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) ūüėČ 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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Blending: Newlywed Daily Life

Today marks four months of marriage. I’m totally counting (and celebrating!) each month but Nat√°n told me just to let him know once we’ve reached a year. *eye roll*

These four months have involved a lot of blending. Blending of two distinct cultures, upbringings, families, personalities, responsibilities, communication styles, general preferences, and expectations. In a lot of ways we had already started some of the blending almost five years ago when we started dating. The fact that I had moved to a new country meant that I was already doing quite a lot of adapting previous to meeting Nat√°n. If I hadn’t been open to a complete cultural change from the beginning there would have been (and would still be) a lot more friction.

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That doesn’t mean I don’t lay down some gringa rules in this Honduran household. 1. Bath and Body Works Wallflowers and candles – this house will smell like a magical garden of magnolia blossom white tea ginger honeysuckle sweet pea, dang it. 2. Decorative pillows are meant to be seen, not touched and certainly not slept on. 3. You can eat your stinky dry cheese all you want but I will keep the fridge stocked with my heavenly cheddar cheese, even if it means splurging a bit at the grocery store. 4. Let me introduce you to a little invention called a coaster. 5. I’m sorry, we’re doing what today? Is it on the family calendar??

He likes to joke that I’m “American-izing” him and my whiteness is rubbing off on him. ūüėČ (you. are. welcome.) Occasionally when he doesn’t want to yield to my really great American idea he claims imperialism. (deep down I know he likes all my ideas)

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Contrary to common belief about Latin men being machista¬†he is a wonderful partner who treats me as his equal and willingly shares in domestic responsibilities. I’m so thankful for that. Really, it’s something that attracted me to him from the beginning. I recognized that he knew how to run a household and wasn’t afraid of a broom and dustpan. I’ve learned valuable home skills from him too like how to wash clothes by hand in the pila (outdoor wash basin) and make flour tortillas.

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I can honestly say that nothing has felt more natural than becoming his wife and blending our separate lives together. I halfway expected a big moment of either euphoria or difficulty. Maybe that moment is on its way but so far I can attest that it has just felt right. As a person who thoroughly enjoyed and made the most of¬†singlehood, I now know that I really really enjoy marriage in general and I really really enjoy sharing life with the person I wholeheartedly decided to marry. ‚̧

 

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Frijoles and Pi√Īatas and sweet, cinnamon Horchata – That’s what I’m made of

So, I know all little girls are supposed to be made of sugar and spice and everything nice‚Ķ and maybe I was at one time‚Ķ but I’m really more of a frijoles and pi√Īatas and sweet, cinnamon horchata kinda girl. You get me? 24706_1382595317586_5855294_n

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I never got a Quincea√Īera party so when I turned 21 I had a Veintiuna√Īera. ūüėČ

I feel at home in Hispanic culture. It’s obvious. I am all about the gaudy decor, cheesy romance and dramatic emotion of the Spanish-speaking cultures of the world. It’s like I was born to be a part of it. (I am also all about that bass‚Ķ but that’s another post for another time‚Ķ) The¬†Americana individualist and lover of witty, sarcastic humor in me can¬†occasionally find itself at odds with the Latino lifestyle. But for the most part I am all in.

Afternoon naps in the hammock.

Fresh green mangoes with salt and pepper.

Getting dressed up in my platform shoes for a night out. Or an afternoon at the park. You know.

So I started thinking back to when it all began. It had to start somewhere. I have no Hispanic ancestors. I didn’t even grow up with Hispanic friends. (I had a pretty boring, monocultural childhood)

I had a professor who asked me one time, “You’re part Hispanic, right?” And there have been countless others who say things like, “Oh, let me guess where you’re from! Venezuela?”

So the earliest I can remember taking interest in Latino culture as a child was due to the following two influences:

1.¬†Josefina Montoya, American Girl doll. I read these fictional chapter books and became intrigued by the lives of early Mexican Americans. 610YSYTYY9L 2. Feature Films for Families, Friendship’s Field¬†movie from 1995 (I still cry when I watch it) 600full-friendship's-field-poster This movie is about a daughter of a farmer in the U.S. during the 1960’s befriending a Mexican boy who came to work the¬†fields with his family.¬†

Then all of this inspired me to write (I was really into creative writing as a kid. This is what happens when you don’t have cable TV as a child) my own work of fiction called “Josie” when I was in fourth grade. I didn’t understand anything about immigration at that time but I wrote an innocent little tale of a girl who came from Mexico with her family to work. (And of course it was a love story because what 4th grader doesn’t know how to perfectly write a plot about a couple romantically meeting and overcoming their cultural differences? …what??)

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the actual, original manuscript, y’all, complete with illustrations on each page and some younger sibling’s pen scribbles

It ends with the two main characters marrying and living in a pretty little house they built in Mexico – on a hill by a waterfall. The usual.

Then I started to see the world beyond our neighbors over the border when I went on my first trip to Honduras at the age of 14. The rest is history!

As humorous and maybe strange as it was to always have had such a fascination with a distinct culture… I truly have felt the hand of God over my life as I look back on each of these defining moments. Things that stuck with me and shaped me to be who I am today РI would have never known where they would lead me!

Life in the USA (ingl√©s y espa√Īol!)

Hispanic Heritage month started September 15th here in the U.S. with the Independence Days of five Central American countries (including Honduras) and then Mexico. I thought I would share a few stories and thoughts on Latino culture and immigrants over the next four weeks here in my blog. And I will try to keep each post bilingual!


I just recently got this little book to use in my adult ESL classes called “Life in the USA: An Immigrant’s Guide to Americans” and I am cracking up. It’s like someone took all the things I have said to Nat√°n (my boyfriend) and my other Latino friends and put it in a book. It is written in the form of letters from foreign students to their teachers expressing concerns over confusing social situations.

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My favorite was the lady who was confused as to why her American co-worker who spoke a little Spanish was offended when she said “Hey, gordita” to her. Yes, in Hispanic culture it is very common to affectionately call someone by any physical characteristic (be it positive or negative) they might have. Friends and family members often call each other “blackie” or “fatty.” Sweet. I know. *eye roll*

In the response, the teacher had to explain that Americans are typically more sensitive about certain things like weight and that saying “hey fatty” is NOT an appropriate greeting in the USA. Haha!

Nat√°n has a few choice pet names for me all of which sound ridiculous when translated to English. But he knows what would happen if he ever used “gordita” on me!

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Thank God for Skype dates while he is in seminary thousands of miles away!

Acabo de recibir este librito para usar en mis clases de ingl√©s ac√° en estados unidos se llama “La Vida en USA: Un Gu√≠a a los Americanos para el Inmigrante” y me est√° dando risa. Parece qu√© alguien tom√≥ todas las cosas que he dicho yo a Nat√°n (mi novio) y a mis compa√Īeros latinos y las puso en un libro. Est√° escrito en la forma de cartas de estudiantes extranjeros a sus profesores expresando preocupaciones sobre situaciones sociales confusas.

Mi favorita fue una carta escrita por una mujer preguntando porque se hab√≠a ofendido a una compa√Īera de trabajo despu√©s de decirle, “hola, gordita.” Las personas biling√ľes y bi-culturales como yo (coraz√≥n latino en un cuerpo gringo me dicen) entendemos que es un apodo¬†cari√Īoso pero a traducirlo a ingl√©s suena horrible! Nunca debe de decirlo a una persona que no entiende la cultura hispana, jaja.

El profesor tuvo que responder y explicar que los americanos son mas sensibles con ciertos temas como lo de peso. As√≠ que “hola, gordita” NO es un saludo apropiado para nosotros. ūüėõ

Nat√°n tiene algunos apodos chistosos para mi y suenan rid√≠culos traducidos a ingl√©s pero √©l sabe bien lo que pasar√≠a si me dijera “gordita!”