Do you want to be fluent?

It’s a serious question. Few of us take a painting class with the expectation that we’ll be able to do our own take on the Sistine Chapel when we’re done. Few of us take a yoga class with the expectation that after six weeks, we’ll be able to master the most intricate of poses and the spiritual attitudes of the teacher. Yet a lot of people think they ought to be able to read a book or go to class an hour a week for a month or two and be fluent in a new language.

To be candid, things like the Pimsleur ads about learning to speak a language in ten days don’t help. But honestly, becoming fluent in a language take serious commitment in terms of time, in terms of ego – you need enough humility to make mistakes and know your limitations and enough self-confidence to keep plugging at it anyway – and often of money, either to travel to the country or to speak for extended periods of time in the language with a teacher or tutor. And sometimes, it’s just not worth it.

Normally, an article with a title like “Do you want to be fluent?” will tell you the 20.5 things you need to do know, starting with clearing your calendar either for weeks at a time or for hours a day. But it’s important to start with the actual question, because if you want to read Dante, you don’t need to learn to order coffee, and if you want to hang out in Rome you don’t need to master the nuances of the subjunctive, at least not to start. Confronted with what is really involved, very few people want to be fluent, at least not as much as they want or need to do the other things that they do while fluency escapes them. So rather than striving for fluency, you need to figure out what you want to be able to do. If you want to get around for a trip, Elisabeth Smith’s Last Minute courses, Collins’ Easy Learning courses and Pimsleur Basic all have their pluses and minuses. If you want to read literature, you might be better off with an older Teach Yourself (from when they focused on grammar) and a dual language edition of classic short stories. If you want to read the Bible for yourself, you’re going to be using very different tools than if you are going to Israel.

Do you want to be fluent? Or do you want to learn a language for your own particular purpose? If if’s the second, don’t even bother looking for the “best” programs or materials. What you’re looking for are materials where when you start to study the content, you can hear yourself saying it or see yourself reading it, in the context where you want to use the language. It’s not always easy, of course, but in an age when Amazon has look-inside, Audible has short samples and reader reviews tell you the things people who bought the book noticed, instead of the things the people selling the book wanted you to notice, you’re so much better off than 20 years ago when a title in Books in Print and a page count was all you could find out for a lot of titles. So learn a language your way. Don’t look for the one-size-fits-all best way to achieve some one-size-fits-all notion of fluency. Look for things where when you dip into them, you start imagining how you’ll use the content within to do something in life that you couldn’t do before.

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About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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3 Responses to Do you want to be fluent?

  1. This is a great distinction to bring light to, and very well written too. It reminds me of the debate between book learners and street smarts. My roommate desires fluency, and I prefer to nit pick the Chinese I study. I used to desire fluency but realized that words once known will quickly be forgotten if I don’t recall them regularly. Everyone wants fluency – I still want fluency – but feel I am over-exerting myself if i study things that I would never talk about in my native tongue anyway.

  2. Me says:

    Nice post — I\’ve thought about it in terms of wanting to be able to read news, vs wanting to be able to read stories vs wanting to be able to read literature vs wanting to be able to participate in conversations.

  3. Actu Traduction blog says:

    Very nice article, I totally agree.

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