How to Become Fluent in Any Foreign Language

by Dr. Monroe Mann, PhD, Esq, MBA, LLM, ME, EMT
Founder & Executive Director, Break Diving, Inc.

First, let me get one thing straight: you don’t need to be a child to learn a language, or to become fluent in a language.  This myth is perpetuated by lazy people who refuse to work hard and impatient people who refuse to seek the right way to study a language.  Simple as that.

Second, learning the basics and mastering a language are totally different tasks.  You can’t master a language by doing the things you did when you were first learning the language.  You need to take a totally different approach.  The basics are the basics.  Fluency is fluency.

Third, I define fluency as being able to communicate like a native speaker.  It doesn’t mean absolute perfection, but it does mean you can listen, speak, read, and write like a native.  In other words, you need to do all four disciplines like a native, and each is worth 25%.

For example:

  • LISTENING: You are 1/4 fluent if you can understand 95% of any native-language tv or radio broadcast and can understand when two native speakers are having a conversation with one another at normal speed;
  • SPEAKING: You are 1/4 fluent if you can, 95% of the time, completely and fully express, in that language, absolutely everything you want to say, with proper grammar, and native speakers do not have difficulty understanding you;
  • READING: You are 1/4 fluent if you can, 95% of the time, read any book, novel, or magazine in that language, and fully understand every word you see, every sentence and paragraph you read, and every chapter you complete;
  • WRITING: You are 1/4 fluent if you can, 95% of the time, write a comprehensive 5-page paper of at least 500 words, with few (if any) spelling errors, zero grammar mistakes, and anyone who reads it fully comprehends what you are trying to say.

So guess what: if you want to become truly fluent, you need to become 95% native-level proficient in each of those four disciplines.

Okay, so how does that happen?  Assuming you already know the basics, get ready.  Your workload is about to quadruple ten times.  Why do I say this?  Because becoming fluent requires that you actually DO those things above I just discussed.

Here is your regimen:

  1. LISTENING: You need to listen to at least 6 – 10 hours of native-level audio every week.  It needs to be a mix of talk radio and audio books.  Why?  Talk radio is fast, but the vocabulary and the grammar are not that complicated.  Audio books are the exact opposite: they are read slowly, but the vocabulary and grammar are exceedingly complicated.  Used together, they are a powerful listening comprehension improvement tool.  Why not tv and films?  You can try, but most tv and film these days is 70% action, 30% talking.  If you like watching, great, but most of that time will be spent watching, not ‘listening’, i.e. not learning.
  2. SPEAKING: You need to be having conversations.  Lots of them.  Ideally, they should be with other people, but self-talk (out loud) is also effective.  We have both active and passive vocabularies.  If we only read, we only develop our passive vocabulary.  And that includes grammar.  Only be speaking out loud do we exercise and expand our active vocabulary.
  3. READING: You need to read.  A lot.  Not little text messages with friends.  Not short emails once on a blue moon.  Not short stories in a graded reader.  No–you need to read!  Novels.  History books.  Romance books.  Self-help books.  Newspapers.  Magazines.  You need to read what native speakers read.  Some people think that reading a magazine is enough.  Or a newspaper.  Or some novels.  No.  You need to read them all because they all provide different vocabulary, different grammar usage, and different types of sentence construction.
  4. WRITING: You also need to write.  A lot.  Someone who can read, speak, and listen, but can’t write… is still considered illiterate.  Further, by writing, you force yourself to put grammar and vocabulary down on paper, in front of you, in action.  Others are able to easily correct subtle (or not so subtle) mistakes that make the difference between an advanced speaker and a fluent speaker.

A lot of work, I know.  And it never stops.  And get this: this is what you need to be doing on a weekly, monthly, annual, and well, life basis!  It never stops!  I’m a native English speaker but I am still learning new words, still experimenting with different grammar structures, and always trying to improve.   The same applies when I study Chinese, French, & Italian–the three foreign languages I know the best.

Did you notice something about the four assignments I am giving you?  They are things we all did as children, in elementary and middle school.  We listened to over 8 hours of speaking per day.  We talked at least 2 hours each day with our friends, and gave speeches in class.  We read many assigned books by our teachers.  And we wrote essay after essay after essay.

Totally a drag, right?  I don’t wanna speak, listen, read, and write wah wah wah!  

Well, then the odds of you ever becoming fluent in a foreign language is slim to none.

Incidentally, many people seem to think that the key to becoming fluent (and to learning a language) is living in that country.  “Immersion” they call it.  However, there is no such thing as immersion in the modern era.  Why?

  1. Everyone speaks English.  Wherever you go to ‘immerse’ yourself, you will find others who want to practice English with you, regardless of your native tongue.  So it’s really hard to truly immerse yourself unless you find a really small town where no one knows English (and your native tongue).
  2. It takes drive to immerse yourself.  I lived in China for a year, and also Switzerland for two.  In both cases, I met Americans there who had been living there for years (and in some cases, decades) and… they didn’t speak a word of the native languages.  They could have used their time there to practice, but they chose not to.  They chose to keep themselves wrapped in the familiar cocoon of English.  How were they able to do this?  Again, see # 1, above.

In other words, don’t spend your money going abroad to master a foreign language until you first prove to yourself that you have the discipline to actually immerse yourself.  Immersion is not something that happens and it’s not something you just jump into; it’s something you actively have to do.

Let me assure you: true immersion is painful.  It takes discipline, hard work, and incredible motivation to listen to hours upon hours of French radio and audiobooks; find and read French novels, history books, magazines, and newspapers; find others to talk to on a regular basis (both native and non-native French speakers); and write essays, short stories, and poems in French.  And not just once in a while.  Repeatedly.  Every month.  Every week even!

This is absolutely something you can do on your own.  But I have learned over the years that this type of regimen exhausts even the most Spartan among us.  It even exhausts me.  Unless we have positive peer pressure and friendly competition, this regimen becomes tedious very quickly.  Plus, it’s often hard to find others to practice with.

That’s why I started the Fluency Project.  It’s part of Break Diving, and it’s affordably priced to allow anyone to get involved, and in fact, so affordably priced that anyone can not only start… but continue with the program on a regular basis.  For alas, it’s the repetition that drives the progress.  And by doing it with a bunch of others from around the world, all of whom become your friend, gosh, it makes the tedious (but crucial) process I described above incredibly enjoyable!

If you can and want to pursue fluency on your own, by all means, go for it!  I hear time and time again, “Why would I pay to join a class when I can do all this on my own?”  Good points, but can you?  I am one of the most disciplined people in the world, and my energy knows almost no bound, but… life still gets in the way.  And I eventually slow down.  After a few months, you will be shocked to realize that what started out as a battle cry for independence, “I don’t need anyone’s help!  I can do it all by myself!” has now become, “Oh my gosh, I haven’t done anything these last few weeks, have I?”

Here is my challenge to you: try it on your own.  See if you can keep up with what I prescribed above for even 16 full weeks.  If you can, great!  Keep going!  But, at some point, you will get exhausted.  When you do, and you realize that you can’t keep up doing it all on your own, come join us.

On the other hand, if you want to pursue this journey with others (and gain the accountability and fun-factor that comes with it), check out the Break Diving Fluency Project’s Fluency Intensive Program.  We’d love to welcome you aboard!

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