Nearly a month ago, I decided to embark on a project to learn my wife’s native language, Macedonian. To do this, we’re not speaking English to each other at home. This is a brief update on how that project is going in the third week.
Last week I had mentioned some hiccups. I found juggling the immersion plus my full-time work (and having a new baby) to be more tiring in the second week of the project.
This week, I’m happy to say, has been a lot easier. My conversational range has expanded immensely, beyond just transactional communication. I’m still not weaned off of needing dictionary look-ups for harder topics, but I don’t expect that to come until later.
Dealing with Exhaustion in Ultralearning Projects
The difference between the second and third week illustrates a common theme I’ve found in my projects: things often feel overwhelming, but only temporarily so. Slowing down is better than stopping because the feelings rarely last. Walk a few laps if you have to, but don’t exit the race.
A major difference between this project and previous ones is that I’ve continued working full-time. This has made studying somewhat less consistent, as I’m trying to squeeze it in spare moments unoccupied by work, rather than putting it first in my schedule.
The nice thing about an immersion project, however, is that a lot of the learning takes place in the background of other activities. Eating breakfast with my wife isn’t usually a substitute for studying, but if you’re practicing a new language it can be. If I can stick to the No English Rule, I’m happy to have a more sporadic studying schedule.
At-Home vs Travel Vocabulary
One amusing side-effect of the at-home immersion has been that the order and frequency of words I’ve learned has differed from other languages. Although the core of the language stays the same, my vocabulary leans a lot more on domestic situations, and much less on things outside.
Consider that I still don’t know the Macedonian word for suitcase (which I knew on Day 1 in Spain), but I know the word for diaper (something I’m not sure I ever learned in Spanish). This is a silly example, but it shows how much environment determines what you eventually learn.
Despite obvious gaps, I’m happy that my Macedonian progress hasn’t been like my progress in Spanish or Chinese. I’ve learned what I’ve needed to first, and only learned less practical things later. What’s been practical itself has changed with each language, so my ability in each is unique, rather than merely falling on a line between zero and fluent.
Is Fluency the Wrong Goal?
This experience with Macedonian has made me think more about whether fluency was ever a good goal to have in the first place. It certainly is the most popular goal among language learners, but I hesitate to think that it’s ill-defined.
It’s surprising for some people, for instance, that you can get to a conversational level much, much earlier than you can get to a level where your proficiency is equal to a native. I can usually have conversations on nearly any topic long before I can comfortably watch a movie without subtitles.
To some, fluency is just this—being able to speak without undue hesitation and error. If you can have a conversation without it being a strain for the other party, you’re fluent. But if fluency is seen as the final stage of learning a language, this obviously cannot be right.
Maybe it’s more productive, once conversational stages have been reached, to think of linguistic skills as diverging into more numerous subskills—being able to give lectures, read novels, watch movies, understand internet memes and so on. Thus the goal of “fluency”, seen as an endpoint, necessarily breaks down to, “I want to get good at giving speeches,” or, “I want to be able to appreciate poetry.”
I think the illusion is that because the same words and grammar can appear, in theory, in any of these situations, that there is something proper to be called “fluency” irrespective of the situation it is being used in. Everything I’ve learned on transfer, however, makes me suspicious of this.
My goal with Macedonian is decidedly more modest than I have with Mandarin Chinese. If conversations at home are easy, I’ll consider it a win. I think this framing makes it more achievable than having the expectation that anything less than perfection in all communicative domains is still not good enough.