Fast language fluency
Prefer to read?
Welcome to the 5-Week Linguist Show. I wanted to share with you an old recording I made of my 200 hour challenge. As I’ve talked about in other episodes, and people ask often why five weeks? It seems like a bizarre random time period and it’s 100% not.
Fast language fluency: time
When I first started teaching languages, I was a pretty typical non-native speaker of Spanish. So I was that B2 level, intermediate high. I definitely wanted to work on my skills. I wanted to speak like a native speaker, not so much necessarily out of having a passion for Spanish, which I do, but more for some really practical work reasons. I knew it would be so much easier. I’d be able to answer anything. I’d be able to really take whatever I was saying to my students and make it comprehensible, which is the key to learning any language is for things to be understandable, comprehensible. That’s research based, Dr. Krashen.
And I knew that the more proficient I was, the better and more easily I could do that, the better that would be for my students and I would have the freedom of never really having to think too much about what I was going to say, and it definitely turned out to be true. I also wanted a qualification of being able to teach… Have a native level proficiency, or near native, in speaking Spanish so I could teach language immersion. So something I’ve done in English as well where people learn content and in my case, in this particular case, it would have been primary school content. I’m a qualified primary school, elementary school teacher as well. So whatever you would learn, math, science, social studies, students would be learning the same language. They’d also be learning language through that which I think and know is extremely exciting and there’s lots of takeaways which we’ll talk about in another episode. For anybody with a connection to the internet can do something similar tailored to their own interests and needs on their own.
So the five weeks. I always had nine weeks during the summer where I wasn’t teaching and even if I was working, which I had done summer school and immersion school a few times, I always had about five weeks to find of my own. And I started really intensely and intensively studying Spanish to really get to that native level. And that was definitely a struggle. Once you go through the level, so if you go through the A-level, through the B-level, through the C-level, or in the United States, we use ACTFL, the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages, and we have novice, intermediate, advanced, et cetera. Your investment of time is going to have less of a return.
Fast language fluency: progress and time
So what that means is as you’re at the novice level of language where you’re starting with nothing and you’re moving up to being able to create your own words, phrases, sentences in a language that if you invest about 200 hours, which I very specifically picked that time because I knew it was realistic for me to get into five weeks. I could listen to lots of audio books, I could study, I could watch TV, I could go abroad, which I did lots of five weeks, I could go to a private language school. There were so many ways for me to invest that time and get a tangible return on that time. And as you go up that 200 hours, you’re going to make less progress. It’s important. You have to go through that stage. It just gets harder and harder and then as you hit the advanced level, which is what I wanted to go through to hit that near native level of Spanish, that 200 hours, there’s less of a measurable return on that investment. But 200 hours and almost every level you will see some market investment.
So I used to do these during the summer and as technology evolved, I would do these during the school year. It was much easier. So I could use my time after school. I could use my weekends, I could use my evenings, I could use my commute. But they were pretty intense. So I want to offer you how to make a 200 hour challenge for yourself. If you want to really ramp up your results for a five week learning period.
Fast language fluency: why 200 hours?
Why 200 hours? Is it a random number? Absolutely not. So, this is my take on the path to fluency. You might not even be able to see all of it because the top is super, super tiny, you can’t even… You can probably barely read it. At the very top there’s a speech bubble, and it’s words. So when you’re getting started with a language, you’re just dealing with words, right? That’s what you’re learning, you’re learning to understand and to say words.
And then as you progress you’re going to start remembering some phrases in there, and those words are going to become phrases, and then those phrases are going to become longer, and then after that they’re going to become sentences, and as you get stronger and you have more vocabulary, those sentences will become longer. And then those sentences are going to start kind of grouping together, and they’re going to be… Start looking like paragraphs two and three sentences long, and then as you learn you’re going to start developing strong, cohesive paragraphs. And then those paragraphs are going to become a bit longer, and then those long paragraphs are going to start to connect, those are… That’s the kind of language ability you’re going to have, and as you build connected paragraphs and you have a lot of resources to talk about things, it’s going to become extended speech.
Fast language fluency: how does it work?
So it’s very important, I think, to understand this process, right? You did this when you were learning your own language, whatever that is, and you’ll do this with any other language you learn. There’s going to be some ways that will help you progress more quickly that we’ll talk about, and some conditions that are going to help you progress more quickly which we will also talk about, but basically this is the process, this is what happens in any language, and I think it’s really important to not just understand that, but to also respect that whether you’re at the very top or at the very bottom of these speech bubbles, you can communicate with people in a language, it’s just different levels of effectiveness. Fluency is a continuum.
Fast language fluency: categories
So, the next thing I want to talk about are categories of languages, so these categories were done by the Foreign Service Institute. And if you’re not familiar with the Foreign Service Institute, it is an amazing language school that not anybody can enroll in, you have to be either a prospective employee for the Foreign Service in the United States, or a current employee, and before people go work in embassies and consulates all over the world they do language training, and their language training, they progress through these courses. And so the Foreign Service Institute has basically broken these languages up into different categories.
If you Google this, you’ll find perhaps different… Some different statistics, some different information, but… You might find different categories, sometimes I’ve seen them done in categories of three, but that’s almost irrelevant, the important thing to understand is that these different categories are going to require a different type of… A different length of time to reach a level of fluency in a different… Slightly different approach.
So for example, these category one languages, if you see, they all have something in common, they’re all European languages, and the further you move away from those European languages, the more difficult it becomes. So those category one languages, you’re going to jump into those category one languages and it’s not going to take you very long to be able to read these languages, right? They use essentially Roman script, they’re really similar to English. The vowels are very different in these languages, generally speaking, certainly in the case of Spanish, but you’re going to be able to kind of jump right in, and you’re going to have access to the written word. Right, you’re not going to have to learn how to read first, which you are going to have to do, jump to that category four, and this is what I meant when I talked about a slightly different approach.
Those are completely different writing systems, so not only are they significantly further away in terms of language similarities, geographics… Geographically to England, or to English. You’ve got completely different writing, you’re not going to be able to look at this and read anything until you learn how to read, so you’re going to have to learn… You’ve got a whole bunch of hurdles, right? Whereas it’s fairly easy to jump right into a language like French, which… I think I’ve heard statistics that 60% of the vocabulary is either similar, cognate, so there’s words that are alike in different languages, it’s really easy to jump right into there. And culturally, it’s sort of like being at your cousin’s house, whereas you go into those category four languages, that’s like being at a complete stranger’s house, that’s sort of the way that I like to look at it.
So the category one languages are the easiest for English language speakers to learn, the category two languages are a little bit different. You’ll see German in category one and category two, and German I think is put into category two because it takes slightly longer, there’s some rules to learn in German that are unique to that language, and they’re… That puts them off a little bit, a little bit more.
Those category three languages, again, many of them are not terribly different, but the cultures are very different. Cultures are very different, writing systems in some cases are very different. Greek, for example, but you’re going to have… Once you learn how to read Greek, you’re going to see a lot of cognates there, you’re going to see a lot of similarity. So you know, it’s got those challenges, you have to learn a new writing system to have access to the written word, to be able to learn language through reading, to be able to understand other people’s messages, to be able to write notes to people, but there’s still going to be a lot of culture… Things that are going to be really familiar.
So if you see I give you the source there in the bottom, the State Department gives a nice overview of languages. Again, you’ll find different ones, but I think those are nice generalizations. Before we move on though from this, I should point out that the Foreign Service Institute has some real advantages, they know what they’re doing. The students that go there, a lot of them do two and three languages, they’ve gone through this process, and again, back to what I said about a different approach, when you start learning languages, you can start laddering, you can just start…
You learn so many things, not only do you learn more words, more words that are then cognates in other languages, you also have gotten rid of a lot of your pride and you can start making a lot of connections, and you understand English so well, the actual mechanics of English that reading about grammar makes… You can make sense of these things much more easily than perhaps you could as a middle or high school student.
So, what’s really important though with these different categories is that it takes time. So back to those 200 hours, we talked about moving through those different levels, through those different speech bubbles and building your skills, we’re talking about time to… It’s been my experience that to notice… To have a really noticeable difference in my level of fluency in a language, I have to block off a chunk of time, and even in a category one language, a good 200 hours, I can see a difference at the beginning and the end, right? There’s a difference between the beginning and the end. I can start to markedly see growth in what I can do in a language.
So this is a little chart that’s made from essentially that FSI information, and this is slightly different than the chart I showed you before, you’re going to see them categorized differently. We talked about those four different categories of languages, you’re going to see that sometimes the second and third categories are put together, right? And that the difference between the category four language, the things that makes it different is the writing system.
Fast language fluency: how long does it take?
So you’re going to see it broken up in different ways depending on the source, but to be honest with you, I think it’s just a good rule of thumb to think if I want to learn a category one language, I’m looking at between 750 and 1,000 hours, and it’s going to be at the lower end if I’ve already learned another category one language. If you see here, they talk about the actual weeks that they do in the Foreign Service Institute, they do 23 to 24 weeks, 575 to 600 class hours. Remember, these people aren’t doing anything else. So that’s all they’re doing, that’s all they’re really focusing on.
We’re all different as well. Like I said, that… Getting that first language down, that was the challenge for me, definitely. I felt intimidated, I was a… I loved languages, and I felt like I was a strong student in many ways, but the time when I went to college I tested out of a lot of Spanish classes and I was going to college about 10 miles away from the Mexican border, and the further I progressed in my classes, the more students that were just driving over from Mexico and taking Spanish classes.
I was definitely not up to their level, it was a real challenge for me, and I found it really intimidating, and I had a lot of stuff to get over to really reach that other side, to really become… Get to high level of fluency and to being bilingual. So we’re all different. Whereas my practical time in French, I was able to shave out… Shave away lots of hours, shave out… Cut out lots of hours of formal study because I’d been… I’d gotten some techniques down, made it a lot easier. And I’d lived in foreign countries before, I’d learned difficult… Studied some difficult languages.
Fast language fluency: hours
So these are just guidelines, so you’re going to see different class hours quoted, but I think a good rule of thumb is a category one language is going to take about half the time is it learn… As it is to learn a category two or three language. A category four language is significantly different, it’s culturally different, it’s linguistically different, and the writing system’s completely different, so it’s a huge roadblock.
Now, a lot of people had the experience in school, and I hope not so much nowadays, but certainly I can tell you in the past that this was the case, it was… Language learning was all about accuracy and it was grammar-based, and those things are important, don’t get me wrong. The more accurate you can be, the better you’re going to be understood, it’s common sense, but not being able to say something perfectly is not going to be a deal-breaker in communication.
Also, it seems like the classroom was always used as this time to go over exercises and talk about patterns and structures, which is good, it needs to be that… You need to have time to understand that and to really absorb that, but at the end of the day, no one’s going to stop you on the street to talk about verb tenses, you’re going to need to do practical things, you’re going to have to greet people, you’re going to have to check into hotels, you’re going to have to order meals. Before, the opportunities to connect with people from the language you want to learn, your target language and culture, was really difficult.
We didn’t have those opportunities necessarily, this was sort of pre-internet or pre-languages being on the internet. Audio. Audio was more difficult to get, now it’s all over the place. Authentic communication. Authentic communication is human beings talking to each other, writing each other notes. There wasn’t so much of that opportunity because everyone was focused on learning it right, you have to learn it correctly. You don’t want to teach someone something incorrectly. Which of course that’s true, you don’t want to learn something incorrectly, but you don’t need to be perfect to communicate. And it used to be vocabulary was… You know, looking it up in a dictionary or in the back of the book, and those days are over.
Now it’s fantastic because there’s so much more focus on communication. You don’t have to be right. You don’t have to be right to communicate. Any time you need grammar review or you’re not sure about something, you can Google it. There’s not just explanations, there’s videos, there’s tutorials, there’s exercises all over the web, so when you are with other people you can spend that time communicating. There’s lots of different options, some people absolutely… They love games, they love music, they love video games, some people love reading. Stuff’s just… It’s available all over the web.
You can listen to radio from all over the world, you can listen to audiobooks, you can listen to news, you can go shopping, Amazon in different countries, watch YouTube videos, it’s amazing. Magazines, newspapers. And we talked earlier about those places where you can get tutorials and such online. There’s lots of sites that will actually give you feedback, verb conjugators, flashcards, Anki flashcards, it’s amazing. And anything you want to know, you can look it up, and basically your computer and your phone is now your language lab.
So, thinking about those 200 hours, language proficiency, okay? Language proficiency, back to those speech bubbles, right? Those fluency, what you can do. Language proficiency is not what you can’t do, it’s what you can do in a language, so don’t worry about the being wrong thing. It’s not grammar practice, and that’s important, it’s all about communication. That grammar is a tool, right? Those grammar instructions are tools to help you communicate. They’re not what class grades you got. It’s all about understanding and creating with language. Proficiency isn’t the number of classes taken, but it’s engagement in language and culture. And that’s all accessible. As long as you have access to the internet, you have access to authentic language and culture.
Are you in? Do you want to spend 200 hours learning a new language? I’m not asking you to sign up for anything, I’m not ask you to necessarily buy anything from… You may find some programs that you really like that you want to buy, you can probably get some of the things that you’re going to hear me talking about low-cost, or you get them from the library, or they’re free online, lots of… There’s lots of podcasts, et cetera. 200 hours where you’re going to fit language learning into your life now. You don’t have to go abroad. You don’t have to completely give your life up. You want to fit it into your life right now.
So, the challenge that I’m doing right now is my Italian language challenge, 200 hours. So, many years ago when I was a student in Spain, I knew a lot of Italian people and I was stunned at how well they could communicate. I could hear their mistakes, and I could hear their thick accents, but they were very effective communicators and they had all told me they only studied Spanish quite informally for about a month, so they only spent about 50 hours getting ready for their study abroad experience in Spain, and it was amazing, they learned so quickly.
And then I learned from them, then getting to spend time in Italy, was that being bilingual in Spanish, Italian is so easy to understand. So I traveled to Italy several times, and I studied Italian on my own, some of the methods I’m going to share with you, some of the things that I’ve done and some of the things that I will be doing in the… My 200-hour challenge. And very recently, I went to Italy. I really enjoyed speaking Italian, but I decided I wanted to move from that upper-A level or upper-novice level that… That level where I’ve got lots of phrases and words to really make strong sentences, I really want to get into that intermediate level and that’s my goal.
So if you’re in, I’m going to invite you to go to reallifelanguage.com, Real Life Language Blog, and if you look there at the upper-left corner there’s free language books, so you’re going to be able to download for free what I’m sharing with you here today, and you… The first thing you want to do is download the self-assessment workbook. You have to do the self-assessment workbook before you start. Go through, get a feel for your level, look at the different tools that are there. It’s not going to be an official rating, it’s not going to be anything like that, it’s not going to be anything to bring to a job and say, “Hey, look, this is what I can do,” but it’s going to give you a good idea of where to start.
From that same point, you’re also going to want to download the time tracker, okay? That’s a little tracker, you can put in some numbers and you can sort of start adding up the time that you spent learning. So after you’ve gone through your self-assessment workbook and you’ve got an idea about where you stand, about where you are, where your starting point is… Okay, I’m going to ask you to think about, consider really quickly how people learn languages.
So, people learn languages by understanding messages, okay? So at this point you should have your language picked. You probably have it picked already, but… Or maybe you want to challenge yourself and learn another one, so you’re going to know if it’s sort of a category one language, it’s a category two language, it’s a category three or four language, it’s really far away from what you’re doing, you’re in your native language, it’s going to take you three or four times as long. So you know what you want to learn, you know roughly how long it could potentially take, and you know where you are.
So, really critical to understand is how people learn languages, they learn languages by understanding messages. That’s Dr. Stephen Krashen, you can Google him, he’s amazing guy. He’s our guru language teacher, he points out some things that are incredibly simple and easy to understand. Sometimes language teaching and learning can become overcomplicated. It’s really about focusing and digging deep into understanding language, and as a teacher it’s all about something we call comprehensible input, so we want to make sure that our student… That we are speaking and giving messages in a way in the target language that’s understood.
Now, that’s where the actual learning takes place. Now, I’m not saying not to speak, I’m not saying not to write, because those are hugely important and critical parts in developing your language skills as well, but just know that you want to carve out a huge portion of your time in learning languages into the understanding piece, right? Understanding what you hear and what you see. What you hear and what you read.
So, I wanted to share this next bit with you, the checklist of a proficiency-oriented class, and this is sort of… These are the rules that I put forth for any group of people that I work with in learning a language, okay? A proficiency-oriented language class is one in which the focus is always about building proficiency, building communicative skills. You need to understand that proficiency focuses on what you can do and not what you can’t do, we’re not going to worry about errors. Errors can tell you a lot, and the fewer you make, the more effective you’re going to be, but it’s not a deal-breaker, you can communicate at any one of those levels of the… That continuum we talked about.
Now, whether you’re working with a teacher one-on-one or not, it says here “The teacher uses the target language as a vehicle of instruction and communication,” that’s to get everybody to comfortable, that’s to provide that comprehensible input that we just talked about. If you’re working on your own, I’m going to tell you to keep your focus into communication, okay? And that goes down to that next point, that’s the focus. The only reason you’re studying a language is to learn how to communicate. You need to be speaking, you need to be writing, reading, listening, and learning about culture. Hugely important part of learning languages is learning about their culture. Different cultures are different, and they’re going to just see the world a little bit differently, and to really understand them you need to understand that.
You’ve got to be able to take risks. So as you’re working on your own and you’re doing all these activities that we talked about, right, you’re doing your best to understand things, you’re reading, you’re writing, you’re learning about culture, right? Risk is okay, you don’t have to be right. You need to go back to those proficiency-oriented assessments that… All of that content and that self-assessment workbook is going to help you not just figure out where you are, it’s going to help you set goals and measure your progress.
And I know I’m a broken record here, you’ve got to make errors, they’re natural on the road to fluency. A lot of people, this is exactly where they get tripped up in learning a language, is that they get discouraged because they make a lot of mistakes. People don’t like making mistakes, it’s an uncomfortable feeling, but you have to really get comfortable with it and used to it to be able to move forward. To become fluent, you have to move through all those different stages, and you’re not just going to start doing it perfectly, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes along the way, so get comfortable with it.
Fast language fluency: 200 hours
So the next thing that I’m going to ask you to do is think about your 200 hours, okay? And you want to balance those hours into input and output. And just as important, it’s really important to find a really practical way to fit this into your life the way that it is now. So my 200 hours, my 200-hour challenge to myself right now is going to be in Italian. So, when I returned from my trip I was really pleased with what I was able to understand and what I was able to say, and it really motivated me to want to go to the next level, so I’m carving out 200 hours over the next 10 weeks to improve my Italian, and when you do this…
It didn’t have to be over 10 weeks, this can be over a year, this can be over six months, this can be over two months. You’re going to find your life… These 200 hours are going to fit into your life in different ways. I’m going to make sure that it fits into my life, so I don’t want this to be a burden, I want this to be something that’s really great and that’s really fun. So think about your commute, think about any of the downtime that you have during the day, think about the things that you like to do.
Fast language fluency: finding time
So, when I think about my things that are built into my day, my commute, I have about an hour in the car every day. That’s an hour of language I have each day. I have a partner who loves languages as well, and he’s going to participate with me. He’s doing his over a longer period of time because his work just isn’t going to permit him to participate, but when we have dinner in the evening we’re going to set the timer and we’re going to speak Italian. We’re also going to be watching films, that’s going to be part of our input, right? I’m going to have input in the car. I’m going to do some audio programs in the car. I’m also going to work with FlashSticks, I’m going to put those all over my house, and then I’m also going to use my own Post-its where I’m going to be labeling vocabulary so I’m completely immersed in Italian.
Fast language fluency: output
My output. Output is hugely important, right? Output’s going to be speaking, writing, okay? For output, I’m going to start off with fluency journals and fluency recordings. I talk about that in my book, which I know you’ll… You might get a link to the book through the self-assessment workbook, I believe, and you can also link to it from my website, but essentially fluency journals are… You sit down and you pick a topic and you write about it, and so if you’re an absolute beginner it might just be even recalling vocabulary. So some of the situations that I’m going to work on, for example, are going to be going to restaurants, I’m going to talk about checking into hotels, I’m going to talk about the different foods that I learned and the different clothing that I learned about the last time that I was in Italy, all that vocabulary, and then…
And what you do is you just pick an amount of time, so realistically since I’m at the upper level, the upper part of that novice level, I’m going to set a timer and I’m going to write, and I’m going to see… I’m not going to use any aids or any books or anything like that, but I’m just going to write, and it’s going to tell me a couple of things. It’s going to help me test myself on my vocabulary, it’s going to help me build my fluency, it’s also going to be a great test for finding out what my gaps are. What am I not remembering? What do I not know? Hugely, hugely, hugely helpful. That’s going to also prompt me then to go back and look up those words and find that stuff out.
For output I’m also going to do the same thing essentially with my fluency recorder, right? I’ve a little app on my phone, you can use voice memos if you want, and you pick a certain amount of time and you just talk, and it’s really important on both of these activities that you’re dating this, because you’re going to see some real progression as you move forward. I’m also going to do for output, I’m going to do some work with italki, though that’s going to be later on. That’s going to be later on, I’m going to give myself this… I’m going to basically only plan out the first 50 hours, because your needs are going to change, right?
For example, if you decide to do a program like Pimsleur, I want to say Pimsleur is about 75 hours in a lot of languages, and they have five different levels, but all the lessons sort of add up to about 75 hours of input. Well, there’s my commute, there’s 75 hours, and then planning the sort of 50 hours beyond that, I’m going to have to check back in and see what my needs are. So thus far this is what I have planned. Earworms and Pimsleur. I love Earworms, they’re really fun, you can Google them. FlashSticks all around my house, as well as Post-it Notes. I love Practice Makes Perfect, they’ve got great workbook.
I’m going to spend some in Duolingo. I don’t believe in Duolingo for helping measure language proficiency, but it’s a great little way to build vocabulary and learn a language. I love Anki cards, vocabulary columns, you can check that out on my blog, and I’ve got a question mark here, customized phrasebooks. I’ve got plenty to do to keep me busy, but I will be getting into some more customized phrasebooks, I’ve got… I’ve done a couple already, I’ve done days and months in Italian.
And my output, I’m going to do fluency recordings, fluency journals, task journals, I don’t think we talked about task journals, those are little… Basically they’re notebooks of little situations you’re going to write out. This is really good for dialogues. What would I say at the cleaners? What would I say to return something at a restaurant? What would I say if there was noise outside my hotel room? Those are the things you’re going to kind of work out on your own, these tasks, how… What language you need to fulfill these tasks.
Fast language fluency: italki
And I’m going to do some italki private lessons with a native speaker, and I’m thinking about 10 hours of that. So I roughly have my 200 hours planned out. I probably have more to do… They’re probably going to take me more than 200 hours, but I’m going to do my next check-in after I’ve completed 200 hours, I’m going to use that time tracker that you can download from the blog to track my activities.
Are you ready to start, and achieve fast language fluency? If so, go to reallifelanguage.com/reallifelanguageblog, go to free language books and make sure that you download your time tracker and your self-assessment workbook. Also, please be sure to check in and visit us on Facebook, and let us know how you’re doing with your 200-hour challenge. You’re going to be hearing updates from me as I go through this challenge, and I’m going to be sharing with you my insights, new materials I’ve learned, as well as from other people participating in the challenge. So I wish you the best of luck, and I can’t wait to hear how you do on your 200-hour challenge.
Looking to get started? Check out the mini-courses here: http://reallifelanguage.com/reallifelanguageblog/get-updates/