The title of this post is a question I get posed a lot when I’m in the US for a visit. Since I’ve been living in Spain for over a year now I must have mastered the Spanish language, right?
Well not necessarily….
First of all, what is the definition of the word fluent in terms of language?
According to our friend Merriam Webster it means: (adj) capable of using a language easily and accurately
It seems relatively simple, right? Most assume that all you have to do is spend enough time in a foreign country and eventually you’ll pick up the native language and be able to speak it comfortably and without many errors. Yes, to some extent environment plays a role in how quickly you pick up a language (obviously I have a better chance of being exposed to Spanish here in Spain than in my native home in suburban Chicago and therefore have more opportunities to hear and speak Spanish) – but in my experience I have discovered that there are many other factors -besides just environment – at play in determining how quickly and adult “becomes fluent” in a second language.
For example, Why is it that I can have two English students with the same level of understanding grammar – yet one is able to express himself speaking much better than the other?
Based on my own experience learning Spanish and on my interactions with various English students, I have concluded that one’s personality plays an important role in how quickly and how well one achieves fluidity in speaking a foreign language (perhaps even more so than intelligence or even understanding of the language).
Based on personal observations in the classroom – I would sum up “the best” language students as: extroverted, self-confident, and “young at heart”. 🙂
A person who is an extrovert feels at ease with people and enjoys expressing himself. Instead of sitting back and letting someone else be the center of attention, an extrovert takes charge and leads the conversations and is eager to converse with you. I think you can see why this type of person would be the ideal candidate to learn to speak a new language well, right? An extrovert takes advantage of any opportunity to talk and express himself. What is important to this person is interacting with others instead of analyzing thoughts in his own head. An extrovert is therefore more apt to practice the act of speaking and will therefore (more than likely) have a higher level of fluidity than other more introverted students.
Confidence, I think, is super important for adults learning another language. Anytime you speak a language that’s not your native tongue you are put yourself in a “vulnerable” situation. You are going to have an accent compared to a native speaker, you are going to make some mistakes, and you are going to run the risk of (the horror!) sounding “silly” or “clueless”. A self confident person accepts all of these things and is willing to put “himself out there” and communicate in a way that is not inherently nature or comfortable.
Finally, a self confident person takes more risks than someone who is not confident. Risk taking is important when speaking a second language because there will always be a time that you say something in a new way for the first time in front of a native person. In order to expand vocabulary it’s so important that you use new words and new expressions instead of relying on the “safe” phrases and words that you’ve already mastered. Someone who is confident in himself knows this and is willing to risk (again) “sounding silly” in the hopes of adding a new phrase or verb to his repertoire of expertise.
Why “Young at Heart”?
This is factor is related to confidence. Everyone knows that children master foreign language way quicker than adults (Jealous!). I think this is partly due to their brain chemistry (Ha, I don’t know too much about the specifics on that….) and also to their personalities.
In general children are more curious, more carefree, and much less self conscious than adults. All those qualities, I believe, bode well in the “speaking a second language department”. Therefore an adult who possesses those same qualities has an advantage over someone else who is uninspired, timid, and cautious when speaking a foreign language.
Furthermore, a child is ignorant to the fact that learning a new language is hard work and takes a lot of time – a child thinks only in the moment and isn’t troubled by details such as “it’s going to take me years to be as good of a speaker as a native person“. I think adults who successfully learn to speak a new language understand this. They don’t “beat themselves up” each time they make a mistake and they are willing to accept the fact that they probably will never be perfect at speaking the second language. They worry about learning one thing at a time and don’t obsess about speaking perfectly.
As you can see I’m so passionate about the topic of learning a second language and all the factors that affect it! If my post has sparked your interest all you have to do is google “second language acquisition” and ton of other information will come up that I haven’t touched upon here!
I’ll wrap this up with a little advice like I did yesterday – next time you speak to someone whose first language isn’t English, be patient with them! Also, (I personally hate this) don’t tease them about their accent! It takes a lot of guts and courage to try to express yourself in another language – so help the person out a little by doing those two things.
Dang – the last two posts have been quite wordy, huh? I’ll make sure to mix it up a little and include some photos in my future posts. Thanks so much for reading!!! 🙂