering friendships to continue language practice outside the classroom.  Class instruction whether in person or online can build a time for purposeful study and give you a boost to propel your learning forward.  You can see others in a similar situation like you and enjoy the learning process with them.
  • PRACTICE! Languages are alive and need you to keep using them to maintain the level of language acquisition.  You will better remember the vocabulary and grammar and stay abreast of the slang and new words and expressions added to the language. One helpful way is to space repetitions of the language to help with memory.  You study certain words and expressions every so many days.  There are apps and programs on the market to help you program your study. In addition, by keeping in touch with students and teachers from your classes and people you meet on your travels through practicing the language (in all 4 ways of reading, speaking, listening and writing) and by following the successful regiments that got you this far in language fluency…you can maintain language fluency for your lifetime.
  • Follow the 80/20 rule. The Pareto Principle that was designed mostly for business has been applied to other life situations. It states that 20% of what you do each day produces 80% of your results.  Basically, you eliminate the things that don’t matter towards your goals – you know the things that have little effect on your overall achievement towards language fluency.  And, you focus on the 20% that gets you the most (80%) results. This helps greatly with the speed of becoming fluent in language learning. Your time is better spent towards your ultimate goal.

Summary

I believe that languages and cultures offer richness to life. Fluency in a language leads to not just better understanding of that particular language and its people, but to a deeper appreciation of the world. It also helps build confidence within yourself that you can succeed at your goals.  This in turn helps to support other goal-setting and achievements in your life.  By becoming fluent in a language you will have tapped the powerful potential that you can become whatever it is you want.

Won’t you say “yes” to studying a second language today?  Check out TalktoCanada and our many program offerings to English online study.  Send us an email and ask about our programs.  We will be happy to help you reach language fluency.

So make it a “yes” or in whatever language you speak…si, oui, ja, sim, ken, sea, jes, hai, ndiyo, gee, oo, shi, baleh, na’em, a-yo, haan, hanji, ho, hunji, hufi, ao, igen, da, evet, avuno, nai, tak, taip, aye, tha, bai, oes, jom, ya or kylla….You get the point. _____________________________________________________________________________

Write to me at TalktoCanada.com and share your tips on how to become fluent.  Did you find anything really helpful in this article?  Do you have a story to share about immersion, passion or perseverance?  As always, I would enjoy hearing from you in any language you speak.

About the author:

Marc Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of TalktoCanada. Since founding the company in 2006, he has grown it to over 25 staff with operations in 50 countries. Marc spends his time outside of TalktoCanada travelling, playing with his son and working on new business projects.