Crossing the Barrier: a Look into Languages

Carson Myers, Vision Magazine Staff Writer

Photo courtesy of  Unsplash.com

Photo courtesy of Unsplash.com

Learning a new language is difficult. Having a conversation with a native speaker can be downright humiliating.

Americans have begrudgingly accepted that studying a second language is a necessity to earn a high school diploma, but few become fluent. Some intrepid learners might pick up a copy of La Nausée in college but fail to glean any existential philosophy from Sartre’s Parisian dialect. According to a 2006 Pew Research study, only 25% of Americans claim to know a second language. Less than half of them say they speak their second language “very well”. In a blog called “thelinguist.com”, researchers state that any individual can become conversational in a second language, regardless of how late in life they begin their studies. However, they say that acquiring a new language requires strong motivation and a forum to communicate with native speakers.

When learning a second language, there are ways that individuals can set themselves apart from students who can’t quite get past the textbook version of a foreign language. Here are five steps to becoming fluent:

1. Spend time with native speakers.

Rebecca Deal says that a surprising number of language students don’t recognize how important this step is. Deal, a professor of Spanish at North Greenville University, was raised in a bilingual environment. Her English-speaking parents were missionaries in Cartagena, Colombia.

“Start conversing with a study buddy or tutor. When you feel confident enough, try to hold a conversation with someone you’re comfortable around who speaks the language you’re trying to learn,” says Deal.

2. Keep track of what you don’t know.

When listening to a native speaker conversing in a foreign language, you will eventually get to a point where you can no longer understand what they are saying. This is because native speakers used inflections and contractions that are unfamiliar to non-native speakers. An article on WikiHow recommends using a note-taking app on your smartphone to write down words or phrases that you hear but don’t understand. Not only can you look up the meaning of these words later, you can listen for them in the future to see how commonly they are used by native speakers.

3. It’s not about how much you practice, it’s about how often.

Deal always reminds her Spanish students about how important it is to practice speaking with native speakers, even if they are beginners. This does not necessarily mean holding an international student hostage and forcing them to have boring conversations with you every day. It could be as simple as asking a friend how their day is in their native language. The key is frequency and daily application.

“You’ve heard the phrase ‘if you don’t use it, you lose it’. That’s true for anything, but especially learning a new language,” says Deal.

4. Pretend to be an extrovert.

“If a language learner is outgoing and sociable, they should be speaking quicker, more accurately, and more fluently with native speakers,” says Deal.

In a university setting, a rich variety of languages are spoken. This gives language students an excellent setting to experience new languages and cultures. It can be uncomfortable, but language students should break out of their ethnic enclaves and speak with people they don’t completely understand.

5. Speak with an accent.

Most people cringe when they watch a movie and hear a British actor imitating a Creole fisherman or a Midwestern farm boy trying to sound like a Sicilian mobster. It may come across as unauthentic, but successful language learners study accents and linguistics just as much as they study vocabulary and sentence structure. The blog fluentforever.com recommends buying an IPA, a pronunciation guide, which explains how sounds are formed in other languages. Inflection is also a key component of accents. Learning to stress the right syllables make an accent sound much more genuine.

At some point, language learners become frustrated. This comes sooner than later for some individuals. The good news is that most individuals develop their native language ability over a lifetime, not just during their years in grade school. Working to become more fluent in one’s own language as well as a second language opens new doors to a more dynamic life.