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How Do I Become Fluent in a New Language?

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I read the following online on a site supposedly devoted to learning fluency in a second language:

“Language is like any other skill or aptitude: some people are proficient in languages, while others are better at math, science, or music. Everyone has the potential to learn, but the fact is that some people are just more capable of learning language than others.”

Trying to acquire a second language as one would try to learn math, science, or music is so predominate, so pervasive in the minds of Americans that this sort of statement is posted on a site that purports to be an authority on second language acquisition.

If this statement is true, then just how did you become fluent in your native tongue? If “language is like any other skill like math, science, or music,” then under which academic textbook, classroom, workbook, teacher, or school did you study to become fluent in your native language?

When spoken fluency is relegated to the level of learning just another academic subject, the one thing that can be guaranteed is that the seeker of spoken fluency is NOT going to become fluent in the target language. They will learn how to read text in the second language but they will not develop spoken fluency.

I mean, really, think about this statement for a while. If learning language were indeed like any other skill or aptitude, “some are better at it than others,” then only those with the aptitude for their native language would be able to speak it.

The rest of us “language-skill-and-aptitude- challenged” schmucks would be plum out of luck.

Perhaps the main reason statements like the quote above are so adamantly believed is because the academic communities in almost every country in the world ignore the almost 40 years of research in Language Acquisition and fail to make the distinction between the Acquiring and the Learning of language. One refers to learning speech, an instinctual thing in all humans (even the deaf and blind), while the other refers to learning about the language in which one has already mastered speech.

Making the distinction between the acquiring of the language and the learning is perhaps the most important factor in determining the ultimate success or failure of the adult seeker of a new language. If one does not make this distinction and does not seek the logical methods for acquiring the target language, then what one most likely seeks are a classroom, a teacher, a textbook/workbook, and abject failure to learn more than a few lines out of dialogues. I can still recall the very first dialogue I memorized in my seventh grade German class. I cannot speak German, however.

Because I’ve sought methods (all home study courses) that directed me to acquiring a high degree of spoken fluency in Spanish, I can go to the Mexican doctor, discuss fairly complex issues with neighbors, go anywhere in Mexico where we live, and get along just fine in the language. Because I sought spoken fluency first, before learning about the language (grammar), I am now ready to step into a learning environment (classes) where I will learn about the language.

One comes before the other.

It does help that I live in the environment in which I can practice constantly and receive correction. You would, however, be surprised at how many monolingual English speakers live in Mexico, the total Spanish immersion environment, and yet cannot string enough words together in Spanish to form a coherent sentence. The sad tragedy is that they are forced to commit what the authors of the novel, The Ugly American, referred to as “social incest.” The authors described Americans in the Foreign Service in Asia who, not required to learn the local’s language, didn’t learn it and, therefore, could only socialize with their fellow Americans.

Blogger Michael Dickson, in his Blog entry titled, The Movie Set, says this:

“From my direct experience, a minuscule proportion of Gringos speak passable Spanish, and without Spanish you can never, ever, know this darker and more interesting world. You stay in your Glitz Ghetto.” (Source)

He’s right.

If as an American expatriate, you claim “all your friends are Mexican,” and you remain monolingual, this can only mean all your Mexican pals are bilingual. The world of the bilingual Mexican, often from a higher, more educated class, is but a fraction of the culture! How can you ever get past the masks and into the real, often darker and far more interesting, world of Mexico or whatever Spanish-speaking culture you love without the language? You can’t.

The sad thing is the instinct to learn speech, no matter from which language is alive and well in even the oldest adult’s brain. Apart from having a brain disease process going full tilt, you can learn Spanish, or any language, no matter your age or lousy disposition.

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