How I Learned a Language Fluently

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For a long time after I had been having conversations and chatting to people in Spanish, when asked how many languages I could speak I always said just one: English. Why?

In my opinion, people often treat the topic of speaking a language with far too much casualty. For me, while I may have been able to understand and communicate with everyday topics, if I couldn’t discuss a zombie apocalypse or explain how I was feeling and why in Spanish, I couldn’t speak Spanish.

That’s why I hesitated in writing about this for quite a while. I didn’t want to seem like I was bragging about something I didn’t know about.

But now, after earning a diploma in Spanish (DELE level C1) and many people asking me how and why I, as a native English speaker got to be so fluent in Spanish, I figure the time has come to share my experience.

It is a well known fact that native speakers of English have a tendency to be disastrous in picking up languages. Whether we are lazy, have a lack of motivation, or are simply obnoxious is hard to say. I beleive one of the key reasons is  the prominence of English (read why I don’t like English as the international language). But it’s for this reason that my ability to speak Spanish is often met with incredulity (both by Spanish and English speakers). I don’t like this attitude, so I’m here to explain how I did it, and how you can too!

Motivation:

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‘Everything you can imagine is real’ – Pablo Picasso. Captured in Santiago De Chile at La Moneda’s Picasso exhibition in February 2017.

The first (and, in my opinion most important) thing is to be self-motivated. I have a genuine passion for languages, and a strong desire to learn them for myself.

I think that a lot of people learn a language for some alterior motive – whether it be to get a better job, to travel or live in another country or to improve a relationship. While this is a great start, in my opinion, it’s not enough to get to a high level. This might sound harsh, but if you think about it, it is logical: if you learn with a specific goal in mind, you will learn enough to reach that goal and then you will stop. For example, if your goal is to be able to communicate with your partner’s parents in their native language, you will learn eagerly until you get to the point that you can have a basic conversation with them, and then you will not feel the need to learn more.

 My suggestion: learn a language because you want to, and let these other factors be tools to help you learn. I, for example, learn languages and then travel to countries where the language is spoken to practise.

> If you are a traveller, read why you should learn the language of the countries you visit.

Learn first, practise second: 

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Two books that I am using to improve my understanding of Portuguese – ‘Pois Não’ by Antonia Roberto Monteiro Simoes and ‘Potuguese in Three Months’ by Maria Fernanda Allen.

This is a bit of an unpopular opinion and may be debated by some people (but hey, I’m sharing what works for me). A lot of people make the mistake of jumping into speaking a language while knowing very little about how it works. This results in atrocious mistakes, which in themselves don’t matter when in the learning stage. However, the problem comes when you make the same mistakes again and again, and, especially if no one corrects you, you get used to these mistakes and they become part of your fluent speech. Once they form part of your lexicon, it becomes almost impossible to correct.

The best idea is to learn first. Buy a basic book of grammar, use language learning apps, read newspaper articles, whatever works for you but learn something about the language before you start speaking it. And when you do start to speak, make sure you treat it as practise, rather than just conversing. By that I mean, be ready to learn from your mistakes and tell people to correct them straight away.

Your language ability at this early stage will be very malleable; with every mistake you learn from, your speech will improve. Let’s take Spanish as an example. I learned it for 4 years at high school, and in that time I learned to an advanced level of grammar and an adequate vocabulary. Of course, when I got to Spain there was still a lot that I didn’t know, but I still believe this was one of the main keys to my success. Why? Because everything I had learned kind of just fell into place and started to make real sense. Again, if you don’t want to learn to a very high level, this doesn’t apply.

My suggestion: learn as much as you practically can about the language before you have the need to speak it.

Listen more than you speak the language:

Another common thing people do when learning a new language is they try to practise as much as possible, and their idea of practising is speaking. Don’t get me wrong, speaking is a very necessary component; however, you can learn a lot more from listening to native speakers than you can from your impaired speech, especially in the early stages.

When I was in Spain, I took every opportunity I could to listen to people talking. Whether I was on the bus, my host mum was talking on the phone, I was waiting in line at a store, or anything, I would always be paying very close attention to people’s speech. Why did they use this word instead of that? In what situation’s would this expression be used? Why would I not say it like that to express the exact same thing? And, the ever-important: what does that mean?

  Simply put, if you want to speak naturally and fluently, the fastest way is to spend time listening. Then, practise what you’ve learned! Think of it this way: if everything you say is something that has just been copied from a native speaker, it can’t be wrong, right?

My suggestion: listen carefully. Learn from what you hear. Then, speak from what you have learned.

Practise what you learn: 

There’s a simple saying when it comes to language learning; if you don’t use it, you lose it. This is very true, and it applies no matter what. If you have a whole day of class and then you never practise what you learned in the day, you will (probably) forget it pretty quickly.  So get out there and practise! If you are in the country where your target language is spoken, you have no excuses. conversationexchange.com has been invaluable to me, but I also found lots of language partners through putting up personal ads in public classifieds, and meeting people through going out. Basically, anything can be a chance to practise!

My suggestion: Once you are ready to start practising, ensure you are practising enough!

> For more tips, check out my article about how to make the most of your time travelling to learn a language.

 Take Any Opportunity to Practise the language: 

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Christmas Day 2016 – Algeciras, Colombia. My recent South America trip was just as much a new challenge to my Spanish and Portuguese abilities as it was an opportunity to see some amazing sights!

As I’ve said earlier, practise for me does not just involve blabbering incoherently. However, when you see a chance to converse with someone, don’t ignore it. Every person you meet in that language is an opportunity to learn something, as they all know more than you! So whether it be a hobo on the street, some boy who is into you, a checkout operator or your best foreign friend, take the chance to talk to them and engage them in a conversation. This means: ask questions. The more you talk about the same topics, the more fluent you will be in that particular subject. For example, I was 100% fluent in talking about what New Zealand is like before I even had any clue to talk about, say, relationship troubles.

My suggestion: find topics of interest and make discussions with the people you know who speak your target language.

Say what you know:

I know that it can be nerve-wrecking when you know that your language abilities are still sub-par, but the truth is you are not going to improve without practise. And in spite of all that I have said above, practise is very key to learning a lot and learning fast. But in my experience there is a very specific way of doing this that won’t interfere with your abilities and won’t permanently mess up your speech. And that is, to practise what you have learned and only what you have learned. In other words, use the grammar patterns and vocabulary that you know, and try to make yourself understood with these tools. If you really don’t know how to say something, do ask, but ensure to correct yourself right away.

I do not recommend rambling nonsensically and simply hoping that you will be understood! Always say what you know to be correct. Of course you will say things that are not correct, after all you’re not expected to be perfect, but the key thing is to take away learnings from every mistake.

My suggestion: direct your conversation topics to topics that you know how to talk about.


If you are interested in doing what I did, check out my article about learning Spanish in Spain.

I understand that these methods may not be for everyone, but they certainly worked for me. Of course, I have been criticised for this, by people who say you should just get out there and SPEAK, that I am too quiet, that I don’t spend enough time practising. What they don’t realise is that I am always calculating, always processing, always trying to understand. And I may not speak much, but when I do it is always well thought out and almost always correct.

I also recognise that my personality came in handy when learning in this way. Because I am naturally quiet, I don’t have that constant need to talk that a lot of people seem to have. I am naturally a listener; I prefer hearing others speak than talking myself. And I have always been very cautious about the things I say out loud and the way I say them. Long story short, it may be slower than most recommended methods, but as they say, slow and steady wins the race.

What do you think? Would you try learning in this way? Or have you learned a language successfully using a different method? Do you disagree with my notion that this is the best way to learn? Or do you agree? Why? Tell me in the comments!~

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9 Comments

  1. This is so interesting. Thank you for this! I think it hits a lot of points that hits home for me. In other words, it made sense why I haven’t progressed as much as I would have liked to. For a long time, I was in ‘survival’ mode running away to France before I can speak the language, so instead of ‘listening,’ speaking was key to me. I also practiced writing on my keyboard with conversation exchange, so I grew my vocabulary that way forcing myself to make sentences (oh btw, it is conversationexchange.com – your link is incorrect). However, learning backward is so difficult for me now! I have no patience to listen since I can’t understand much, and learning from scratch, such as grammar seems tedious to me. I’m at this dilemma stuck in the middle. Any idea of what to do for someone who has did this whole thing backward?

    1. Hey Charmaine, thanks for the comment. Luckily it is never too late to change the way you learn! Listening may be frustrating at first but try to listen without putting pressure on yourself to understand – listen to the way the words flow together, listen to the way sentences are structured and listen for words you might recognise! For me, this is a really fun exercise as I absolutely love listening to people talk and trying to figure it out. And learning grammar may be tedious, but trust me it is so so necessary to learn to speak correctly, especially for a language like French. Just think of it this way – the more you study and the more you listen, the more you are learning, which will make things easier at the end of it all! Best of luck 🙂

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