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Cut Classes and Double Your Acquisition Rate

Accelerating Italian language learning while in the streets of Rome
Learn the Italian language faster in the streets of Italy.

I am an admitted language-addict. From Japanese at age 15 to Spanish at 28, I have managed to achieve spoken and written fluency in five foreign languages. From the academic environment of Princeton University to the behemoth of Berlitz International, I have sought to provide the answer to a simple question: why do most language classes not work?

I have identified several cardinal sins that, when fixed, can easily cut the time to fluency by 50 to 80 percent:

1. Teachers are viewed as saviors when materials are actually the determining factor.

Teachers are merely conduits for the material. By analogy, it is better to have a decent cook with an excellent easy-to-follow recipe than a great cook with a terrible recipe. It is the material that will restrict or elevate the teacher; a mediocre teacher with great material is infinitely better than a great teacher forced to follow poor material.

I don’t sit in on classes or otherwise consider a school until I’ve reviewed both hand-outs and textbooks. Judge materials before you judge teachers, and no matter what, do not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language (e.g., Spanish textbooks in Spanish). This approach reflects a school’s laziness and willingness to hire monolingual teachers, not the result of their search for the ideal method.

2. Classes move as slowly as the slowest student.

Seek a school with daily homework assignments that eliminate students from the class if they don’t perform. The school should have a strict curriculum that doesn’t bend for a minority of the class who can’t cope. Downgrading students is only possible in larger schools with at least five proficiency levels for separate classes. At the Hartnackschule in Berlin, where I studied for 10 weeks after evaluating a dozen schools, there are at least 20 different skill levels.

3. Conversation can be learned but not taught.

Somewhat like riding a bike, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things. The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment. I achieved fluency in German in 10 weeks using a combination of grammatical practice at the Hartnackschule (four hours daily for the first month, two hours daily for the second) and daily 2-person language exchanges with students of English. Grammar can be learned with writing exercises in a class of 20, whereas “conversation” cannot be learned in anything but a realistic one-on-one environment where your brain is forced to respond at normal speed and adopt coping mechanisms such as delaying tactics (e.g., “in other words,” “let me think for a second,” etc.).

Separate grammar from conversation practice. I recommend choosing one school for grammar and several native books or comics to identify sticking points, which are then discussed in one-on-one language exchanges where your partner provides examples of usage and does not explain rules.

4. Teachers are often prescriptive instead of descriptive.

Many teachers take it upon themselves to be arbiters of taste and linguistic conservationists, refusing to explain slang and insisting on correct but essentially unused grammatical constructions (e.g., “with whom were you speaking?” versus “who were you speaking to?”). Progress will be faster when you find a teacher who describes rather than prescribes usage. Teachers should be able and willing to explain, for example, how Konjunktiv I is generally used in place of Konjunktiv II in German, even though it is technically incorrect. They should also be able to save you time by explaining what to practice based on actual frequency of use, not inclusion in a grammar text. To avoid those who act as defenders of language purity, it is often easier to target 20-to-30-year old teachers and those who are good at teaching inductively (providing examples to explain principles). Ask them to explain a few common colloquial grammatical constructions before signing up.

Get Out of the Classroom

Learn Italian talking to the vendor in a shop in Italy
Learn Italian talking to the vendor in a shop in Italy.

The principal problem is the learner him or herself, who often uses classes as a substitute for, and not supplement to, real ego-crushing interaction. Classes can easily be used to infinitely postpone making the thousands of mistakes necessary to achieve fluency. In boxing, they say “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Well, in language learning, we can just as easily say that “everyone has the perfect conversation in mind until they speak to a real native.”

Don’t waste time on learning more than a handful of conjugations for primarily first-person singular (I) and second-person singular (You) in the past, present, and future tenses, along with common phrases that illustrate them. Throw in a few auxiliaries (to want to V, to need to V, to like to V, etc.) and jump on a plane before learning any more of what you’ll just need to relearn anyway.

Once you land, you need no more than two months of classes in-country; remember that, like training wheels, the goal is get off of them as quickly as possible. Don’t go to classes because you have no social network outside of class, or because you want the illusion of progress with a coddling teacher who understands your Tarzan attempts at his or her language.

Make it your goal to screw up as often as possible in uncontrolled environments. Explicitly ask friends to correct you and reward them with thanks and praise when they catch you spouting nonsense, particularly the small understandable mistakes. I was able to pass the Certificado de Espanol Avanzado, the most difficult Spanish certification test in South America, which is said to require near-native fluency and years of immersion, in eight weeks. How? By following the above fixes and making more mistakes in eight weeks than most make in eight years.

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field,” said physicist Niels Bohr. Nowhere is this more true than in language learning. Choose schools carefully and then, once they’ve served their purpose, abandon them. The real world is where mistakes are made, weaknesses found, and fluency achieved.

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