I suck at languages (at least so I thought). After 12 years of learning French in school, you’d think I could stretch more than a few words together. (I can’t). Despite this handicap, I’m determined to become fluent in Spanish – and I’m almost there! Here’s how:
My unwavering determination unto itself is a big part of my ability to become fluent, according to Benny Lewis (known in some circles as “Benny the Irish Polyglot”), who teaches people to become Fluent in 3 Months. He literally lands in a country and is speaking like a local in three months (and speaking with locals in less than three days). One of his secrets? You have to want it. Learning a language is work, and it takes determination to put in the hard yards required.
Practice (Even if it’s Easier to Speak English)
When I was first in Peru, I was staying in an area heavy with expats and visitors from all over the world. Thus the common language was often not Spanish – but English. It was almost too easy to not speak Spanish; a sure-fire way to never become fluent. I was staying next to a fellow from Spain (but whose English was impeccable); for myself and others, it took discipline to speak Spanish with him, since it was quicker and easier to just do it in English. Without practice though, you’ll never become fluent. You have to throw yourself into it and speak as much as you possibly can, even if the person you’re speaking with also speaks English.
Depending on where you are and who you keep company with, you can practice speaking locally, or if you’re learning remotely, you can practice online through Skype and other forums designed to connect people who want to practice other languages.
Before I started traveling full-time in 2006, I took Spanish lessons for six months, knowing that Spanish is a good language to travel with. But of course because I rarely practiced it on the road until recently, I lost most of it. However somewhere in the recesses of my mind this knowledge remained, and has been invaluable in giving me a base of cognitive knowledge about the Spanish language, with which to start/continue immersing myself.
Here in Peru I’m taking more lessons, which help my cognitive brain understand the lingo I’m learning through immersion. For me, lessons are invaluable – but at the same time useless without practice and determination.
You could be the fastest verb-conjugator on paper, and totally useless at understanding somebody when they speak. Likewise you might pick up the language quickly via immersion, but hit a plateau with grammar and reading.
Thus, a multi-faceted approach is important to become fluent in another language. From audio lessons, to reading, watching movies, using language learning apps, and more – keep learning your target language in different ways to stay interested and awake. (Too much of one learning modality can become physically exhausting).
Language Learning Tools to Become Fluent
Here are three language learning products I’ve used which have been very helpful:
Fluent in 3 Months
I mentioned Benny Lewis above, who is fluent in a dozen or so languages, and uses both conventional and unconventional methods for landing in a new country and speaking the language within days. $97 will get you a lifetime membership to his regularly updated techniques and dozens of resources, through Fluent in 3 Months.
It’s a toolbox of resources to get you speaking your target language right away, including but not limited to the following:
- Language Hacking Guide (e-book and audio): focused on getting over yourself and speaking the language from day one. Big takeaway: if it was easy, we’d all be polyglots; start speaking now, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
- Speak From Day One Video Series: This emphasizes many of the points in the language hacking guide, with Benny’s amusing and informal visual approach.
- Video and Audio Interviews with other popular language learners and teachers who discuss their own tips and techniques.
- Languages Section: This extensive section includes dozens of resources specific to learning a variety of languages (currently including Spanish, Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, and more).
- Conversational Connectors: These downloadable phrases (in 2 dozen languages) help you keep the conversation going in your target language even if you don’t know much of the language, and help you sound like a local.
Throughout these resources, Benny emphasizes his practiced language-learning tips like creating image and song associations to help you remember new words and phrases. He also provides a massive amount of links to videos, articles, programs, and resources for every type of learner to increase vocabulary, meet conversation partners, watch/listen to interviews, learn different techniques, etc.
Frankly it’s all a bit overwhelming at first, but with a lifetime membership to explore, it’s designed as a long-term resource for people who want to learn new languages, replete with community forums and online journals available for you to track your language learning progress. And it comes with a 30 day no-risk guarantee.
If you’re curious about Benny’s work but not prepared to commit to the full Fluent in 3 Months course, check out his free “Speak in a Week” email course.
Pimsleur Audio Lessons
Fluent in 3 Months (above) is a great place to start when you’re embracing a new language, given the focus on helping you over the barriers that prevent so many of us from becoming fluent, along with the tools to get you started in your target language.
But you need to eventually get into the practicalities of increasing vocabulary and learning the language itself; for that I’ve found Pimsleur to be invaluable. They offer audio courses with reading materials/lessons (available in both download/PDF and CD/book formats) that use the perfect amount of repetition and translation to take you through various conversations that increase your every-day vocabulary. Listening to daily 30-minute lessons has taken my Spanish to a new level.
As an example, I learned some past tense phrases without really knowing the mechanics of using the past tense, but they were words and phrases that I could immediately use in conversation (in so doing, getting over my cognitive self that needs to know everything about a word before using it). This in turn, opened up my brain to continue to become fluent more effectively when I was in immersive scenarios.
The Pimsleur courses aren’t cheap ($150-$200 for each of the four phases; each phase containing 30 lessons), but for me, they worked (and are continuing to work) as part of a multi-faceted approach to become fluent.
Duolingo is a fun smartphone “game” that helps you learn other languages. (I included it in my list of 25 smartphone apps for travel post). It covers different modalities of language learning with listening, writing, identifying objects, translation, etc. And it’s so much fun you barely realize you’re doing the hard work of learning a new language.
After two months of listening to a Pimsleur 30-minute lesson daily, plus my weekly private lessons (complete with homework) and practicing whenever I could in Peru, I achieved one of the pinnacle moments when trying to become fluent: I started to think in Spanish.
And then, as quickly as it happened, I started to lose confidence and vocabulary when I stopped listening to the lessons regularly and stopped practicing (largely due to spending a couple of months in Canada). But since returning to Peru, I’m back on track, and with practice, determination, immersion, and some cool tools, I can say I’m about to become fluent in Spanish.
(Note: I received a complimentary membership to Fluent in 3 Months and a complimentary Pimsleur course, and there are affiliate links in this post. All opinions expressed are my own).