There’s a difference between learning a language and acquiring a language–in a natural way:
- Learning is all about grammar drills and vocabulary cards.
- Acquisition is all about fun, fascinating, real life adventures.
Learning can be fun, of course. But if you really want to be fluent in another language, you need “language acquisition activities”:
- Speaking with native speakers
- Listening to native speakers
- Interacting with native speakers
- Participating in activities that truly replicate all of the above
So, let’s ditch the grammar books for now and explore this idea. Let’s see how you can acquire a language naturally–even from the comfort of your own home. Thanks to the internet, you can bring the world to your doorstep and acquire any language even without leaving home.
We will take our cues from Associate Professor Jeffrey Brown. He speaks English, Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Vietnamese and, in the video below, he shows us how he learned Arabic in just one year. And he shares his (not-so-secret) secrets that you can use too.
What can I add to Jeff’s amazing video? Plenty of ideas for you! I was fortunate to teach ESL at a Seattle community college many years ago – and, as a bilingual mom, raising trilingual kids, I’ve been soaking up this subject for over 30 years.
So, Jeff’s video is our map; he is an amazing guide. Now let’s see what else we can learn from his whirlwind tour of this territory. Just choose your language, and let’s go!
How to Acquire Any Language: Seven Secrets
Good news: you already speak one language well! This is proof that you are perfectly capable of mastering a language. Now, if you use the seven secrets that follow, I guarantee that you will finally start speaking Spanish, French, Italian–or even Mandarin, Hindi or Tagalog, if you like.
Secret 1: Learn Language Like a Baby
Professor Jeffrey advises us to learn languages just like babies do. He’s a big fan of Dr Stephen Krashen, who has spent decades checking to see who’s learning faster: adults who try to learn a language (with books) or those who seek to acquire a language - just like babies do. And the winner is: the baby-style learners.
And what is the babies’ secret?
“Comprehensible input”, says Professor Jeff. And that means messages they can understand. As adults, we talk to babies at their level, with simple words: “no”, “come”, “hot”. We use body language. We smile, frown, grimace. We slowly get our messages across. As babies grow into toddlers, our messages grow with them. That’s comprehensible input. It works for babies and it works for adults.
So, the first secret to mastering any language is this:
- Don’t just think about learning language like an adult - with books.
- Seek to acquire language like a baby - with your ears.
Is it really that simple? Yes (keep reading). And no. Think: babies are bold, shameless anti-perfectionists who learn by trial and error and don’t mind looking silly. Are you prepared to follow their example?
If you can swallow your pride and go back to the beginning, you too will be able to acquire any language you wish. You can do it in a year, like Professor Jeff. Or you can take your time. But you can do it. And it will be fun!
Secret 2 - Set SMART Goals for Language Learning Success...
Are you trying to master your new language in a year? Is that your goal?
How many hours does it really take for an English speaker to learn another language?
As Professor Jeff explains, the US Department of State has actually quantified the number of hours we need to spend to learn any given language.
- Spanish? It’s a Level I language, so it takes 575-600 hours to reach proficiency.
- Indonesian? That’s Level III, so expect to invest around 900 hours.
- Japanese? That’s Level V and requires 2,200 hours of your time.
Information like this can help you set goals that are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. I suggest starting with this question: how much time will you commit to this project?
- 11-12 hours/week? Learn Spanish in just one year!
- 1 hour/week= Learn Spanish in six years!
Take some time to set specific, relevant goals that light your fire. What do you want to achieve in your new language?
- Travel without a guide?
- Become a global nomad?
- Live in a specific country?
- Make new friends?
- Get a better job?
- Give presentations?
- Read books or watch foreign films in the original version?
What are your deadlines? Are they realistic - given the time it takes to learn your target language? How will you measure your success?
My favorite example is Vladimir, my hero. I met this 71-year-old Russian immigrant at North Seattle Community College in the writing lab where I worked. He had signed up for ESL classes. Why? In very broken English, with the help of gestures and drawings, he explained that he wanted to continue his life passion: teaching math.
I felt sorry for Vladimir as he left the writing lab. “Poor guy,” I thought to myself. His goal was just too high… or was it?
A year later, a 72-year-old Vladimir stopped by the writing center. He was beaming! “I have a job,” he proclaimed. “I teach at the math lab!”
What? Vladimir had a clear goal: be able to teach math in English. He understood that a Russian needed to put in many hours to learn enough English to be able to teach math. But he also realized how useful it would be to hang around the math lab, listening, speaking, sharing, helping out, and even making friends along the way.
Secret 3 - Choose Teachers/Classes that Boost Your Language Acquisition
The next secret: if you’re going to sign up for a class, choose carefully. “You should have the illusion that the entire class is in the target language,” says Professor Jeff in the above video. But remember: the input must be comprehensible - you must be able to understand the teacher.
How does he do it?
It’s called “TPRS”, Teaching Proficiency through Reading and Storytelling. That’s how this professor does it. “Students acquire the language through storytelling, lots of storytelling. And then they reinforce that with reading stories,” he explains in the video.
It’s a lot of fun. It’s fascinating. And it works.
The bottom line is this: seek dynamic teachers who use a natural approach to foster real language development - by using the target language in class, all the time (or at least most of the time). That’s the secret.
Secret 4 - Find Fun, Fascinating Language Partners and "Learn" Language Naturally
“¿Qué es esto?” That means “what’s this?” in Spanish.
That was my “key phrase” when I first landed in Spain - after two years taking Spanish at university in the USA. Seriously? Yes. And in Spain, my language classes were quite similar to the classes I was taking back home in the USA… However, just ten months after setting foot in Madrid, I could talk your ear off in Spanish. What happened?
I found language partners. These are native speakers who nurture your language development - naturally. You can pay them, or set up a language exchange, also known as a language trade (half the time in one language, half in the other). As a starving student, the latter worked for me.
More good news: you don’t have to go abroad to find a language partner. Today we have apps like HelloTalk and Tandem (and Bilingua, Hello Pal, Idyoma, iTalki etc.) where you can interact with as many language partners as you like.
Professor Jeff calls these partners, “language parents”, and he recommends you play a kind of “language acquisition game” like this:
- Talk together about pictures in magazines and children’s storybooks.
- Let your language partner/parent describe the images/stories at your level.
- Point to objects/people in the pictures and ask simple questions.
- Ask your language parent to gradually expand your vocabulary.
- Speak only the target language (no English).
- Use body language and drawings to communicate when necessary.
- Ask your partner to avoid correcting your mistakes.
- Encourage your partner to simply model the “right way” when you flub up.
And this is exactly how it works. My language partners have been students, two amazing host moms, a real estate agent who tried to sell me a house and ended up with a weekly language exchange instead, a university English professor who wanted to keep practicing her English and was happy to nurture my Spanish, and on and on.
Now I’m working on my French with a language partner/parent in Paris...
Secret 5 - Get Good Language Input to Keep Growing Your Language Skills
Next, you need plenty of "language input" - every day, if possible. You might start with children's books and songs and work your way up to simple news bulletins
Professor Jeff recommends reading because it helps you get the big picture and see how all of your little language pieces fit together. This is also just one more way that you will naturally acquire all that grammar you might be wondering about, and keep building your vocabulary.
Polyglot Stephen Kaufmann (15 languages) recommends soaking up subjects you enjoy - in your target language - however you like: reading, listening, even watching YouTube videos. Just be consistent and consider aiming for at least an hour a day.
And I recommend watching/listening to the Easy Languages series on YouTube - free, fun, fascinating. Young reporters hit the streets in their native countries to ask just one single question in each video. As one native speaker after another answers that question, you start to see patterns as you naturally pick up vocabulary, grammar - even pronunciation. And you learn so much about the culture!
Here's a great way to use the Easy Language videos:
- Watch a video and listen carefully.
- Write out the script scene by scene - using the subtitles.
- Read your script a couple of times.
- Watch the video a couple more times.
- Keep doing this until you can differentiate most of the words spoken.
I do this with the Easy French videos and love noticing how my comprehension grows from just one video! And you don't have to do this every day. Maybe once a week. Then, you can always go back to videos you've mastered just to refresh your memory and re-activate all the vocabulary you learned.
The real secret here is simply input - but not any kind of input. Your brain wants rich, real, relevant input: words, sentences, questions that you truly find interesting, enlightening and worthwhile. Your brain knows exactly what to do with these things.
So, look for the things you love, in your target language - every day. And enjoy!
Secret 6 - Review Forever to Keep your Language Skills Active and Fresh
Professor Jeffrey recommends recording your sessions with your language parents - especially the stories. Then you can use those to review (for the rest of your life even).
And the secret here is in the word “review”, and it’s really about finding your own ways to keep your new language alive. Maybe you prefer to keep travelling, watching movies, reading novels or news - or making new BFF’s on HelloTalk for the rest of your life.
This is a “use it or lose it” situation.
Secret 7 - Study Abroad (or do the next best thing) for Language Immersion
Professor Jeff worked hard on his Arabic in California for nine months. Then he took off for a three-month stint in Egypt. Don’t miss that quick, whirlwind section of his video (at the end) where you will watch all seven secrets in action - and witness the results.
I can vouch for study abroad. That’s how I finally mastered Spanish. That’s how my four daughters mastered French. But study abroad can be expensive, and it’s not always convenient or even possible.
What else can you do to immerse yourself in the culture?
How about hosting an exchange student from a country where your target language is spoken? You will:
- Gain a friend - and a family - you can visit later.
- Learn ideas, values and norms that shape your target language.
- Generate new topics to discuss with your language partners/parents.
- Discover new topics to explore in Google and on YouTube.
- Feel more motivated to keep learning the language.
- Make your life more fun, and more fascinating!
It's important to remember that many exchange students need to improve their English. This means they will be looking to you as their host parent – and their language parent. Learning their language will give them a chance to support you on your journey. And, you may even find a great language pal in your exchange student's parent!
But, now it’s your turn: which language will you master? Which new worlds will you enter? Who might you meet along the way?
Have fun. And make it fascinating!