- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

My Progress in Becoming Bilingual

I started learning French [1] in April, roughly seven months ago. For the people interested in learning a second language, I thought I would share my progress and some tips I’ve learned.

Am I Fluent?

I remember reading months ago that fluency was a myth. You can’t have fluency. You just have situations where you can communicate and those where you cannot. Fluency is impossibly vague because it works on a sliding scale. I’ve found it’s much better to focus on tangible goals in language learning than trying to become “fluent”.

For example, some of the milestones I’ve achieved:

The point I’m at right now is at the understand/being understood level of fluency. The next level obviously is to be understood correctly, in more situations, with fewer mistakes.

Some Lessons Learned

As many of my readers are already bilingual (or even tri- and quadrilingual) the lessons from someone who can speak 1.5 languages may not seem terribly profound. However, I’ve always found it’s more important to share the journey than the destination when writing.

Speaking is Essential

This one definitely isn’t universal. Fellow Canadian, Steve Kaufmann who runs The Linguist [2] speaks at least 11 languages. His method of learning is based highly on listening to the native language to passively absorb many of the words, phrases and sounds of a language.

While this method may work for Steve and others, I’ve personally noticed that speaking (especially with native speakers) is an essential step in improving my fluency. Something about speaking a word allows me to use it and remember it better than hearing it alone. Admittedly, hearing is still crucially important, but I don’t believe I would be able to develop my skills as rapidly if I relied on passive listening.

Accept Being Misunderstood

When I first started speaking, my goal was perfection. I recounted the words in my head multiple times before uttering them. I wanted to say what I was going to say without any errors, being completely understood. As someone who is proficient with English and grew up in an all-English environment, the possibility of being misunderstood was alien to me.

Now I realize that this approach doesn’t work. I succeed in communicating far more often when I just blurt out what I want to say, without the internal mental refinements. If I missed the mark and didn’t say it correctly, I’ll get some confusion. I’ve accepted that. But getting out and speaking is the best way to refine your skills.

Classroom Learning Helps

I think the mistake is made when people assume classroom learning is enough. It’s not. The improvements I’ve made with the language have all come from interacting with native speakers. Listening to them and responding in conversation.

However, that doesn’t mean classroom learning is useless. In a social environment, I don’t usually want a French lesson. I want to buy the baguette or make small talk with the person at a party, not discover the hidden truths of verb conjugation. Classroom environments can help because they provide a place where you can learn the subtleties of a language that nobody would correct you on in daily conversation.

Is classroom learning necessary? I don’t believe so. My sister became fluent in Danish and relied mostly on speaking with Danish friends. But I think it can help, if you put it in the right context.

Don’t Try to Remember Everything

When I first started learning, I’d try to remember every word and phrase I encountered. Now I realize this is almost impossible. Ask people what the words are for things, but accept that you may need to encounter a word 2-3 times before it sinks into memory. Considering the abundance of new vocabulary in any language, investing tons of energy into memorizing one word is a waste.

Once again, I’ve found usage helps solidify vocabulary. When I use a word, I’m more likely to remember it.

“Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

The biggest skill I’ve found in learning a new language is to always ask what new words are. If you encounter something unfamiliar, ask a person what the word is. If you hit a gap in a conversation, ask the person to help you find the word you’re looking for.

Set Reasonably Expectations

Learning French has greatly increased my appreciation of anyone learning English as a second language. The biggest learning point from this experience has been the realization of the sheer amount of learning effort that goes into learning words in a different language. It means remembering the translation for tens of thousands of words in your native vocabulary, along with different grammatical syntax and different connotations.

If I repeat this experiment in the future, I’d make sure to give myself at least 10-12 months to become good at a new language. I’m sure intermediate goals can be reached before then, but I’d say that’s a good estimate of how long it takes to become good with the language, assuming you’re spending a bulk of that time with native speakers.

What Next?

I’m still in France for at least another 8 months, that means plenty more time to practice my French. My current goal is to be understood in a wider range of situations, improve my usage of the language and soften my accent. Hopefully in several months I can offer another update.