In Part 1 of Immersion/Fluency Mythology I wrote about how fluency is usually not defined, how it doesn’t just happen, and how you really need to get out of your comfort zone if you want to progress. This post is for anybody who might think that you’ll get fluent just by having conversations with people.
The best learning happens in a context. For instance, you could study a word at home, memorize, repeat, recite, all day long. And maybe you’ll forget it, maybe when a chance to practice in the real world arrives, you won’t be able to remember the word. But the stronger way to acquire is to learn in the moment. When you see people pointing to a basket and saying one word over and over again, chances are that word means basket. And when you make that connection, the word cements—This is called the moment of comprehension. How do you simulate that moment of comprehension at home? Well, unfortunately, that’s a hard thing to simulate. Usually I get that from TV shows or household product labels.
This is why taking a class is so good for language learning. Now I know many new-schoolers are against learning in a traditional setting, so I will go on to further detail what I mean by this. Decide what you want to improve on—If you want to improve your reading and writing, definitely go for a class centered around bookwork and “getting the right answers.” For speaking, take a conversational class. Be sure to take advantage of every lesson. Don’t be shy; speak up in class in the target language, have as many conversations with the teacher in that language as possible—even if everyone is speaking your native language, and even if it means when you speak up in class in the target language the only person who understands you is the teacher. So what if you come off as pretentious? You are there for you and you’re paying your money. Take advantage of every moment.
One thing that really helped me take the fast-track with Mandarin was to tutor another student in Mandarin while I was learning it. Basically what happened was, twice a week, we would meet for an hour in a university study room with a whiteboard, and I would become a Mandarin teacher. Did I have an adequate grasp on the language? Heck, no. But what knowledge I did have, I passed on. In this way, I took what I was learning in class, and I created a context for myself in which I could practice. Tutoring is excellent, because if you can teach something, you prove to yourself that you know it. And confidence is half the battle of speaking a second language.
So, are classes a waste of time? No. Absolutely not. In many cases, it’s not what you have that’s so important, but what you do with what you have. I asserted at the end of the last post that you wouldn’t be able to attain your fluency goals if you merely practice all the time, but to be honest, if you are diligent and hard-working, you can do anything you set your mind to. My meaning was more the following: If you just live life waiting for these moments of comprehension to happen spontaneously, it’s going to be hard to build your vocabulary at a reasonable pace. Attending a class and studying at home puts vocabulary and grammar into your reservoir. And after you get that under your belt, you can then go out into the world and start practicing.
It is like anything else in life—don’t have too much of one thing. Learn. And practice. And don’t forsake one for the other.