The Secret To Learning Foreign Languages

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You lucky devils.

Today I have decided to share with you all the one true secret that I believe is essential to learning a language. Sure, knowing this information alone won’t be enough to learn a language, but you also can’t learn one without knowing this rule.

Surprisingly, it is quite logical when you think about it. However, I think that this secret is, unfortunately, largely absent from traditional language teaching in schools and the like, despite the fact that, unless they are native speakers, every language teacher knows this secret and would have had to consciously acknowledge it in order to learn the language that they teach to fluency.

Yadda yadda yadda. You guys just want to know the secret, right? What is it, you ask?

The overarching rule of successful language learning is that the process itself must be enjoyable.

What is so frustrating about this rule is that it is extremely easy to forget. Chinese is my fourth language, and yet I often find myself getting frustrated at myself for forgetting characters, or for not learning as fast as I would have liked – but this is the worst thing you can do. The learning process must, above all, be fun and enjoyable – you can’t force yourself to learn a language. You may be able to mindlessly rote learn a few basic phrases, but to gain any substantial ability to communicate in a new language, the process itself must be enjoyable.

I’m not trying to toot my own horn here, but people often say to me that I must have a gift for learning languages. I hate hearing this, because what the person saying that really means it that they think they aren’t gifted, and so they can’t learn a language. This is definitely up there in the biggest excuses potential language learners make. I always reply that I’m not any more gifted than anyone else. This isn’t false modesty, this is the truth. Really. The reason I’ve been, so far, relatively successful in my language learning comes down to these four things:

  1. Language learning is my hobby, not a chore. I’m not learning Chinese to get that big job promotion, or to impress people. I’m learning it because I absolutely love learning new languages and about the cultures of the people that speak it. Nothing gives me a bigger rush than speaking with someone from China about government corruption, the one-child policy or the growing divide between the ultra-rich and super-poor. Call me a nerd.

  2. I’m not fixated on the end result. Perfecting a language (if that is even possible) is actually a sad thought for me. That would mean that the journey is over. Of course I want to become fluent, but I am patient and know that it will come with time, as it has in the past. I enjoy the learning process, not just the thought of speaking fluently. Too many language learners have this obsession with getting fluent as fast as possible, but language learning doesn’t work like that. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. If you can’t enjoy learning, you will quickly get frustrated and stop altogether. This is one of the main things new language learners have to accept, and embrace.

  3. I am confident that I will succeed. Because I have before! The reason the third, fourth, fifth languages you learn are infinitely easier than your second language to learn is only partly because your method of learning gets better – the main reason, I believe, is because you are confident that you will succeed. Faith is a big thing in language learning. When I was learning French, at age 15, I was constantly Google searching ‘how long does it take to get fluent’, ‘fastest way to get fluent’, ‘will I ever be fluent’, and the like. It seemed like such an impossible task to learn a language to fluency. I see now that it really isn’t, and it’s a very natural process. Humans have been learning languages for hundreds of thousands of years, we’re good at it. So don’t worry.

  4. I put in the time. Whoever said that famous quote “you only get out what you put it” was spot on. This point is kind of connected to my first point, because I put in the time because language learning is my hobby, and so I am constantly finding excuses to learn them, rather than excuses to avoid them. The reality is that no matter how talented or smart you may be, you’re going to have to put in a serious amount of time to learn a language to fluency. But it is far from a waste of time, it is an investment in yourself and in your future. Plus, it’s fun! And you’ll meet some great people and learn things you never could if you stayed monolingual.

So, with this knowledge – go forth! Language learning is almost like a mathematical equation: time + interest = fluency.

Also, thanks so much to all you guys for following my blog – today marks 2000 views since I started a few months ago!

Author: Dan

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  • cherhale

    So awesome to find someone like minded about this. This is something I constantly preach on my site. And so agree with your language math too! Haha. You’re learning Cantonese or Mandarin?

    • Thanks for your comment, Cherhale! I tried to find your blog from your Disqus profile, but I couldn’t work out which one was yours! Care to link me? 🙂
      I’m learning Mandarin – and loving it! Which languages are you learning/which do you speak?

      I think that language learning, like just about everything else, is a skill that can be learnt. The first time you start the journey your methods will be relatively inefficient and your confidence low in comparison to the second or third time you begin a language learning ‘cycle’.

      • cherhale

        Of course! It’s http://cherhale.com – and I also did a small shout out to you on this article in an upcoming podcast episode of mine. I’ll send it your way when it’s out. I’m learning Italian right now – and teaching it – and I’m semi conversational in Mandarin and Spanish. Mandarin needs serious work though, and I’ll be going to Taiwan next July to work on it as my family lives there.

        • Great! Love the website, very professional looking. Is the podcast out yet? Can’t wait to follow you blog and hear about more of your experiences!

          • cherhale

            It will be out Thursday! I can either tweet you about it, tag you on FB, or email you so you can have notice!

  • Dan Buenaventura

    Salut. It’s amazing to know that there are other young people who enjoy learning new languages like me. I’m Filipino; fluent in American English, Tagalog, can speak and understand Korean and currently studying French (for 4 months now) in Manila. And I find it funny that we share the same name (I’m Dan) and both treat language learning a hobby. You blog is looking really good, I’m learning from it and can relate to you. Keep it up. @danbuenaventura

    • Salut Dan! Oui, j’ai l’impression qu’on partage le même nom aussi bien que des intérêts 🙂 Thanks for reading!

      How do you go about a learning languages? Any tips you want to share?
      It’s great there are other likeminded people out there, you’re right! I’ve met so many amazing people through my blog, and through other language learning blogs.

      • Dan Buenaventura

        Currently, I’m studying in a French school to learn the language formally. But on the side, I do a lot of self-study as well. I listen to tons of French audiobooks and songs, and I watch videos (I actually stumbled upon yours on YouTube) and French films. I’m practically immersing myself into the whole language learning experience all through research, it’s challenging given I live in Asia because you don’t really meet a lot of people who speak French. You are lucky to have been given the opportunity to study in France. My best friend is French and I’m encouraged to learn the language even more.

        Your blog is an inspiration, and I would greatly appreciate your tips in learning and becoming fluent in French. Merci beaucoup.

        • Dan Buenaventura

          …And I also find it interesting and ironic that I don’t speak any Chinese but have Chinese blood (I didn’t get to mention in my first message) and on the other hand, you’re learning the language.

          • I actually have some Chinese blood, too! Although only a very small amount… I’m about 1/32nd Chinese, haha.

            That all sounds great, man – I’d say you’re well on the path to fluency 🙂

  • Good stuff Dan! I totally agree that enjoying the process in language learning is really important. Benny from FluentIn3Months seems to disagree though, since he has emphasized quite a few times that he does not enjoy learning languages, he only uses them as a means to reach an end (meeting people from different cultures, traveling, etc.)

    In any case, I recently wrote a post on my blog with a very similar title, in which I emphasized the importance of confidence in order to become a successful language learner. What do you think about this? Have you ever had any confidence issues when learning/speaking a language?

    Good job with the new design of your site, by the way!

    Sam

    • Thanks Sam!

      I know! I can’t believe that Benny doesn’t enjoy the language learning process – it must be bullshit. I can’t see how he could force himself to learnt that many languages unless he enjoyed doing it – I know he says he learns them to be able to communicate with them, but chances are many of the people he meets speak English, and so if all he cares about is communication, he may as well just speak to them in English. At the end of the day, I’m sure there are many people in every country in the world that speak English, so him saying he doesn’t enjoy language learning doesn’t make sense to me. It also isn’t a great thing to tell people, because the fact is that enjoying learning will make it much easier!

      I’ve read that post (I think I may have commented on it?)! Definitely confidence is extremely important. French was hard to learn for me, and a big part of that was that I didn’t believe that I could succeed in learning it to fluency. I was constantly doubting myself. Once you do it once though, you realise that it’s only a matter of time. Comparatively, Chinese has been much easier to learn for me than Chinese, and I think that comes down mainly to my mentality.

  • Great advice, Dan. I heard about your site from Cher Hale, too. I’m running through all 61 of her podcasts, as my wife and I are living in Italy for six months starting Sept. 1. Another side-note, speaking of simply enjoying languages, my daughter studied Mandarin in high school, but at the local college, since it wasn’t offered at the high school.

  • iced

    Very inspiring advice. I am fluent in two languages–my native and English, since I lived in an English-speaking country for some time–and have tried to learn several other languages since, but have always stopped because I quickly get disheartened. Which is sad, because despite the frustration of the process not going as fast/smoothly as I want, I do find learning languages fun. It’s encouraging to be reminded that “gifted” is not the issue when learning languages, and that one shouldn’t worry too much about fluency, it’s a continual process that will happen naturally. Thank you for this post Dan!