The truth about learning new languages

Being a nomadic individual, I sometimes need to learn to speak new languages when I’m in a country where English isn’t the dominant one. Traveling in South America, I’ve learned how to go about learning new languages in a fairly efficient manner. This is a post that I’m migrating from my old personal blog/website.

I had two simple goals I wanted to achieve in 2016. One was to pick up Android development and second was to become fluent in Spanish.

For Android development, I completed the Udacity Nanodegree for Android development in January 2016, got accepted into the Gigster network as an Android developer (I was already in the network as a full stack web developer) and completed my first Android project Kangoo link. I’m also booked for two freelance Android projects, and am auditioning to be a PluralSight author in the topic of Android development.

For Spanish, I really thought that it would be possible to become fluent in the language in 3 – 5 months. My reasoning was due to the claims by people like Tim Ferris and Benny Lewis preaching that obtaining fluency in a language starting from scratch is possible in 3 months. Also, I already speak English, and Spanish is supposed to be one of the easier languages to learn for native English speakers… so how hard could it possibly be? Well, it turns out that their claims are a bunch of bullshit… or they have a drastically different definition of what fluency in a language is.

I speak two languages: English and Korean. I grew up speaking both languages at a native level, and thus throughout my life, when I told people that I speak either one of the languages fluently, I meant that I spoke the whole thing like a native speaker. I meant that I could probably go to court and defend myself for a crime that I may or may not have committed. While I probably wouldn’t do a very good job of defending myself in court, but I could say whatever I wanted to and come across reasonably intelligent. That has always been my definition of what fluency in a language is. And earlier in 2016 when I saw the whole “you can learn to be fluent in a language in 3 months!” claim, I literally thought that you could learn to speak like a native speaker in 3 months as long as you followed certain methodologies to language learning.

Well, it turns out that their (in this case Tim Ferris and Ben Lewis, apparently experts at language learning and can speak multiple languages) definition of fluency is very different than mine. Their definition of fluency simply means that you can communicate most of your thoughts and hold a basic conversation in that given language. You may make a bunch of mistakes in your sentences, you may have to talk around your words if you don’t know the necessary vocabulary, and you may sound like an autistic 5 year old when speaking, but you can learn to communicate your thoughts in 3 months.

I took intensive Spanish classes for about 2 months in 2016. Those 2 months got me to a point where I could communicate most of my thoughts while making a bunch of mistakes as long as I’m speaking slowly. It also got me to a point where I was able to handle getting the police involved to get my money back for a scam some travel agency put me through in Peru. So I do believe that conversational fluency is possible in 3 – 5 months if you’re coming from languages like English or one of the Romance languages. But actual fluency? It’ll probably take me around 2 years of being completely immersed in a Spanish speaking country.

I’m in Medellin, Colombia again right now for a few things unrelated to language learning and travel. Regardless, I’m taking more Spanish classes and will be continuing my studies in it for at least a month more. I initially wanted to speak Spanish at the level of my English, but now I’m not so sure. Aside from the “coolness” of being the only Asian person I know who would be able to speak Spanish like a native speaker, I don’t really see the benefits of pursuing complete fluency in the language. It certainly won’t help me make more money, I already speak the most useful and practical language of the world which is English, I don’t particularly enjoy learning languages, and I already have plans to continue my travels somewhere in Europe where Spanish isn’t the dominant language. If I planned to stay in Latin America for the foreseeable future, I would definitely pursue it with more energy, but I’m unsure if it’s worth putting in the gallant effort needed to reach fluency.

This language learning thing did teach me one thing valuable lesson though. And that is that there are a lot of people in this world making a great living being professional bullshitters. Also, that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

About the Author Chris Jeon

Software developer currently focusing on Android development.