When we decide to learn a foreign language, we know that the best way to learn a language quickly and naturally is to immerse yourself in a country where the target language is spoken.
As a French person, I am fortunate to have a passport that allows me to travel and stay in most countries for several weeks without having to apply for a visa. People under 30, or even under 35, can move and work in several European countries, South America, and Asia for a year thanks to the Working Holiday Program. Since 2010, I have lived in three different countries and learned to speak three foreign languages because of the program.
Not everyone has the opportunity to go abroad for an extended period. But we still have the option to learn a foreign language using language learning books or software. There are a lot of them, so our choice is not limited. But the most reoccurring problem is that when we don't immerse ourselves in a culture where the target language is spoken, it is difficult to put what we've learned in use and practice expressing ourselves like the native speakers.
So how do you learn a language naturally when you don't live in the country of your target language?
The Desire of Learning
The most important factor to learn or accomplish something is desire. The first thing to do when this thought occurs is to immediately ask the question: why?
Before you go on a long trip, you'll always make sure the gas tank is full. This action ensures that we can go as far as we can before we run out of gas. If the wrong amount of fuel, or worse, if the wrong type of gas is used, it will be impossible to reach the desired destination. Just like how gasoline is one of the essential factors to move the car forward, desire is the motivation that keeps us going and makes sure we progress. Thus, it is important to find a solid and reasonable answer to the question: Why am I studying this language? The answer will give us the motivation we need to achieve our goals sustainably.
What Does Naturally Mean?
We've been talking about learning a foreign language naturally. But what does the word nature mean?
If you want to experience what calm and relax mean, take a walk in the forest, hike in the mountains, or sit by the sea to get a feel of those two words. There are times when words can't describe how you really feel. In nature, each element is active and are in constant interaction with one another. Any living creature needs some form of interaction with other entity to survive and develop, and nothing in nature can survive on its own.
Trees, plants, animals, insects, micro-organisms: all interact and flourish within this system, which might seem complex but very simple in its essence. In nature, each element is active and in constant interaction with the other elements. Any living entity needs some form of interaction with another object for survival and development, and absolutely nothing in the natural world can survive on its own.
If you can consider and accept what I am about to share with you, you will have the ability to learn and accumulate any skill without great difficulty and without being impressed by what it represents. Here is my statement: the human being is a part of nature.
The most significant misunderstanding of humanity today is the feeling of being separated from nature. We tend to think of natural systems as something complicated, remote and out of our reach. And we rely on science to analyze these systems. It's a fact that we are part of nature, and things couldn't get more simple than that. We are an integral part of this gigantic organism in perpetual motion. We are nature, and nature is a symphony.
When this point of view is integrated, unlimited power opens up to us. It is enough to observe and imagine, the answers then occur spontaneously.
Let's look at a giant Sequoia seed. This gigantic and magnificent tree, which can reach up to 95 m in height and 8 m in diameter. Its seeds are tiny, no bigger than a coffee bean. Once the seed is sown, Sequoia grows about 50 cm to 1 m per year until it reaches its enormous size on one beautiful day.
You might argue that Sequoia tree grows so tall because of its breed. But no, it is the conditions that are responsible for this miracle. The adult Redwood didn't need a significant amount of energy to grow. The seeds happened to end up in the right place, and nature did the rest of the work. Each day, a minimal amount of energy was expended, which helped gently propel the conifer a few centimeters per year. Trees grow because of a perfect system, where many organisms participate in shaping the conditions required for their development.
Thanks to this collaboration in which, little by little, everyone brings a small amount of effort that benefits both himself and the whole, over time, the results are spectacular. It is important for us to accept the fact that there is no separation between us and nature, and any separation is imagined. We are one with this system from which we can benefit.
Coming back to our desire to learn a language, should we start by taking what we've just learned into account?
Nothing is Complicated
First, break a long and complicated task down into several small, simple, and easy to digest pieces. If they still seem too complex, it means that they are still too big. Break them down more.
What is a language, really? It is a communication tool which one transmits a picture viewed in mind by making a sound with the mouth and throat that others recognize and can imagine. This sound is called a word. The other way to look at it, in order to transmit a more complex image, several sounds can be produced, but they must be combined and arranged in a certain order. This is called syntax.
With all the words and syntax that there is to absorb, learning a language must be exhausting and nearly impossible! Well, it depends on how you look at it. French is my mother tongue, but I cannot always express myself as accurately and beautifully as I'd like. Sometimes I am misunderstood and disagreed with, but I am sure that if the people who I am having conversations with understood what I meant, they'd probably agree with me. Even as a native speaker, it is not easy to express yourself clearly.
Let's look at a 6 or 7-year-old child. He can pronounce words and form sentences quite well, no matter what language he speaks, but he has a long way to go to be perfect. He still makes mistakes. However, among those who have studied foreign languages, you'd know how satisfying it feels to even reach the fluency of a 6 or 7-year-old child. Being fluent in a foreign language is not nearly as impossible as we think. There are many ways to define fluency. It means that you have reached a sense of mastery of syntax, and you know enough vocabulary to express yourself freely. The pronunciation is clear, and we can understand what is said, and others can understand us easily.
To reach such level, we can use our analogy of the giant Sequoia. If we want to speak a foreign language fluently (or to learn anything), we must create conditions that will move us forward each day, which will accumulate over time and produce the desired results. In Japanese, there is a term that describes this phenomenon very well: kaizen (改善), which means to change for the better, and the improvement is mild and gradual.
The only efforts required are the commitment and attention to tackling the task. But as I mentioned earlier, it really is not so much of an effort. The satisfactions we get from the positive outcomes will keep us going in a long run. It's also a bit like compound interest in finance. The accumulated results are added to the capital and are continually reinvested.
So when it comes to learning a language naturally, what do you do?
Take Action and Start Today
When it comes to learning a language from scratch, the most important thing at the beginning is to learn to master pronunciation. A young child listens to his parents for two to three years as he begins to speak. But as adults, we can accelerate this process. To know and master the sound system of the target language not only allows us to understand better, but it also makes it easier for people to understand us. This step is essential and should be taken seriously. Even if it takes one or two weeks to sharpen the pronunciation, I am convinced that it's worth it.
IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) is currently the most precise and powerful tool available for one to learn to pronounce words correctly. IPA is a series of symbols representing all the sounds of human languages. Learning the IPA of your target language and comparing it with your source language is not difficult. It will save you an enormous amount of time and energy during your learning.
You might ask: how accurate is IPA?
I once visited a friend in Saigon, Vietnam. He had never heard of IPA, and to make him understand, I looked up Vietnamese words with their IPA on Wikipedia. My friend and his girlfriend, knowing that I had never studied Vietnamese, didn't know how I could pronounce words in Vietnamese so precisely. The same thing happened with a friend who speaks Shanghainese.
Once you are familiar with pronunciation, it is time to start listening and repeating sentences. When you put yourself in a country where your target language is spoken, you're forced to communicate with the locals. When we study the language from somewhere else, it's another story. You don't need to use your target language on a regular basis; therefore, you don't progress as fast you'd like. The best way, in this case, is to create an environment where you can hear everyday sentences just as if you were living in another country. You should listen to these sentences and repeat them actively as many times as your brain needs to remember every day. While you do that, the human brain will naturally assimilate grammar and vocabulary. Trust me, this is natural, and it will happen eventually.
The key is not to overdo it and not to force it. If you only have 20 minutes a day to devote to your study, that's enough. Remember what we talked about: nature never spends large amounts of energy at once. It takes its time. Putting a little bit of work in each day, it'll produce impressive results at the end. The important thing is quality and regularity. Not the quantity.
The most common way to study a language when you can't be in a country where your target language is spoken is to get a book with dialogues, a CD, explanations of grammar, etc. Any content or method is fine as long as it works for you. The most important thing is to spend time with the language. But materials that include a large number of sentences with their context and native speaker's recordings are by far the most effective. Short and straightforward dialogues but rich in syntax are more preferable than long conversations that are rich in vocabulary.
When we immerse ourselves in one country, we have the opportunity to hear sentences every day in real situations. This is a natural way to associate the sounds we hear with the situation happening in front of us. When a book or audio files is all we have, it's important to be aware of the context when we hear sentences spoken by a native speaker. Thus, having these sentences translated into our mother tongue gives us a better understanding of the context and allows us to grasp their meanings easily and naturally.
How Can Glossika Help You Learn a Language Naturally?
Mike Campbell, the founder of Glossika, has spent his life studying languages and is a polyglot himself. Through Glossika, he has created a tool that meets all the criteria I have mentioned. Using an algorithm and the spaced repetition system, Glossika uses syntax to allow natural and effortless assimilation of grammatical structures. Glossika is the only existing language method that meets the criteria to learn a language naturally. It helps you achieve fluency without having to live in a country of the target language, and without forcing the learner to memorize grammar rules or vocabulary.
If you want to try Glossika for free, you can register and enjoy 1000 reps in over 50 languages. At Glossika, we take a strong stance on language preservation and documentation. We provide a number of local dialects or languages that aren't as resourceful to the public on our platform for free.
Article by Clément Hattiger