Language and Common Sense

lots of question marks with one lit up red

One thing I hear over and over again from other language learners is that “studying a language is just too hard, I will never get fluent” or things like “I can talk <insert language> but I can’t understand native speakers!”.

When I hear stuff like this it seriously makes me cringe because I can instantly tell that they are not using common sense when learning their target language.

I am going to try to explain here why language learning is common sense and how just a little bit of thinking by yourself can make you realize what exactly you need to do to progress towards fluency.

Firstly, what is the most important part about language learning? Ask yourself, is it for a job? Living in the target country? Your significant other? Too impress your relatives/friends?

What about fun?

That’s right, plain and simple, fun. Of course we all have our own goals that we want to reach in the language, for example when I first started learning Japanese my main goal was to be able to get to a decent enough level that by the time I finish University I could work as a Software Engineer in Japan.

This still remains a current goal, but during my day-to-day activities, that are in Japanese, I don’t think about this or worry about it at all. Instead I am constantly enjoying myself, or looking for ways to enjoy myself, IN Japanese.

Now, why is this common sense? Step back and think about it quickly. How long does it take to reach native level fluency in a language?

Well, depending on the method, we can all agree on at least 2 years right?

That is a short time frame but also a rather long one, especially when you have a big end goal in mind. Considering the first comment of “studying a language is just too hard, I will never get fluent”, how the hell are you supposed to study for 2 years straight to possibly get fluent in your target language?

Answer: don’t.

If you try to study for 2 years you will most certainly burn out.

Yes, people do do it, but the majority of us can’t. Also “study” usually limits you to a set of content which will not allow your vocabulary to expand very much.

Do you want fluency?

Guess what, you have to live like a native, which means having fun like a native, which means do everything you enjoy in English, but just doing it your target language instead.

You find yourself sitting around watching American sitcoms all day? Cool, find the Japanese dubbed versions. You love anime? Cool, turn the subtitles off. You love reading? Great, don’t read in English.

Do not go out of your way to study the language, enjoy things in the language, because it is going to be a long journey and study alone will not get you to the finish line.

When it comes to other comments like “I can talk <insert language> but I can’t understand native speakers!”, it usually shocks me.

I usually doubt their language skill when they say this as it is very difficult to talk in a language correctly without actually understanding it in the first place.

This issue is yet another issue which can be solved rather quickly by just stepping back and looking at the problem.

So a person wants to speak their target language and has so-called managed to do so, however, they do not understand the native speaker.

Why does this happen?

Most people I know that are in this situation, have this problem because of classes. Classes will teach you to speak, to use grammar rules, to combine words and produce sentences.

Now this is learning and some people see classes as a good thing but what most people don’t realize is that classes and other such output methods will not get them to fluency alone.

Benny Lewis’ method is very much output based, much like most language classes. He claims he can reach fluency in 3 months.

Well, for his Japanese attempt, he definitely didn’t (his YouTube video of him speaking made me cringe). For a lot of other languages he hasn’t either and from what comments you can see on the internet from native speakers, the languages he does claim fluency in, he is in fact not at a fluent level.

But in the end the whole issue of being able to output but not understanding any input comes down to one sentence which is this:

If you ask directions, you need to be able understand the response not just be able to ask for directions in the first place.

We can all agree that this is common sense right?

Some might argue that asking directions is a level you can get to quite quickly and I agree it is, however, this example stands for any situation in language.

You are in a business meeting and you ask your manager what goals your team needs to reach in the next month. I am pretty sure you would want to be able to understand his answer, right?

Think of any other situation and apply this to it, and you will realize that, you need to understand the language whenever it is spoken and no matter what the situation.

This is solved by time and enjoyment in the language. Consume lots of content and eventually you will understand the language like a native would.

With a bit more time you will be able to output fluently. In this sense all language learners should be focusing on their reading and listening before trying to speak or write. In fact I would go as far as to say, until you completely understand 95+% of all conversations, don’t speak or write at all.

Another big issue that stands out is learning of grammar.

People hate it and it’s not fun. So why do we do it?

Because we are told that we have to in school.

Screw school, since when did any school get someone to fluency in a language?

Ignore that trash, you don’t need to learn grammar.

Why?

Step back again.

Think about English or your native language.

Did you learn grammar?

Of course not, you could speak perfect sentences as a child with no issues due to the amount of contact you had with your native language. So why would you learn grammar for your target language?

Providing you have enough contact with the target language, you will eventually produce correct sentences in the exact same way.

When you start to finally speak, you will produce sentences that are correct without having to think about the language as if it were a math equation. It will just pop out, as it should. Like it does in your native tongue.

I would love to go into more depth about these individual topics and more in the future but for now here is my opinion on these issues and on language learning as a whole.

Just step back and think about theses issues without anyone else’s opinion being shoved down your throat.

Ignore what your teachers/parents/friends say about language and think about these problems yourself and you will realize that everything is actually a lot simpler than you think.

Thanks for reading.

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マット

2016/08/12

By Matthew Hawkins
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