People believe a lot of weird things about languages.
Some people think French is the hardest language for English speakers to learn. Others think only a handful of languages can be useful. Many people don’t understand how learning a language and getting good at it works.
Leaving these assumptions unchecked as you go into learning a language can get in the way of success.
What is Basic Fluency?
No one really knows.
Fluency is a concept that comes up often in discussions of language learning. Beginners set out with the goal of becoming fluent. Language classes and apps boast “fluent in 3 months, guaranteed.” Everyone wants to know how to become fluent.
However, it is a massively misunderstood concept. In some ways, fluency itself as it is popularly understood is a myth. Merriam-Webster defines “fluent” in the language context as “capable of using a language easily and accurately.” That is not very specific.
What makes someone fluent in a language depends on who you ask. Let’s break down some other commonly held misconceptions about language learning and fluency.
Myth: You are Either Fluent or Not Fluent
A lot of people think of being fluent in a language as something that you either are or are not and that it’s a simple question to answer. It’s more complicated than that.
Fluency is relative. No one can speak a language perfectly. Not even their native language. The same will be true no matter how good you get at another language. There will likely always be subjects that you will not be able to follow, even if the reason is because you don’t have knowledge about them in the first place.
Similarly, every language has several dialects, though academics typically focus on standard formal speech. If you want to understand native speakers in a social settings, you will need to know a few expressions. It doesn’t help that when some people say fluent, they mean “able to speak the language perfectly” while others mean “decently skilled.” In that way, “fluent” is a bit like “all natural” on a label: it sounds great but it doesn’t tell you much.
Myth: It Takes Years to Become Fluent
Misconceptions about how long it takes to learn a language fall into two camps. Some people expect it to be fast and easy, others think about bilingual people and think “I’ll never be able to do that.”
If you are one of the latter, don’t be discouraged. If you want to know how to learn a language fast and fluently, the short answer is to work smarter, not harder. Language education experts recommend spending seven hours a week studying your target language. You can spread them out however you want, but make sure to work at a time when you are alert and productive.
Of course, how long it will take to become an advanced speaker also depends on which language you are learning and how quick of a study you are. For this reason, you should also be wary of any program that promises you will be fluent in a specific time frame.
Myth: Speaking Practice will Make you Fluent
Of course speaking practice is an important part of language study. However, in order to speak well you have to be a good listener.
Listening practice is how you understand other speakers better, learn correct pronunciation, and develop an understandable accent. Watching native speakers’ body language and facial expressions will help you learn the non-verbal aspects of the language. Watching the way their mouths move when they speak will help with pronunciation.
It is a good idea to get a conversation partner or language tutor for this kind of practice. You can also accomplish it by watching movies and TV shows.
Myth: Fluency is Knowing the Most Vocabulary
Our brains can’t store every word of any language. Even if they could, it would not be a productive goal. A smart approach to vocabulary is learning words that are relevant to you.
Remembering words for these areas will As you become more skilled, the things you will talk about in your new language will become more complex.
Myth: Some Languages are Objectively More Useful Than Others
Anyone in the United States who is learning a language that isn’t Spanish or possibly Mandarin Chinese has probably been asked why they aren’t “learning a more useful language,” usually by people who only speak English.
The truth is, a language is useful as long as you use it.
The common high school options in the United States have three things in common: they are relatively easy to learn, widely spoken, and have cultures that many people enjoy learning about.
If you can’t decide which language to learn…
Think about which of the above traits are important to you.
Some options that are easy for English speakers include Spanish, French, Norwegian, Swedish, Dutch, and Portuguese. The most widely-spoken non-English languages include Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish, French, and Standard Arabic.
Maybe none of those things matter to you and you want to learn a language to get in touch with your heritage, to travel to another country without being an annoying tourist, because you enjoy the art or popular culture it produces, or because you simply think it’s cool. Those are all great reasons! You don’t have to justify the usefulness of the language you learn.
Myth: Becoming Fluent is the Only Goal You Need
When you’re setting goals for language learning, especially if you’re trying to learn a foreign language on your own, specificity matters.
Instead of only thinking about the skill level you want to reach, think about what you would like to do when you get there and which vocabulary and skills you need to make that happen. Some examples of good specific goals include watching a movie without subtitles, reading a specific book, speaking to locals on a trip, and conversing with a native speaker in your life without switching back to English.
Let your reasons why you want to learn the language in the first place inform your goals. It is also a good idea to make your goals time-bound. Otherwise they are more aspirations than goals.
Myth: Language Immersion Requires Living in Another Country
When most people hear the word immersion in a language context, they picture the kind of thing they’d see a character in a movie do. Pop culture may make it look easy to spend a year in Paris and pick up the language over time from interacting with the locals, but it doesn’t show the money and logistics it would take to do that in real life.
The good news is you don’t have to travel to use immersion tactics.
A great way to immerse yourself in a language without leaving your city is going to a meet-up group where other learners only speak in your target language. They exist in-person and online. You could also work the language into your everyday life by changing the language settings on your devices and social media accounts, adding media in your target language to your entertainment rotation, and even speaking it to yourself around the house. These exercises will help you improve your skills without feeling like a lot of work.
Myth: Learning a Language is Boring
Some people have the idea that learning a language has to be a chore. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, nothing that takes work is going to feel exciting all the time.
The best way to learn a language is to learn the way that works for you, which includes making it fun.
Not only do apps turn learning into a game, but it’s easy to incorporate your interests into your language practice. You can do almost anything that you enjoy in another language if you’re creative enough about it. Choose reading, watching, and listening material from genres that you enjoy anyway. Don’t feel like it has to be high-brow to “count.” If you like cooking or DIY projects, you can find recipes and tutorials in your target language.
Myth: Once You’re Fluent, You’re Done
Many language learners think of “becoming fluent” as a sort of finish line. This is not how it works. You are never truly done learning a language unless you stop trying. Not only is there always more to learn, but maintaining your skill level takes effort. Once you meet the goals you initially set, keep setting new ones. Building a community of speakers including other learners and native speakers will help you continue to learn in the long term.
Now that you have busted the myth of fluency and other similar misconceptions, you can go forth and learn based on a more nuanced understanding of how it works.