The road to fluency

Hi. My last article received a great deal more attention than I could have ever hoped for; and for this I’d like to thank you all as my message has been spread. I appreciate all the comments and e-mails you were kind enough to send to me, it seems that my criticism of the pseudo-polyglots was justified. 

I speak English fluently
The war I’m waging against the pseudo-polyglots has spread as far as LingQ, an online language-learning community. It was there that I met Lilac, who, as one of many, complimented me on my English and also suggested that it would be a good idea to write an article on how I learnt it. In fact, unlike so many others in the language-learning blogosphere, I am actually fluent in a second language and, therefore, I presume I must know what fluency is and how one can achieve it. If you’re expecting some magic pill here or some three month/one year solution I’m going to have to disappoint you. Reaching my current level in both written and spoken English has involved a great deal of work.


First step – work, more work and… some more work
I remember attending English classes when I was younger and although I didn’t learn much I was exposed to English to a certain degree. I started taking things more seriously when I was about to graduate from high school and needed to take my matura (the Polish equivalent of GCSE) in a chosen foreign language. It was hard work; I remember nights spent home alone with a dictionary and grammar textbooks.


As it turned out, all my efforts paid off and at the age of 19 I passed my matura and scored 76% in English. Hours of study gave me the foundations for being able to communicate effectively. My vocabulary was nowhere near my current level, but rich enough for me to get by. I had a basic understanding of English grammar and my accent was very thick. I decided to move to England. As it turned out my language skills were only just good enough…


News flash
Right, so I moved to England. I was indeed equipped with the basic skills and I could converse in English, but it didn’t change the fact that I was absolutely terrified when I first heard natives speak to me and I don’t think I understood any more than about 50% of what was said unless repeated slowly and more clearly at my request. I knew that I’d thrown myself in at the deep end and it was a sink-or-swim situation. There was no option but to adapt… I could, of course, leave but it’s not in my nature to give up!



A mistake made by many a foreigner
I socialised a lot with the locals and this was key to acquiring English. Many people go abroad thinking this will somehow miraculously make them speak a foreign language. It doesn’t work like that. I’ve met Poles, Russians, Chinese, Spanish and many others who emigrated to the UK in little cliques or families and then tended to remain within these communities, working and living together – speaking their own language the majority of the time. The two Russians I shared a house with felt at home in their little enclave, speaking in Russian, eating Russian food and continually cursing in Russian too. Despite the fact that they had both lived in England for much longer than me, their English was dire. I made a point of not getting involved with fellow Poles while in England and would rather socialise with the British. As time went on I felt increasingly confident and understood much more of what was being said to me.

Serious killers don’t have any pennies on them
Don’t worry about any errors you might make when speaking in a foreign language. These are inevitable and sometimes of entertainment value. Every time I was asked for pennies in the shop, I'd blush as when pronounced it resembles the Polish equivalent of penis.  I suspect that Spanish speakers might be similarly surprised upon seeing pene on Polish menus (Polish for a certain type of pasta but Spanish for penis). Yummy! I also remember confusing a serious killer with a serial killer and one of the kids I used to teach English described an unfortunate event from his mum’s life as follows: My mum broke her rib and got laid in the hospital.

Fluent in body language?
Socialising is fun so the hard work I remembered from school soon evaporated from memory. I was becoming fluent at English and guess what? I wasn’t even trying! Pseudo-polyglots claim to be able to speak a foreign language pretty much straight away, skipping any hard work or intense exercises. That’s utter drivel. I’d never buy their useless e-books but I’d gladly pay to see them attempt to speak Polish without any initial study; better than any comedy methinks. If it weren’t for my past efforts I would have never been able to communicate in English at all. You need to memorise basic vocabulary at the least and learn about general grammatical concepts first… unless your aim is to, while speaking, completely exhaust yourself by gesticulating wildly!

Next step - more studying…
In total I’ve spent over 2 years in the UK, living and working in different environments and regions of the country. I have socialised with British people from various social classes as well as with many foreigners. While working as a client service administrator I familiarised myself with both formal English and office jargon. I learnt slang and idiomatic expressions - first those typical of the south of the country where I used to live in Cambridge and then in Welwyn Garden City (Hertfordshire near London), then those typical of the north (Cumbria precisely). When I returned to Poland and started studying English at University I realised that a lot of habits I’d brought back from England I needed to get rid of. Colloquialisms, slang expressions, regionalisms and even variations of British accents are frowned upon when your teachers expect you to speak coherent RP English, also referred to as Oxford English. Living in England was a lot of fun, but studying is now helping me select the positive aspects of what I acquired unconsciously and what, perhaps, I’d be better off without in order to speak academically-correct English.

How should you do it?
I won’t give you the answer to that question, but remember to never let anybody dictate to you what learning methods are best. You need to work it out for yourself as we all learn differently. I used to teach English and I could easily observe that some of my students remembered things better from writing them down, some from reading them out and some from hearing me say them. I think what’s important is to use a variety of learning processes. Nowadays study material in foreign languages is readily available and I find that listening to the radio or watching some television in your target language is helpful as you get used to real language in use. Finding yourself a tutor is definitely a good idea too. I’ve recently started learning Spanish and although I’m making great progress on my own I’ve arranged for lessons with a native Spanish speaker. Iván, if you’re reading this: Muchas gracias por tu ayuda. Eres el mejor profesor de español del mundo. It’s worth having a tutor even just to have somebody to ask about your doubts or confirm your assumptions. Whatever you do, just so long as it works for you that’s all that matters. Don’t let the pseudo-polyglots tell you flashcards are a total waste of time and studying is bad for you and that the only way you should learn is the way they do, as that’s about one of the most ignorant things one can hear from them.

Good luck with your studies everyone.

23 comments:

  1. Thank you for the post. Reading your post brings back my past memories of UK. I spent 8 years there, but I probably didn't acquire the British accent as well as you did.

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  2. Your English is simply impeccable.

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  3. Stop having a go at all the polyglots. You all have different methods, different philosophies and different time spans and yet you reach the same point of fluency. It's time to just drop the arguments and start behaving like mature adults.

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  4. Daniel, I'm presuming you're referring to the pseudo-polyglots here? If so, then no, we don't reach the same levels of fluency... In fact, they don't come anywhere near it.

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  5. Ok, I will agree that there are some learners with a lower standard of 'fluency'. And of course that starts the 'what is fluency?' debate. However, there are some polyglots who have worked hard and do deserve praise. Just don't worry about it all. Be proud of your blog, leave the argument and keep the moral high ground. :)

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  6. Please do not confuse polyglots with the pseudo-polyglots! I’ve explained the reasons for my strong criticism against the latter on numerous occasions. What they do is bordering on immorality not to mention that they have absolutely no idea about the basic linguistic terms which they keep on misusing. They’re mumbo-jumbo spouting charlatans thrusting flawed concepts down people’s throats. You may disagree with me, of course, and I can’t expect everybody to open up their eyes, but I believe it’s worth giving it a try… The debate over what fluency is is starting to wear thin, I think everybody can look up the definition in their dictionary, it really isn’t that difficult. Thanks for your input anyway.

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  7. Hi,
    thanks for a good post!
    And I just have to comment the discussion on polyglots:

    Ewelina, I agree with you, in my opinion pseudo-polyglots are annoying - and not just annoying, I'd say that they are really disrespectful. Achieving a level of fluency in a foreign language takes YEARS of hard work, not a few weeks.

    A few years back I took an intensive course in Polish at a Polish university - intensive means 25h/week for 8 months. I'm still not fluent. And yes, knowing Polish helped me learn Russian, but did it make me fluent in a month, or two? Absolutely not! I moved to Russia for a year, made a lot of progress... but I'm still not 100% fluent in Russian either. And actually, I don't consider myself a stupid person, so it seems to me that those pseudo-polyglots are either geniuses or WRONG.

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  8. Dear Zsuzsi, ‘’disrespectful’’ is a strong but accurate word to use. People like me spend a lot of time studying and acquiring our target languages in order to achieve proficiency whilst these so-called polyglots with their derisible language skills have the temerity to declare themselves fluent. I just thought somebody should put a stop to this madness… Thank you for your comments, your support is greatly appreciated.

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  9. Gracias Ewelina. Tú también eres la mejor estudiante del mundo. ;-)

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  10. Pseudo-polyglots are annoying. They are taking advantage of those who are amateurs and selling them false dreams.

    I wish more language bloggers like Ewelina can stand up against them.

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  11. Hi Ewelina!

    I just read your last two articles after reading your comment on my blog.

    It's unfortunate that everything spiraled out of control the way it did with your previous post -- particularly, the bit about yearlyglot revealing what ever personal information he revealed. I hope everything has been going better since then!

    Anyway, it was very interesting to read about how you learned English. You definitely write very well, so I assume you speak excellently too! You've already been on my blog so you probably can hear (from my videos) that I still have plenty of work to do with my Polish. :-)

    I look forward to reading future articles!

    Best regards,
    David.

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  12. Ewelina

    Thank you so much for actually laying it down on the line about these 'polygloats' I greatly enjoyed reading this and the other blog. This language in three months business is the equivalent of turning saltpeter into gold - fool's gold.

    Keep a special place in your heart for English idiom, please.

    Paddy

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  13. Thank you David and Paddy, it's good to hear that I now have even more supporters in my struggle against the charlatans. Paddy, I must admit that idioms are still my Achilles' heel but I'm trying to get better and improve my English every day!

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  14. @Zsuzsi @Ewelina

    I'm glad someone else feels the same. I've been living in Poland and learning Polish, and after hearing stories about a certain polyglot being able to speak Polish and understood nearly everything after being in Kraków for a week, I was not too impressed. They then go on to say that anyone can do it, it's easy, which only makes you feel stupid and they superhuman

    I think it comes down to being completely sure and confident in yourself. In the case of fluentin3months, he's a very confident person, doesn't care if he makes mistakes and spends all his time socialising, so he probably does indeed pick up a lot and is able to converse in 3 months (I wouldn't say fluent though)

    Of course the other argument is that many people learning a second language, don't want or don't have time to study in university, socialise all day in the language, use grammar books etc. I know many Poles in the UK, who have a fluent level of English (With lots of mistakes), and do not really spend the time studying, they simply have no other choice. I want to be at the level where I can just talk without thinking too hard, and I'm not too bothered at this stage if I make mistakes, as long as i'm understood

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  15. Hi there! I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed reading this post. I find it interesting to hear other people's stories of language learning, and it's encouraging to know that I'm not the only one investing years into a language (and yet still not feeling that I can rightly call myself "fluent"). Sometimes it's discouraging to hear that certain language learners become 'fluent' in three months or one year, and I just start to feel that I must be doing something wrong, and if only I were as dedicated as them, I could be fluent in ten languages by now...

    But I know that I've worked hard for what I've acquired, and...I guess I'll always be of the belief that nothing substantial is gained in life without a bit of hard work. (o:

    (And I don't discredit any real polyglots. I've seen some of their amazing interview videos, definitely something for me to strive for...!)

    I do think that we all have different ways of learning, or what works best for us, and it's important to find out what works for you individually. But for me in reading other people's stories of language learning, it's also helping me become more open to other people's methods, and to not be so strict in my thinking about how a person "should" learn, which is challenging for me as a teacher of language myself. But I consider it all a part of my journey - how to learn languages and help others learn languages....

    Anyway, thanks again for the post. I enjoyed reading it!

    P.S. I remember gesticulating wildly in a Russian supermarket during my first month in the country when I knew zero Russian!!! It's an experience that'll definitely motivate a person to learn language faster! Haha!!

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  16. I agree: it’s not enough to spend some time in a foreign country to become fluent in a foreign language. This is a common misconception. In terms of translation the idea prevails that a bilinguals are bound to be good translators. However, there is more to it. In order to produce a qualified translation you also have to be familiar with the terminology of both source and target language of the field the translation is about. In addition, you need to overcome the problem of interference. Professional translation servicesuse translators who have proven experience in translating for the particular sector the translation is for. http://www.rosettatranslation.com/

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  17. Wow, after just reading your post, I must say that I never would have guessed you weren't a native speaker. Your writing is at a very high level, and because of that, I think you have a strong reason to be very irritated and annoyed by people going around saying that this level can be reached in such a short period of time. Even your punctuation is placed at very good locations (I really enjoy reading and writing, so I notice carefully placed punctuation a lot!). You clearly had years of work and dedication to the language, and this gives me motivation that someday my German and Polish will be close to your level of English.

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  18. Dear Evelina!

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I think you are a really dedicated person and teacher!

    What I am a little bit confused by are your generalizations. For instance, it looks like you suppose that anyone claiming that it’s possible to become fluent in a newly started language in just one year would be a charlatan. Well, I claim that at least for every native speaker of any European Indo-European language learning another European Indo-European language one year is quite enough when studying (or probably rather learning for the purpose of consistency in playing with words hereunder) full time with enough motivation and dedication.
    Once again, to eliminate any ambiguities let us just define fluency as CEFR C1. This shall provide us with a referent definition to rely on being extremely precise in any aspect of the use of language.
    As you would probably agree on the timing in language learning is much more about hours than years or months. For instance, Goethe-Instiut’s assessment is that it should by no means take more than 1000 class hours to become C1-fluent in German. That applies to a native in a language as unconnected with German as it could possibly be.
    All these cultural institutions like Goethe-Institut, Institut français, Instituto Cervantes, etc. are offering so-called intensive courses where you are 5 hours a day 5 days a week in class. Not every branch of these offers it round the year, but if they were, then reaching C1 would take for someone taking these courses actually less than a year. So, are you calling Goethe-Institut a charlatan? I hope not, especially knowing your respect for “conventional learning methods”!

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  19. My own experience with learning German has been as follows:
    I’ve started at July 2010 by attending an intensive A1 two months summer course at Goethe-Institut Moskau. By that time I studied at the university, so after summer I continued at regular Goethe-Institut courses.
    A year after that, I did an intensive course once again, this time just one month long fetching up B1. I have quite an emotional recollection of that one single month ‘case it was in that month when I kind of reached the point where I could suddenly understand what I was watching at YouTube and I could read meaningful content in the language. I started reading Remarque, which was not easy, but still possible and, most importantly, INSTERSTING and DILIGHTFUL! It was also about the time I found out about LingQ and started actually using it after having watched Steve Kaufman’s YouTube channel for a couple of months.
    And finally, it was then when I understood something that looks quite obvious, but seems to be really a great secret for the educational systems all around the world: learning a language is much more about listening and reading, than classes and drills! Till that point I was following the course’s flow, but ever since I had a distinct idea of being in charge of my language learning.
    By the June 2012 I finished a B2 course and also had the feeling that it was about my real level at the language. There was only one person in the group to whom I could attribute doing better then myself and the reasons for our progresses were quite evident: we’d been already reading the literature quite a lot since B1, whereas most were just waiting until their abilities to read “confidently” magically appear by means of sitting in the class and doing grammar drills.
    In August 2012 I had a month long stay in Germany living with a guest family and attended a… C2 course, actually, at did Deutsch-Institut Berlin. Not that I was anywhere about that level, but also probably not that anyone else in our group was, though it had been mostly made up by Germanistics majors, some with years of experience in translation/teaching. We’ve struggled some times with choosing words when discussing topics like a cult of personality, but it was mostly a pleasant experience of talking about everything what could be found on the pages of Spiegel. I didn’t really socialize with natives as actively as I was hoping for, but I spent some time with my few German friends, and experienced no communication troubles with my guest family. Going to the theaters there, in Berlin, was really great, even though I couldn’t understand everything.

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  20. As I went back to Moscow we’ve built (thanks to the person I’ve mentioned before) a really strong small (4 peers) C1 group with an extremely great local teacher. Though worth starting, it just lasted till this February due to some exhaustion and our current priorities.
    To draw the line, I had my TestDaF exam in November 2012 with 5/5/4/5 as results: I can not claim having a strong C1 on the base of it since “full” C1 would correspond to “fives” in all parts of the exam, whereas I have one “four”, but I am probably done with the part of learning German to be done in a formal environment and I “feel fluent” in most situations.
    Except for four moths, when I took part at different intensive courses, I’ve been learning the language along with studying/looking for work/working and except of one month it all had been in my home country.
    Saucily enough, do I think that I could learn another European language in the course of a year, if I could just learn it full time? Yes, of course! I really think, everyone could do it!

    Steve Kaufman, the gentlemen I’ve already mentioned and you probably know about since you are familiar with LingQ, tells that he had been fluent (by the definition and for the purposes of the British diplomatic services) in Mandarin after having learnt it (at about our age (as it is now) for 9 months (not without a language school, but by means of massive self-study as well). I quite believe that too, though in this case it’s not something institutionally awaited from the students of intensive courses.

    But as to almost everyone who had learnt just one foreign language before (English in my case, just as it’s in most cases), such possibility had not been obvious to me just a couple of years ago. I’ve started learning English at a really young age too and it just lasted by different means, with different kinds of attitude and, hence, that’s how you get the feeling that learning a language is an extremely long process and starting a new one is just… not really worth starting!
    It’s an absolutely understandable, but absolutely wrong feeling!

    First of all, I now share the belief that adults are better at learning languages than children are. I am obviously better at German now after two and half years of learning it, than a two and a half year old native would be! Moreover, a seven year would probably learn the language to the level of native kids in about a year if he would move to the country and probably even forget his first native language; but by that term an adult could become as functional in a language as an adult professional is supposed to be!
    Is it however possible for a child to stay at home and learn a language at the pace of a diplomat acquiring a new language, even apart from the fact that a child is not going to become as functional in language as an adult before becoming an adult? I am not quite sure (it definitely was not my experience), but we would have to think about that once we would have to deal with teaching a language to a child: our looooong childish language learning experiences are really irrelevant for us learning a new language as adults!

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  21. I think that going to Goethe-Institut was a great decision at least because of transparent time frames: I probably couldn’t really believe I will learn the language that fast, once I’ve been learning the previous all my life long, actually, but I could just follow the flow to see where it brings me to. I now think, some priorities are set wrong in language courses, just as they are in educational systems as it concerns language teaching, but I am really grateful to the teaches who’ve done their best within the frame of this system!
    Such courses still use the “conventional learning methods”, but unlike at school or even as a language major you will learn at decent terms!

    Now a little bit about what I find wrong with conventional learning methods. First of all, it looks like it’s not that long that they’ve become “conventional”. Throughout the Middle Ages scholars had been learning (some studying, but mostly learning so that they could use it in their subject fields) Latin by the benefit of reading books with word for word translation, just in the way we are reading and looking up words now at LingQ/LWT/Lingualeo/etc. Though the majority of population was illiterate, the level of knowledge of Latin among scientists was probably better then it’s now with English. However, with the introduction of compulsory education, linguistics was forced over actual language learning replacing it with memorizing rules and drills on them.
    It’s like teaching hydrodynamics to someone wanting to learn how to swim. He would probably be able to explain how the swimming is possible due to such study, but it has nothing to help the scholar to actually swim!
    That’s an overstatement for sure: rules are not completely irrelevant, but it’s all about putting the car before the horse. I’ve once learned the declension table for German adjectives by heart. I could draw it for you just like that! But it didn’t help me to decline the adjectives! But as I started to read a lot, though I did forget how to draw the table, I soon could use the right endings, because of the “massive input”, as Steve likes to put it: I saw how it works in life, I noticed it and I got a feeling for it! So, there was no reason to make me learn the table: I just had to observe individual instances a lot and then – when I saw the rule I could just nod – “yeap – that’s how it works!”

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  22. Frankly speaking, I am going to do some grammar exercises from Martin Hewing’s book right now. I make mistakes of certain sorts quite often when speaking German, but I am normally able to correct my writings in German. English, on the other hand, is the language I probably still have a better passive knowledge of (can I say that? aah… grammar! how is it called, by the way, when the preposition goes to the end?), but after ten years without instructions I’ve lost the slightest idea of formal grammar. Even in this post, I am sure, there must be a hell lot of mistakes! (sorry for them!) However, it’s not going to be that hard now since I am doing tons of reading just for fun and there is probably no construction in the book I wouldn’t find somehow familiar.
    But there is no way I would start a new language by learning declension tables, types of verbs and tenses. I would just get an Assimil or FSI Language Course, try to enjoy reading them and listening to them (Assimil for every language has some great French humor in it!), try to get my passive skills up to B1 with them and make me ready to understand abstract rules. Cause it’s better to get an abstract idea of something, when one already has something to abstract oneself from. More of an overstatement again, agreed, but a good thing to understand for analytical person like me (and probably like you as well) is that language learning is synthesis, not analysis! Analysis is studying a language, which most people have no reason to aim at!

    By the way, I am expressly surprised by your decision to study English. You are already better at the start, than most of your fellow students are going to be at the end!
    Moreover, even if starting a new language this way, spending 4 to 6 years on it seems to be… overrated?

    However, I hope that you will enjoy your studies!

    I do understand that you want the best for your readers and that is why you are telling how much of a work to learn a language is. But the picture someone may get from is that the only way to learn a foreign language to a decent level is to start as a little child, then spend years of your youth dealing with something as meaningless as a dictionary (those are just words, really!), and as hateful as grammar drills (for most people they are), then absolutely go to the country for some years, where it’s not going to be any easier, but even after all you will have a hell lot of work to do at the University before the whole undertaking will start making any sense!

    I wish you all the best with learning Spanish, but I hope, you will not be afraid to spoil the journey by making it a fast journey!

    Eugene (Женя)

    p.s. How do we find you on LingQ, Evelina?

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  23. I supposed that your post was much more recent than it really had been as I commented on it. But probably the only thing it changes is that I should ask if you enjoyed learning Spanish instead of making wishes on it! :)

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