save yourself some time – the title says it all, and words mean nothing
I bet there isn’t an EFL teacher who hasn’t been asked this question. Especially at the event that has nothing to do with teaching or learning. And by people who have only considered learning a language the way they consider buying a country house – when they know they aren’t going to.
‘How fast can you learn a foreign language?’ they ask. With my mind on the genuine appreciation of the question, for this is exactly the topic I used to talk for hours about, I usually reply with the words of Reg Hindley, ‘A sensible conclusion is that languages are ‘difficult’ in inverse proportion to the strength of motivation for learning them.’ No, I don’t always say THAT. A self-explanatory ‘It depends’ has proven to be enough.
But what exactly does it depend on? And what matters most when learning a foreign language? More importantly, what is it that truly guarantees language success?
If you know the answer already, shush! And keep reading to see if we have come to the same conclusion. But first, let’s play a Drink If game.
HAVE YOU HEARD?
Drink some strawberry coconut smoothie, or whatever you find healthy, if you’ve heard of Will Smith. He, whose notorious slapping hopefully will not surpass his incredibly various acting, claims that he owes his success to his intense work ethic.
Did you know that having received his first role in the ‘The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’, Smith learned not only his own lines, but the whole script for the first several episodes? If that doesn’t say committed like the business-fable pig, what does?
You can often come across a quote or an article, where you see Smith put work ethic and self-discipline over talent. I myself find it rather beneficial and somewhat obligating – when the willingness to work on yourself can override anything you think you don’t have or can’t do, there’s little to no room for excuses. And as Will himself has stated, ‘Talent you have naturally. Skill is only developed by hours and hours and hours of beating on your craft.’ You can hate him for the inappropriate slapping, but you can’t deny his talent, I mean, incredible work ethic.
Are you ready for another round? Drink if Janice Liou rings a bell. From studying neuroscience and nutrition, while fighting anorexia and trying to find herself, to an inspiring yoga instructor, influencer and soulpreneur coach, she wholeheartedly advocates authenticity, mindfulness and having fun while doing business.
Janice once quit everything to follow her heart, and is now a beautiful inspiration to the like-minded and more. She’s aligned now but at some point she had to, well, align. That flow, confidence, and grace that she now has can only come from alignment with the purpose, years of experience, and, despite her what may seem like denying the importance of hard work, years of working hard.
And we, we can learn a great lesson once more – it is NOT JUST HARD WORK, it is ALSO HAVING FUN. Or, I hope Janice will forgive my interpretation, the lesson is to stay ALIGNED with our true purpose and learn THE ART OF MAKING HARD WORK FUN. She’s a great example of that.
Now, drink if you’ve heard that young Michael Jordan would often lose to his brother Larry in basketball, who was an amazing player himself and is believed to have a knack for the game. According to various sources, it’s he who Michael Jordan owes his tenacious determination to, as the two brothers would often compete, especially in a game that so much resembles life itself. Thankfully, those losses fueled Michael to work harder and helped him see failure as a key to success far beyond basketball court.
There is an assumption that M.J. chose the number 23 jersey because he wanted to be at least half as good a player as his older brother, who wore number 45 at the time.
Whatever the reason was, the facts speak for themselves. Wearing the 23 jersey means a whole lot more since then. And Michael Jordan became his own version of success, a basketball legend and a phenomenal athlete. Now we know what Lorne Greene meant. Competition does spark excellency. But nothing sparks greatness like being your own competition.
And that’s the end of our little Drink If game. How many have you had? You must have sipped at least once. I mean you can’t shut success up. You’ll hear about it even if you have zero intention to listen.
But we do want to listen, don’t we? We need proof you don’t have to be born with a silver spoon to be your own definition of success and live life on your terms. Scratch that. There’s a special kind of beauty in personal growth, which makes the words of Nelson Mandela all the more valuable. ‘It always seems impossible until it’s done’, he said. And we all want to believe his words to be true.
You might not see success the way I see it. Nor should you. But saying that being a master at your chosen craft, which brings people value, makes you grow, and gives you fulfillment along with financial freedom, is no success at all is just pure lying.
Let’s not lie to ourselves, and think of more success stories instead. Which ones come to your mind? How do you define success? Look at those people you’ve just thought of. Do you see any patterns? What are the elements of success? Please, do share in the comments below. What can be more fascinating than the universe we all are and how it manifests itself through our lives?
If I may, I’d like to tell you what I see:
I’ll sum this up for your convenience:
- know why, know how to and believe you can do it;
- practise a lot and practise smart;
- stay focused and committed;
- accept that it takes time and effort;
- find joy in what you’re doing and do it with love;
- do it for yourself and do it for others;
- be true to yourself and your vision.
And that’s the secret to success in almost everything, including learning a new discipline or a new skill, like a foreign language. Have another look at the list. Now answer these questions:
What does success depend on?
What truly guarantees language success?
One word. Three letters. YOU.
It’s you who you need to learn a foreign language, or anything else for that matter. And it’s you who can guarantee success.
It’s rather obvious, isn’t it? But then, why do we see so many people get taken for a ride?
Since education mixed with business, apparently, a lot has changed in how the human brain works. Now according to numerous ads you can learn a language without effort, without homework, without grammar, without much practice, without some sort of necessary discomfort or healthy boredom, and, despite all laws of learning, you can become fluent in a new language much faster than it takes an adult to learn to read in English.
Know this, when the ads offer you learning without actually learning, they are robbing you blind and, since they in no way can guarantee language success, point-blank lying to you. Just play and no effort on your part, no questions to make you think, no tasks or challenges to make you grow. Everything is spoon-fed and everything is done for you. And you’re paying dearly for that. You’re paying with your time, focus and still some sort of effort that you could have put elsewhere.
Learning any discipline or skill is first of all working on yourself. Yes, it’s crucial that we make learning entertaining. It does not mean that learning is another form of entertainment. Learning a discipline or a skill is always a contribution to your character and different areas of your life. It’s the foundation for many other disciplines or skills you’ll learn in the future. You don’t want to skip the actual process of learning. Trust me. Can you achieve language fluency in a month? No. You can’t. And long-term, it’s a blessing that it is so.
It’s interesting that nothing worthwhile is easy to acquire. Did you know that HAPPINESS IS SOMETHING THAT WE CHOOSE AND TRAIN THROUGH REPETITION OVER A PERIOD OF TIME?
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS IN LIFE.
Pain makes us grow. Challenges reveal our strengths. Boredom helps our brain relax and sparks creativity. All things are connected. Notice that there are certain patterns that fit everywhere. Start with YOU. I mean it.
BACK TO THE POINT
The truth is, it doesn’t matter how entertaining you make it look or feel, in the end the person who has practised more will be more and will be better than they were yesterday, and the person who hasn’t will forget what they’ve learned. Why some people do not see it is a mystery to me. So much for understanding human behavior.
I can literally hear you asking, ‘But does everybody need Jordan level skills? Do you need to be that good?’
You don’t. Only if you want to. And some of you want to. That’s why you need to be honest with yourself from the very beginning. That’s why you have to start with you.
Yes, not everybody wants or needs to achieve mastery. Sometimes, we just want a hobby to escape to and truly enjoy the process with no expectations. Isn’t it a delight to de-stress and chill after work and have fun learning a language with little to no progress, but a great time and company instead? I think it is.
But when you need more, want more, and are ready to work more, you have to do things differently.
Both Hampstead Heath and West Cornwall, for example, are especially picturesque and fascinating places. But you wouldn’t buy a train ticket to Cornwall when you’re heading to London, would you? Take the train that goes where you’re heading. And even if it’s, to quote Ross, ‘going somewhere fun’, remember that when you shoot for the moon and miss, you land among stars. Aim high whatever you choose. Because in the end, the determining factor is YOU anyway.
Speaking of aiming high, have you heard of the now debunked ten-thousand-hour principle?
I often tell my students that language-wise the only difference between them and me is the number of hours we spent on deliberate practice.
Truth or myth, unless you’re doing it all wrong, ten-thousand-hour practice, give or take a few thousand, is still better than no practice at all. But it’s practising intently and intensively FOR AS LONG AS IT’S NECESSARY that makes all the difference. Still thousands if you want to make significant progress, and, for some, maybe even more than ten. But it’s essential that the practice is deliberate. Use it or lose it. Much more importantly, use it well and use it smart.
YOU SAID I WAS THE ONLY ONE 💔
For this, you either need a good teacher, or must become a good teacher to yourself. To make practice worthwhile you must know when, how and what to work on. To improve your weaknesses you need constant immediate feedback. Engaged, with your focus laser-sharp, you must be guided, even if the guide is you. In for a penny, in for a pound.
You feel confused, don’t you? Just a moment ago I said that everything depends on you. It still does – the teacher appears when the student is ready. I’m only adding a new influence to the equation.
Why does an A student taught by X speak a lot more fluently and grammatically correctly than an A student taught by Y or Z?
And why is it that students sometimes have different results even though they’ve had the same teacher, they’ve been taking the same course and they all started from scratch?
Teachers do play a huge role in students’ success. But so do the students. Unfortunately, there’s only so much a teacher can do if a student is unwilling or truly not ready to learn, which makes the student the determining factor once again.
Nothing works until you do. Nothing matters without you. Be willing to learn. Be willing to be ready. Or, at least, be willing to be willing and ask for help with the rest.
No matter how hard you work and what amazing results you have, a good teacher will always significantly better the odds of success. But without your genuine desire to learn, that same teacher is like an open circuit. Switch on.
At some point you’ll transform into a good teacher yourself and continue learning unaided. That is not to say, you can’t learn a language entirely on your own. If you know the ropes of or have a knack for teaching and if self-learning is your heart’s desire, I say, the odds are in your favour.
Denis Waitley once said, ‘The results you achieve will be in direct proportion to the effort you apply.’ Well, Mr. Waitley is certainly not a stickler for stating the obvious. But I am. And, to keep the picture complete, I will do a little tweaking: the results you achieve will be in direct proportion to the effort you apply, given you’ve got the right strategy, start with the basics and commit to gaining a true understanding of the fundamentals. Tweaking over.
The right strategy, basics and fundamentals are probably the only elements on our list that solely depend on a teacher, whereas effort is a choice and your responsibility. And so is finding the right teacher, or becoming one. You’re the switch – close the circuit.
Another mistake that you can naturally gravitate towards is buying into the myth of the one almighty method. But I have a question for you. Do you truly believe that one method can cover everything YOU need?
Except for Principled Eclecticism for apparent reasons, there is nothing versatile enough to be a one-size-fits-all solution on all stages of learning for everybody, but businesses benefit a lot from advertising that there is. Hats off to the marketers who know you better than you do. Wouldn’t it be nice to be a valuable part of the system and not be used by it? The fault is all ours. And so is the responsibility. Start with YOU.
Here comes the obvious – the popularity of a method doesn’t always equal its efficiency. But for some reason, we’d rather rely on ads, reviews and recommendations than our own needs. Don’t get me wrong, you should take everything into account. And by ‘everything’ I mean ‘everything’: ads, reviews, recommendations, as well as the lack of information in them and the full picture that you don’t see, like somebody else’s goals, needs, pace, and previous experience, let alone their readiness to put in the effort and do the work.
Expecting to get a drool-worthy pizza with no dough and just a few slices of cheese in less than 15 minutes is a recipe for disappointment, and, to be honest, a silly idea in the first place. And that’s my point. The only expectations that lead to disappointment are the distorted ones. Try to see the whole picture, find the right recipe and set your expectations high.
When the picture is not clear, ask yourself: what is the next right step? Most often, and in this case especially, the next right step is to start with you.
Think about it. If the outcome depended on the method, school or coach only, there would be lot of Jordans and a lot of Smiths, and every yoga teacher would make a fortune by making an impact. Every couple that went to therapy would be Bell-and-Shepard level smitten, and a dish made by different cooks would always taste the same. Not until pigs fly.
Everything has its purpose in language learning. That said, whatever this ‘everything’ is, it should stay in its rightful place, and not substitute for everything else that only you have charge of. So the next time you feel like something is missing, make sure that the missing puzzle is not you. And if you catch yourself fondly falling for the marketing tricks, remember that you’re the one who’s doing the shopping, for there’s a big difference between trying to fit a person into a method and trying on a method to see if it fits.
Just as it is in life, when learning a foreign language, no matter what you try, it won’t work until you do. But in the world of learning, life is quite fair, and everything that is right for you works perfectly fine when you work too.
The question of should or shouldn’t is the one I refuse to answer. But I’ll tell you this. BEFORE YOU RUSH TO A TEACHER OR COURSE, BEFORE YOU CONSIDER ADS, METHODS AND REVIEWS, ALIGN WITH YOUR PURPOSE and then TAKE INSPIRED JOYOUS ACTION ON WHAT MATTERS TO YOU. Start with you and everything else will follow. It’s there FOR YOU to choose from and make your vision a reality.
In case the conditioned inner voice has begun its well-rehearsed monologue and ‘self’ is too much of a trigger, I came prepared. It is crucial that you turn the tables on the judgmental ape. Because the truth that I’ve observed so far is simple – when you see your whole self in a good way, you are a good part of the whole, and whatever you let yourself be, you bring to others. Being that you’re an artist and a brush at the same time, it’s rather selfish to avoid the responsibility of being your best truest self, don’t you think?
We’ve peeled the onion and now are back to the initial question, ‘How fast can you learn a foreign language?’ My answer is this. You can’t. Language is just like you and me – a work in progress. And once you commit, it becomes you. From that point on, it all depends on you – both how fast you make progress and if you make any progress at all. What’s more, you can substitute ‘a foreign language’ for anything else, and the same answer will still apply.
So the title does say it all. Except for one thing – why, despite what you now know, and, probably, have known all along, you still have a nagging feeling you will keep everything as is, always wishing for more. But that’s something that only you can answer. And when you do, chances are, you’ll want your standards high.
PS Come back soon – the ‘how’ part is in the making ♡