What’s Stopping You From Becoming Fluent In Another Language?
Illustration by Mr Marcos Montiel
“I’m not stupid. I speak Italian,” says Betty Draper in season seven of Mad Men. This line has come to haunt me. Despite having a university degree in French and Italian, I am not fluent in the latter. With romantic visions of myself wearing sunglasses and drinking espressi, not learning the passato remoto with a hangover, I left university with a patchy grasp of the language. Better than ordering ice cream, but without any real proficiency. How is it that a four-year degree and more than £36,000 of tuition fees weren’t enough to make me fluent, yet Betty’s stint modelling in Milan was?
If I went back to the start, how could I do things differently? Or if I tried again to learn a new language, could I do it better – and faster? Or is it too late? A brief google of these rhetorical questions leads me to a Ted Talk by polyglot Mr Chris Londsdale, a forthright orator with a threatening command of capital letters who believes that “NORMAL” adults can learn any language from scratch in six months.
In 1981, Lonsdale himself learnt Mandarin Chinese in six months and it took him only “a little bit longer” to reach native standard. He reminds us that the history of human progress is about “expanding limits” and compares the future of learning languages to the four-minute mile or flying planes – something once deemed impossible, now commonplace.
A utopian sense of the possible is the best starting point for any adult looking to learn a language. “Twenty years ago, people thought there was a critical period to learn languages before your brain became fixed,” says Dr Antonella Sorace, a professor of linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, who I am relieved only briefly tries to speak to me in Italian. “But actually, the brain is much more flexible – the more you learn, the better you become at learning.”
Despite clichés of children as sponges, “their only real advantage is having more time”, says Sorace. Adults are more intelligent learners, able to learn things implicitly and explicitly (eg, grammar), whereas children can only do the former.
“The methods and techniques are less important than the attitude of the learner”
Yet, just as a child has no choice but to learn to speak, adult learners must create a sense of necessity. This is not (necessarily) the same as immersion. “Think of how many Westerners in Hong Kong can’t speak Chinese,” says Lonsdale in his talk.
The research of Mr Olly Richards, a polyglot vlogger who has analysed some of the most effective language learning programmes across the globe, confirms this hypothesis. One episode looks at the so-called Képi Blanc method used by the French Foreign Legion – the French army corps that allows in foreign nationals – that gets new recruits from zero to fluency in a matter of four months. From day one, all commands and instructions are in French, with transgressions and misunderstandings punishable through push-ups. So it’s perfect if you fancy becoming francophone while getting ripped in the process.
Likewise, Mormon missionaries are given a nine-week deadline to learn the language of their destination country, from Korea to Estonia. With total immersion from day one, failure to learn means they won’t be able to spread the message of their faith abroad. By learning complicated prayers in the target language quickly, they also get motivating “glimpses of mastery” – where you briefly feel what it’s like to be fluent.
Ms Thea Hawlin, a writer based in Venice, believes that recreating a sense of necessity is possible even from your home country. “Set yourself up on a little date with an Italian where you need to survive an hour talking to that person,” she suggests. “You will find a way through the conversation, even if it’s really awkward at first.”
As the resulting competency of legionnaires and missionaries suggests, language learning is done best when it is vocational. “The methods and techniques are less important than the attitude of the learner,” Richards says. “It’s about being pig-headed and stubborn… cutthroat.”
While it’s true that romance is an effective way to learn a language (“horizontally”, as a French friend of mine puts it), Richards moved to Paris aged 19 and became fluent after a painful breakup. He ploughed mercilessly through textbooks and Molière plays. “There was no method to my madness,” he says.
Madrid-based copywriter Ms Maud McCaffrey, who is from London, became similarly obsessive about learning Spanish. “Moving to the city was a good motivation… I have a problem with the way British people are so lazy with languages,” she says. Whether it was the Duolingo podcast or learning Rosalía lyrics, “I went about doggedly learning in any way I could.”
“The most important and meaningful communication is all done through stories – from your parents reading to you to gossiping with friends”
Motivations can take many guises. Mr Ali Arif, a civil servant, decided to study Urdu in his twenties as a way to reconnect with his roots, having stopped learning aged three when he went to nursery school. “The fact that I knew it before felt like a loss – I wanted to maintain that cultural link.” Although doing courses and using italki, a cheap language-class platform, Arif says the best practise has been with his dad.
“There are certain things we can bond over that we couldn’t before,” he says. “We look at poems together that his generation knows off by heart... It’s different to learning from scratch. It’s very personal – an ancestral language.”
As well as time, memory can be a big hindrance to learning. Sitting down and learning vocabulary through flashcards is a limited approach, believes Mr Gabe Wyner, founder of Fluent Forever. He describes different “levels of processing”. Connecting sounds (ciseaux for scissors, for example) is only the first level, and such associations are easily forgotten. You need to get the word onto second level, into “the world of images”, says Wyner, creating associations that actualise the new words: “What is a personal memory you have about scissors, and can I find an intense one?” says Wyner. While hopefully the answer to this is “no”, embodied experiences are powerful mnemonic tools.
Ms Laura Field, a Colombia-based travel writer, agrees. “If you are going to a doctor, look up the relevant vocab beforehand.” You might have broken your wrist, but the new word will be lodged in your brain. “It’s so good for my Spanish,” Field says.
For this reason, apps like Duolingo will only get you so far. “You’ll hit a very low ceiling,” Richards says. “You’ll learn new words, but you won’t know what to do with them.” Richards offers language courses based around storytelling. “The most important and meaningful communication is all done through stories – from your parents reading to you to gossiping with friends.”
His storytelling method gets clients reading short stories from day one: “You are able to start reading and understanding a story from the beginning and you develop this ability to cope with lots of language coming your way.”
Thea agrees that even well-known plot lines can create compelling ways to learn new languages: “I would watch Friends [dubbed] in Italian – I already know it off by heart, so I could understand the dialogue.”
“It’s an intellectual sport. You have to get out there and get beat up a bit”
Language learning is physical as much as mental. The paralinguistic – such as gesture and tone – is essential. “It’s not just about learning fancy vocab; you’ve got to read someone’s body language and respond appropriately,” Richards says. When it comes to defining fluency he opts for the pub test. “Can [you] sit in a bar and enjoy a conversation with somebody without there being too much strain on either side? That’s what I care about – learning languages is a way to communicate with people.”
On graduating, although on paper I had a very high level of French, perfectionist-induced anxiety often stopped me from actually communicating. Anxiety around speaking is a common hang-up, but the trick is to be kinder to yourself about making mistakes and realise that you aren’t being judged. “Perfection doesn’t exist,” says Sorace. “The idea that you’ve got to behave like a monolingual is absurd.”
I personally overcame the anxiety by making a friend who I spoke to exclusively in French. The necessity to communicate became more important than making mistakes, and eventually I loosened up enough to speak more generally.
Mr Frankie Light is a Brooklyn-born polyglot YouTuber who has a particular interest in overcoming discomfort in languages. He has a niche in “language reveal” videos, where he surprises communities by being fluent in their language whether that’s Yiddish, Thai or Mandarin. Despite appearances, Light tells me he is not naturally extroverted, and his confidence is a result of being a socially outcast child. His motto? “Walk towards the fear,” he says. “This is not a place for wusses. You have to get some tough skin and go out there. It’s an intellectual sport. You have to get out there and get beat up a bit.”
Although learning a language is bound to involve difficulty and discomfort, there are ways to “make it fun” – learning about topics you are already interested in, for example. There is one particularly simple method, however. Spending all day on Instagram or TikTok? “My teacher got us following Ms Gisele Bündchen because she posts in both Portuguese and English,” says Field, who has more recently added Brazilian Portuguese to her list of languages.
Start following people and watching content in the target language, and before long the algorithm will figure out your goal. Think of it as a 21st-century immersion technique to make the world your oyster.