Not to presume anything about your high school language teacher, but a lot of people who were schooled in the American education system internalized the idea that you have to memorize your language textbook from cover to cover in order to attain foreign language mastery. Fortunately, for anyone who finds that a little stifling and boring, that couldn’t be further from the truth. Formal study is important, but real-life language learning experiences are where the true alchemy really happens.
Even if you’ve managed to succeed at the impressive feat of memorizing 1,000 vocabulary terms, it doesn’t count for much if you can’t use them in an actual conversation. And the only way to bridge the gap from here to there is to lean into the discomfort of using what you already know.
In short: learning a language in theory is not the same as learning it in practice. Here’s why every path to fluency leads to having language learning experiences out and about in the world.
Language Learning Experiences
You Can’t Get From A Textbook
1. Regional Slang
Many textbooks and apps teach a standardized, “proper” version of the language in order to give you the most mileage for your buck. Regional differences abound in language, but if you’re learning the introductory material, you’re most likely going to wind up speaking the version of the language that will be most universally recognized by its speakers in a global sense.
Once you start putting things into practice, you’re going to pick up all kinds of local slang terms and idiosyncrasies that your textbook will probably never tell you about (especially because slang is a moving target that’s constantly being made up and evolving on the spot). Even if you’re not living abroad, there’s a version of the language that’s likely common to the immigrant communities local to where you live, or in the internet circles you’re a part of.
2. Listening Skills
Even if you’re using an app (like Babbel!), which has audio components designed to familiarize you with pronunciation, there will always be a certain degree of listening comprehension that you won’t be able to learn until you’ve repeatedly exposed yourself to the sound of the natural language as it’s actually spoken by real people. A lot of people have language learning experiences of being a little shell-shocked at how fast native speakers talk. In some cases, it’s not the speed, but rather the cadence and accentuation that throws people off. Either way, the only path to overcoming this is to absorb natural language until it becomes familiar.
3. The Exceptions To All The Rules You Learned
Rules are rules… but rules also have exceptions. Especially grammar rules. And you won’t really know which ones to break until you’ve been out and about in the world for a bit, familiarizing yourself with how people actually speak.
What’s more, certain things you’ll pick up on your own are more pragmatically useful than what you’ll learn from a book or an app. You might spend weeks memorizing every iteration of how to say “there are five Germans in our office,” only to never need a phrase like this in real conversation. The point is: you can’t know exactly what’s important for you in your language learning experiences until you start engaging with others.
4. Acquired Muscle Memory For Your Brain
There’s something to be said for simply working out your brain muscles (or more aptly, strengthening the neural connections that will habituate you to using your language skills with ease). Many beginner language learners struggle to find the right words when they’re on the go because they’re simply not used to having to think on the fly in their new language. This is simply one of those things where practice makes perfect, and you won’t feel comfortable riffing in a new tongue until you’ve created the “muscle memory” to help you form sentences on autopilot.
This is something that David J. Peterson, the conlanger who invented the fictional languages in Game of Thrones, recommends to language learners.
“Often, when you’re speaking a language, part of what you’re saying are things that you’ve said many, many times before,” Peterson told us. “And then part of what you’re saying is brand new, given the context. It’s like the nouns and particular verbs you need to bring up are new, because of what you’re talking about. But you’re used to the little fixed expressions, so you don’t have to focus on that part. You can focus on the parts that are new.”
5. How To Express Your Personality
Everyone begins with the same rudimentary “hello”s and “thank you”s. But once you’ve covered some basic ground, the rest of your path becomes a little more individuated. With enough time and practice, you will eventually become a full person (complete with quirks and a sense of humor) in your new language.
Of course, some things about your default-language persona can translate pretty literally into just about any language. But there’s a certain amount of tweaking that will invariably have to take place to account for slang and tone.
And who knows — maybe there’s a different dimension to your personality that will emerge once you’re comfortable expressing yourself. There’s only one way to find out.