How Do I Become Fluent? A Language Learner’s Guide

I occasionally get messages from students taking a foreign language (specifically Spanish) asking how to become fluent. There is no one-track, follow-these-3-steps guarantee to gaining fluency but with a few years of study and practice it’s doable so I thought I’d share some tips that helped me on my journey to fluency in Spanish. (and ones I’m using currently, although not-so-consistently, to learn Arabic)

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Language learning is a lifelong journey. We never stop expanding our vocabulary in any language, whether it’s our native tongue or not.


Three messages I’ve gotten recently:

 

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The best learning “tactic” you can have is the desire to learn. My personal motivation was traveling to Honduras as a teen and realizing the need to be able to communicate with the people there. If you want more convincing check out the infographic below about the benefits of a bilingual brain.

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Either way, find your why and your language journey will be so much more meaningful and will be what gets you through the lulls and moments when you feel overwhelmed.

That brings me to my next point… you will feel overwhelmed and like you want to give up and like you’re in over your head and oh-my-gosh-I’ll-never-get-the-hang-of-this-language, why-does-everyone-understand-except-me! I can’t tell you the times I walked into my college Spanish classes with sweaty palms and an abnormally high heart rate. It can be nerve wracking and I think a lot of people give up right around that time. But that is exactly where you have to push on through.

Learning a language will only happen for those who don’t mind looking foolish. If you are self-conscious about how silly you might sound then chances are it will be much nervousmore of a struggle. Because here’s some news: YOU WILL SOUND RIDICULOUS. You will. There is no getting around the fact that as a language learner (LL) you are going to mispronounce words and use the incorrect verb tense and just flat out say things you didn’t mean to say like one time when I told someone I had “a horse in my bathroom.”

*Things to keep in mind

  • Receptive language (comprehension) is typically developed before expressive language. I hear so many LL’s say, “I understand most of what they say! I just can’t answer back!” That’s normal.
  • It’s very unlikely that you will go from zero to fluent in just a year’s time. Allow yourself plenty of time to learn the language and don’t beat yourself up about what feels like slow progress. It’s hard to put a time limit on language proficiency because there are so many factors and we all learn differently.
  • You’ll probably have to invest financially. To learn a language you have to be intentional with your time and money. (but I hope through this blog post to give you some money- and time-saving tips you can use on your way to fluency)
  • There are four parts to learning a language: hearing, speaking, reading, writing. Make sure you are practicing all four!

 

Once you’ve discovered your motivation and accepted the fact that there will be moments when you will feel like giving up and that you will occasionally sound dumb, let’s talk about some practical ways to start and/or supplement your language studies.

  1. Take a class. I’ve known people who have become fluent just by immersion (see below) but if you live in a country where the target language is not prevalent (U.S.) you need to start here with some kind of formal class with an instructor, preferably one you can interact with, not an online class.
  2. Immersion. Whereas the class will give you the foundation for grammar, vocabulary, basics of pronunciation; immersion is the best and fastest way to become conversational and then fluent. It is suggested to have some formal training in the language before this step. Immersion is best carried out by traveling to the country or culture where your target language is spoken in every day life. This works best if you surround yourself with individuals who do not speak your first language. (and/or marry one of them like I did!)
  3. Practice outside of class time. IF you have the desire to learn you will have the desire to practice. (which is how I knew I desired speaking Spanish more than I desired playing the piano when I was younger) 😉 And if you have a busy schedule like I imagine you do, there are ways to multi-task while practicing a language.
    • I used to listen to Coffee Break Spanish podcasts while cleaning and doing laundry. (recently I’ve checked out Pimsleur language program CDs from my local library as I’m trying to learn Arabic and I love their teaching method. I’ll listen to them in the car.)
    • In high school I found a local Spanish language newspaper that I would pick up occasionally to try to read. I’d mark words I recognized and try to figure out the gist of the story. Most local libraries also have children’s books in Spanish.
    • Watching cartoons (for me, it was old Disney movies) that you know the characters and storyline will help give you confidence in the language and you won’t feel as lost as you hear the foreign words. It’s exciting the first time you start recognizing words or phrases and can understand their context in the story.
    • Listen to music. Many popular songs in English are translated to Spanish but just remember that most are not translated word for word. A couple artists I would listen to were Kari Jobe and Hillsong in Spanish. Having music or the TV on in the background as you do other things is helpful even if you aren’t directly paying attention. It is training your ear to the sounds of the language whether you are conscious of it or not and is an easy way to learn popular phrases.
    • Make friends with speakers of your target language! I would keep in touch with friends in Honduras but I also got involved in a tutoring ministry during college based in a neighborhood of majority Mexican and Guatemalan families. Building relationships with these families face to face made me feel comfortable trying to speak their language and motivated me even more.
  4. Apps on your phone are great tools to aid in language learning. Google translate IMG_0515can be used in various helpful ways, (not in translating large texts) for example I use it to “test” my pronunciation in Arabic by using the mic and speaking a phrase I’ve learned and then seeing if it understands me. DuoLingo is fun because it sets up language lessons as a game that covers the four areas: hearing, speaking, reading, writing. It keeps up with your level, lets you set personalized goals, and sends you reminders to practice. This app now offers courses for over 60 languages! (which is crazy distracting for someone like myself who probably has Language Learning ADD) I like the Spanish Dictionary app which works as a simple English-Spanish dictionary but also has vocabulary trivia, important phrases listed by category, and a Word of the Day feature. Mango is another good program offered by some local libraries. A good supplemental website for Spanish (that still doesn’t have an app to my knowledge) is StudySpanish.com – there are good grammar explanations, verb drills, quizzes, audio of speakers from different Spanish speaking countries to hear the difference in accents.

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Happy language learning! It is quite an adventure. ❤

What advice do you have for language learners?

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The Pain of Independence: a political deviant

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I’ve never been too worried about conforming. You should have seen my high school wardrobe (it was, um, *creative*) or consider the fact that I’m from the South but have an actual aversion to sweet tea and the SEC. (Yeah, several of you stopped reading right there. I know.)

I wouldn’t call myself a nonconforming rebel either but I’m pretty good at resisting peer pressure. I always felt that my inner convictions and deeply-held beliefs were far more important than popular opinion. During adolescence, right about the time I started finding my own voice and thinking critically about what I believed I received disapproval for straying a little too far from conservativism. (statistics show that most in my generation have)

About 13 years ago I spoke out in History class at my small, Christian high school in defense of immigrants and felt instantly the chasm between my viewpoint and that of my peers. I’ve since gained much more confidence, knowledge, and courage especially on the topic of immigration and have proudly landed somewhere in the moderate area of the general political spectrum. (and I think the political views of many of my classmates have also evolved) I doubt I will ever find myself at any point in my life pledging loyalty to a specific party.

First of all, I should mention that I’m not inherently political. I don’t keep up with most politics honestly and I certainly don’t go around picking internet fights with every faux news article I see shared. (I. see. a. lot. – hello, unfollow button?) The issues I am engaged with are the result of very strong convictions formed by very personal experiences, my relationship with my Savior, and the study of His teachings. I am an imperfect human doing the best I can to follow a perfect King. I honestly would avoid politics altogether (it just isn’t a pleasant subject) if it weren’t for the fact that it highly affects a lot of vulnerable people for whom I care deeply. I won’t go into detail on each policy with which I agree or disagree or those about which I honestly don’t know much. I definitely recognize that most hot-button issues are not easily resolved and are not as black and white as “right vs. wrong.” If it were so I think we would have more clearly marked camps. Obviously I believe that my beliefs are “correct” otherwise it would be non-sensical to believe them, but I do find it necessary to continually seek new information and perspectives and do my best to respect the individual who holds a contrasting opinion to my own. Respecting the individual does not mean tolerating insults, bullying, emotional manipulation, or speech that denigrates a person/persons. We have the right to shut. that. down.


Conformity vs Nonconformity

A neuroscientist, Gregory Berns, conducted an experiment on conformity vs. nonconformity in a group setting by scanning the brains (using a type of MRI) of volunteers as they answered a series of simple questions. Actors were placed in the experimental groups to confidently give wrong answers. The results, other than confirming previous research that group work influences an individual’s decision-making, showed the why behind a majority of individuals’ conformity under peer 7c2daebd86bfcb3047644e7971b0a4e7--conformity-satirepressure. It didn’t have to do with the volunteers’ conscious decision to change their answers in order to follow the crowd. The brain scans actually showed heightened activity in regions associated with visual and spatial perception meaning that popular opinion had in fact somehow changed the very perception of the volunteers. They were convinced to believe something that wasn’t true.

 

 

On the flip side the volunteers that stuck with their gut and did not conform with the
incorrect answers of the majority showed an interesting find in the brain scans as well. The amygdala, part of the brain associated with emotions such as fear and rejection, lit up. Berns called this “the pain of independence” which he says is “the clearest marker of the emotional load associated with standing up for one’s belief.” It takes courage, friends. Especially if a lot of the time you feel like you are standing up alone.


This is to point out the risk of social ostracism when one is part of a homogeneous group that doesn’t facilitate diverse viewpoints. Peer pressure is a beast.

But what if I truly agree with my group? Great! The objective is critical thinking and being able to arrive at our own conclusion and if that conclusion happens to be exactly what those around you think then, well, majority rules. 🙂 Congrats. (but maybe have a little grace with the person you meet who came to a different conclusion?)

Of all the social settings in which I’ve lived I can say that my college campus, Lee University, felt like that sweet spot of intellectual autonomy + Christian tradition. I felt very little anxiety about voicing my convictions there.

Some of the things I appreciate about my country are democracy and the freedom to express any opinion or belief. In theory we say we can respect differing opinions but we often consider a person with an opinion in contrast to our own to have some sort of character flaw. (or in evangelical circles… a crisis of faith)

Democracy depends on majority rule in the midst of dissenting voices but what happens when the majority conforms to the loudest and most obnoxious voice(s)? I hate to say that more than once I have fallen prey to psychological bullies trying to reason or guilt me out of my deeply-help opinions. Other than these less-than-desirable methods of persuasion I do appreciate having such diversity of belief in my circle.

5a20ce32c8aed4bb9feb267dcf376a65--my-life-quotes-a-quotesI would venture to say that if every one of your friends and acquaintances agrees with you religiously and politically then you probably live in a bubble and are lacking some factors that would help hone your critical thinking skills. Maybe you’ve created that bubble intentionally (I certainly gravitate toward likeminded people) and that’s your right but I’ll probably pass on having a political conversation with you. When entering into any kind of discussion over policy my first thought is, “Who is someone you know personally affected by this?”

Something else that keeps us in bubbles, and has surprised me recently, are our search engine biases. Online algorithms used in everything from our social media accounts to email to the ads on random websites we visit to what we search for in Google often keep us from venturing out of our idealogical sphere. Ever searched for something then all of a sudden see it pop up in ads with every new window you open? Same concept. We typically see what we want to see, literally and figuratively.

Our society, in its ideal state (of being), would be free thinkers and give themselves permission to dig a little deeper than their party and the news clips and sound bites and viral memes. We would graciously admit defeat when our candidate loses and we would have the integrity and humility to admit when our candidate or party is wrong. We wouldn’t assume someone’s entire idealogical makeup based on one position they hold nor would we attack someone’s opposing viewpoint with all the built up force of a lifetime of political frustration.

i.e. I share a heartwarming story about an undocumented immigrant I know who is struggling to make ends meet (unqualified for state benefits contrary to popular belief) and faithfully serves in her local church congregation. This is obviously personal and emotional to me but I am not attacking any opposing view or, believe it or not, trying to promote an agenda. I’m simply sharing a FACTUAL story from a compassionate perspective of an issue about which I care deeply.

This opens a can of worms where others (who in fact have no personal ties to an individual who had to make the difficult decision of leaving their home to provide for their family) assume the right to verbally attack me or the protagonist of my story. My question is, how did this incite such fervent refutation? Why is a popular tactic of arguing politics to take the humanity out of the debate? – and it’s done so passionately?

For the very reason that we usually bring a little too much baggage to the debate, I am very hesitant to share specific political beliefs online. We rarely understand the context, nuance, or background of the person posting the comment. There still exist many who don’t exercise as much deliberation when posting or sharing. Occasionally I’ll entertain a friendly discussion of politics from behind the screen but mostly I feel it is best reserved for personal conversation. (which isn’t necessarily always friendly either, haha)

I could get a variety of reactions to this blog post (assuming that even a handful of people read it) due to the diversity of my friends list. I don’t even know how many might actually relate to my story. My social network includes nominal evangelical Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims; devout evangelical Christians, Catholics, Hindus, Muslims; atheists; agnostics; Republicans; Democrats; international friends who don’t know the meaning of either political party; heterosexuals; members of the LGBT community; so many races and nationalities I couldn’t count them all; police officers; active military; veterans; pastors; addicts; teachers; documented immigrants; undocumented immigrants; professors; missionaries; feminists; doctors; lawyers; etc.; all who are human beings with their own experiences, stories, passions, struggles, and beliefs.

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Of course we’re going to disagree on things. Hopefully we can learn from each other without compromising our core values. As Christians, may we use scripture as a pruning tool for ourselves and not as darts to throw at “the opposition.” May we allow the Holy Spirit to work on our hearts… as well as our tongues. Can we vow to put down our weapons of divisive speech and approach each difference of opinion while waving the banner of kindness instead? We are on the same team after all.

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November update

It has been a while, dear old blog! I thought I would give a personal update on my life…

First of all, this is the first U.S. Fall that I have been able to experience in two years! I have literally been left breathless by the sight of some of these gorgeous trees with their colorful leaves and have thought several times that I was going to cause a wreck while driving and trying to look out the window. I wouldn’t trade anything for a late October / early November in the good ol’ USA. 🙂

I have been officially moved back to the states for almost 4 months now. I love the comforts of my U.S. lifestyle and I hate that I love it all at once. Sometimes I get so comfortable I feel miserable. I think only those who have traveled out of the country are really able to understand that kind of misery caused by too much comfortThings are so easy here. And becoming accustomed to the convenience and comfort again causes me to take for granted what I just spent a year learning to appreciate so deeply.

I had a tough couple of weeks adjusting back to the U.S. after I returned this past July. I can’t really pinpoint why but a comment that a friend recently made in reference to coming back after a trip abroad hit home with me. He mentioned that after a trip to Mexico when he came back to the states, it felt like everyone around him was just talking and worrying about the most stupid and trivial things. Whether that is just psychological or not, I understand the feeling! (not to say that Central Americans can’t be shallow too… whew.)

I am so thankful that God has proven Himself my Provider over and over. I am thankful for some incredible opportunities doing things that I love and earning enough money from that to pay off my school loans. <– my main goal! I am thankful for my sacrificial family, especially my grandparents for offering me a place to stay and allowing me to dedicate all of my income to paying off my debt so I can get back to the mission field ASAP. I am thankful for my understanding and faithful and patient boyfriend so many miles away. (and I’m SUPER thankful for Skype!) I am so at peace with the way things are and I trust God’s plan for the future. Distance, nor time, nor money could intimidate me. God’s got this under control.

Currently I am working part time at an elementary school teaching adult English classes to parents as part of the school’s Family Literacy Program. I love it! I am also doing on-call independent Spanish interpreting work and am waiting to begin another more consistent interpreting job. These past few months I have been able to spend more time with my family than I have in the last few years and I know that is so important especially since I am planning to move out of the country more permanently. I am doing photography and video projects on the side and am taking every opportunity to visit churches and events to speak about missions in Honduras and our organization’s current projects that are in need of funding.

I have a lot on my plate but I deeply believe in a divine plan and I just put my faith in the fact that the Lord has mapped this all out. Even about me and all the silly details about my life – He cares.

I recently mailed out my first missions newsletter with a more detailed update. I will occasionally do that. If you didn’t get on the mailing list and are interested please send me your mailing address! It includes more details that I don’t publish online.

Dear average twenty-something American,

Here are 10 ways that my life is probably different from yours:

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  1. I use a tiny prepaid phone that does not have a camera nor is even capable of receiving a picture message.
  2. I watch TV maybe once every 2 months.
  3. I walk to and from work and have consequently worn-out 5 pairs of shoes in 7 months.
  4. I get to eat better food than you (i.e. baleadas, pastelitos, tortilla con quesillo y chismol, tajadas con carne molida, taquitos, pupusas, quesadilla [like a cheesy cornbread], yuca frita, tostones, etc.)
  5. My salary is probably half or even less than half of what yours is.
  6. I often eat/drink things out of bags (i.e. water, mustard, mayo, ice cream, beans)
  7. I am surrounded by unspeakably beautiful scenery: flowers, mountains, etc.
  8. If I were to quote Madea, Bon Qui Qui or Nacho Libre no one around me would think it was funny.
  9. I don’t actually know the recent viral videos or blockbuster comedies to even quote…
  10. Several times a week a horse-drawn wooden cart passes by on the street, at school we have to wait for cattle to clear off of the kids’ “soccer field,” and occasionally a student will bring his pirated movie business to class.

And I can confidently say with a smile, I love my simple Honduran life.

Meanwhile (miscellaneous thoughts and updates)

Today marks my 3 month anniversary here in Honduras. On one hand, I feel like I have been here for a lifetime longer than that. On the other, I can’t believe that it is already November. I fear the time passing so fast in the next 7 months.

There are moments when someone back in the states mentions something like, “I heard that you’re living in Honduras,” as if it is unusual. And then I remember that it is… and all of a sudden I feel the novelty of it again. And it feels good. It feels good to know that I feel comfortable and at home here, so much so that I have to be reminded that it isn’t my home. Not really, not yet at least.

I am thinking and praying about the future. These grown-up decisions aren’t very fun and it is all kinda scary but it has prompted me to re-vamp my short-term and long-term goals. I just wanna do it all, is that so unreasonable??

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 Recently:

  • One of the girls at the children’s home where I am living turned fifteen a little over a month ago (ya know, the big quinceañera celebration they do) I helped with makeup and hair and photography of course. It was a fun little event.
  • My friend, Morgan, came to visit me! And we visited the biggest waterfall in Honduras. SO AWESOME. 
  • I traveled to Belize a few weeks ago and visited my Honduran-Panamanian-(and now)Belizean family that hosted me while in Panama last year. They moved to the small Central American country, Belize, a few months ago.

It was so interesting to learn about their distinct culture. I’ve never experienced the feeling of flying into a country on my own without having the slightest clue of what the people or customs are like. It felt pretty adventurous. They speak an interesting Caribbean Spanglish but most are bilingual in Spanish and English. They use the Belizean dollar but American dollars are accepted most places. The majority of the country is rural. Extremely rural. Like no McDonald’s, no movie theater, no mall rural.

It was a great trip but the next time I go I need to check out the islands. 😉 I hear that’s where it’s at!

Teacher meetings + adapting to the culture

I completed my first week ever of teacher meetings of my first year ever of teaching. 🙂

Time to celebrate? Ok, maybe not yet. We did have chocolate cake today at the school but it was in celebration of the Spanish teacher’s birthday. I can appreciate coworkers who know how to throw a party and make my blood sugar shoot through the roof.

I’m here in Honduras at this newer Christian bilingual school. My coworkers have been wonderful so far and I can not wait to meet my students! (I’ve seen the uniforms – there is no way that a small Honduran child in those little pleated skirts and shorts wouldn’t be cute.)

Humorous Cultural Differences: (I will often write about cultural differences and try to do so objectively although it is almost impossible to remove the lens from which I see the world, which is “American.” I ask the reader to have grace on my observations as I try to reflect on them in a culturally sensitive manner. Nothing written is intended to belittle the Honduran way of life nor to promote imperialistic ideas. I think both cultures have valuable things to learn from one another.)

  • While the rest of the teachers are relaxed, sitting around the room with empty desktops I am taking notes and marking down specific dates and times in my calendar like the anal retentive gringa that I can’t help but be. While they are deciding what they might buy from the pulpería down the street for lunch I am thinking, “crap, my agenda only goes through December 2012!” More than one time I have been told, “tranquilaaa.” (as to say, “take it easy.”) It is a motto that I am gladly learning.
  • The daily newspaper is alive and well here. While back in the states the daily news has been going digital for a while (I certainly did not grow up reading the paper, nor feel inclined to pick the habit up now) a lot of people in Honduras, including youth, read the daily paper.
  • …that being said, the postal service leaves a lot to be desired… snail mail, handwritten letters, what?
  • BUT they still teach cursive in school. (Whilst our American kids couldn’t read a formal handwritten letter to save their lives…)

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We just completed the teacher schedules. I am relieved to have not been assigned one single Science class. (They were considering it and I started to hyperventilate having flashbacks to my 7th grade bug project… ugh!) My schedule is packed and pretty pesado and even though I didn’t get one Spelling class, I ended up with Language 1-6 grade and Reading 1-3 grade and a couple phonics classes. I am ecstatic to start creative writing with my students. 🙂 I wrote my first short story when I was in first grade with my wonderful first grade teacher, Mrs. Sabrina Wilks. I am looking forward to inspiring some hungry minds, feeding their imaginations and hoping that (at least) some of them will fall in love with reading and writing… aside from the valuable skill of becoming proficient in the English language and learning about cultures outside of their own. What an opportunity to influence and form such young, precious lives. I take this responsibility seriously and pray that God gives me the words to speak each day. Pray for me?

*side note: One of the older girls at the children’s home where I am living (separate from the school) heard that a gym in our neighborhood might offer zumba classes. ZUMBA CLASSES. That announcement, albeit a rumor at this point, was music to my ears. We will investigate that and see if we can sign up to shake off some of these beans, rice and tortillas.

Settling in and Learning Lessons

It has been less than a week that I have been living in Honduras but I already feel settled in to my little apartment/room of the children’s home. I start meetings/training to teach my 1st-6th grade English classes tomorrow. 🙂 This weekend I spent the majority of my time in the girls home covering for a house mom who had the weekend off. What an experience! It was tiring but I learned a lot and bonded a little more with the 8 girls (+ baby) who live here. Kudos to all you moms out there. My respect for you went up just a little more this weekend!

What I’ve learned so far: (most from experience, some from hearsay)

  1. Wear insect repellant. At all times.
  2. If the kids don’t notice that it’s a badly recorded pirated movie (or that the aspect ratio is off), don’t say anything. Cringe silently to yourself like the good telecommunications graduate that you are throughout the entire thing.
  3. 14-year-old girls are fearless (at least the ones here) and will willingly remove the baby bird that has taken up residence outside your bedroom door when you are too terrified to move. (Not that many people I know have ornithophobia like I do)
  4. When your uncle tells you to learn to drive a stick shift before you move to Latin America and you argue that you probably won’t need to and he jokes and comes up with a hypothetical scenario where someone asks you to drive a manual car… he is probably more accurate than you think. I have a feeling I might need to learn stick shift eventually. And how to navigate this city.
  5. Don’t make eye contact with the lady selling homemade tajadas on the street… she will give you a sob story and she will guilt you into buying a bag. Again.
  6. Frozen dinners thaw 10 times faster on the counter of a kitchen that is 89 degrees fahrenheit.
  7. Walking home from church in a tropical country with a group of 17 kids will earn you a nice handful of colorful and exotic flowers/plants/weeds by the time you reach the gate.
…yeah…
I said home. 🙂