There’s a common myth floating around, that simply moving to another country will allow you to learn the language. I’m going to do my best in this post to debunk that myth.
IF YOU LIVE IN YOUR LANGUAGE COUNTRY, YOU’LL MAGICALLY BECOME FLUENT!!1!
OK, first of all, before going forward with any discussions of fluency, you need to define fluent. Because frankly, I’m guessing you probably don’t know what you actually mean by fluent. Think about it. Do you mean, you can have rapid conversations with native speakers? Do you mean you can read a newspaper with 100% comprehension? Do you mean you can laugh heartily at witty dialogue in movies? Do you mean [gasp] you are indistinguishable from a native speaker? This sounds nit-picky, but I really mean this. You can’t achieve goals in life if you aren’t specific enough.
BE SPECIFIC; PICK OBSERVABLE GOALS
In University, during my final year, I had to a large research paper to write. My (favorite) professor told me, “Be specific. Send me your ideas. I’ll help you narrow it down.” So, for my topic I picked “Literacy habits among women in the 1800’s.” And she told me to try again. By the end of things, the topic of my paper was “How the women of Lowell, Massachusetts empowered themselves intellectually by cultivating a magazine while working at a mill between the years of 1860-1890.” I think I got an A in that course.
The point is, if you’re not specific, you don’t know how to accomplish your goals because you don’t know what target you’re attacking.
So, in your language pursuits, I suggest you start by defining fluency for yourself. Here are some possible definitions:
- You can communicate comfortably with native speakers about everyday errands like shopping or eating out or directions.
- You can read a newspaper and get the general meaning of every story.
- You can grasp the general plot or idea of movies and music.
- You can talk with the native-speaker staff of your school about teaching methods and student progress.
Even if you just picked one of these areas, and focused really hard on it, you will be able to accomplish it, without belaboring emotionally over how you haven’t reached some mythical land called fluency.
INSULATED LANGUAGE COMMUNITIES
Now that we’ve defined fluency, I want you to actually go out and meet some people who have accomplished this mythical task. Seriously. If it’s so easy, go and find them. You’ll probably learn that they took some language classes, they married a national, or they went to school in your country. Or, they already took language classes before coming over. Chances are, you’re not going to meet someone who has been there for three months and can speak fluently.
It’s because it’s not that easy. And one of the biggest challenges is that many of those people instantly find an insulated language community, where they can talk and joke and function in their own language, and go shopping together etc.
So I’m going to give you a careful piece of advice: beware insulated native language communities. I don’t say avoid them completely, because they’re important for sanity reasons. You need to have people to relate with, people to vent with, and people to understand your struggles—which, unless you’re an emotionally double-jointed superexpat, will start to break you in the first couple months.
But. Beware insulated communities. Right now, one of my struggles is that the cram school I work at is all English-only. The staff are all very Westernized. And there are almost no events where teachers can hang out and be immersed in Mandarin.
Not that that actually matters for me, right now. Because—and this is the introduction for the next post—You can’t attain your fluency goals just by practicing all the time.