E5 – My Experience with Languages

Episode 5 . 25:29

E5 - My Experience with Languages - transcript:

What’s up, my friends? Welcome to the Speakeasy English Podcast: the number one podcast on the Internet, if you ask my mother. 

Thank you for joining me on another episode! This podcast is designed to help you become completely fluent in English, naturally, automatically, and without studying any boring grammar. As always, we’re going to talk about interesting topics, 100% in English, spoken by a native English speaker (that’s me). All of the episodes are free. And, guess what? All of the transcripts are also free on our website. Speakeasy English club. No need to pay. No need to log in. It’s all posted for free on the website. My name is Brandon. I will be your host. Make yourself comfortable. Grab a beer, a coffee, a cocktail, or whatever, and let’s get this show on the road! 

Alright, so in our first four episodes, we have talked a lot about natural language learning: about active listening, and reading, and using the language – and how to bring that into real life, where we have real fears and real expectations. We talked about how it’s very important that you understand, language learning is different than learning almost any other academic subject, both in the method of how you learn and in how we measure success. Language is a tool for communication. It’s not an abstract concept in a textbook, or a math formula, or a list to memorize. The test isn’t about memorization or perfection. The test is: were you able to communicate what you wanted to communicate? Yes or no? Did you say what you wanted to say? And did they understand? Did you understand what they wanted to communicate when they spoke to you? If the answer is yes, then you succeeded! You were able to use English as a tool to communicate. And guess what? You can succeed in communicating without being perfect! Without being anywhere close to perfect! In fact, if you can communicate without much effort, you’re fluent. You don’t need to be perfect to be fluent. You just need to be able to communicate in English relatively easy [easily]. It should be easy for you to say what you want to say – and easy to understand when a native is speaking to you. And if you can do that, you are fluent. Perfection is not a part of the definition of being fluent. 

Remember that language is meant for real life – not for a class, not for a textbook. And in real life we make mistakes. I’m sure you don’t expect yourself to be perfect in any other aspect of your life, right? So don’t expect perfection from your English skills. If you are not making mistakes, then you are not trying! You are not pushing yourself and pushing the boundaries of what you know and of what you have mastered. That is the cold, hard truth. 

Today we will continue the mini-series on natural language learning and we will talk briefly about my personal experience learning Spanish and now learning French. And I think my experience (and my failures, specifically) will sound familiar to many of you. 

I was born and raised here in the United States in a relatively small town. I did not have any exposure to other cultures or languages growing up. Zero. Growing up, nobody in my family had a passport and no one had traveled out of the country. Umm, that’s not my parents’ fault, they just did not have the money for it. And my grandparents and great grandparents were the same. Everyone, for the most part, grew up and worked and then retired within 30 minutes to 1 hour drive… a pretty tight radius. So, my first exposure to another culture was Spanish class in 8th grade. And I loved it. It is hard to explain the feeling, but it called to me. I was just so intrigued and so interested in other cultures and other ways of speaking. The idea that you could communicate all of the same needs and desires and wants using a completely different set of sounds, a different language entirely, it just seemed so cool to me. So interesting and mind blowing. I was absolutely hooked on day one, but that passion wore off after about six months of trying to memorize flashcards, and memorize grammar rules, while never actually speaking the language. I took six years of Spanish (five in grade school and one in college) and still could not speak Spanish. It’s sad that it did not even seem strange to me. Nobody I knew actually learned a language in school. Everyone was forced to study a language, but nobody actually succeeded in speaking that language. At least nobody that I knew. In fact, I’m not convinced that my teachers could actually speak Spanish! Sure, they could “speak it” slowly and clearly, but if they moved to Spain, for example, I’m not convinced that they could hold a conversation with a native. I just don’t think so. And that’s not their fault. They were teaching it to us the same way they learned it in school – as if it were math or science or history: basically using pure memorization to study and learn as many words and rules as possible. But, as we’ve talked about, memorization does not work for languages. That’s like trying to memorize a book about how to play guitar, but never actually playing the guitar. Or using a book to learn about walking, how to walk. That does not mean you are going to be able to walk. Right? Memorizing all of the rules about balance and taking one step after another does not mean you will be able to walk. You need to actually practice walking, a lot, in order to make it an automatic process. You cannot memorize your way into walking. 

So I studied speech for six years, and at the end of it, if a native speaker spoke one sentence to me, I would have no idea what he or she said. I will admit one thing, though. In that six years, I did learn a lot of vocabulary. But in six years, I should have been fully fluent – two or three times over. And instead I knew maybe 500 individual words, but could not speak or understand in any sort of normal, native conversation. It was, in other words, a total waste of time

After graduating college, I completely stopped using Spanish of any sort for at least a decade, maybe a dozen years, maybe twelve years. And then I had the opportunity to travel to Spain. When we got to Spain, I had that same feeling as my first day of Spanish class. I loved everything about it. I thought the culture, the language, the food, it was all so fascinating to me (and it was also my first time really out of the United States) and I was hooked. And so I decided right there that I needed to get fluent. So when we came home, I was a man on fire. That means I was committed to learning Spanish, to getting fluent in Spanish, no matter what. But, I did not know how I was going to do this. So first, I tried applications on my phone and quickly I figured out three things:

  • One, using an app for me seemed basically the same as using a textbook. 
  • And two, I would never have time to sit down each day and study an app or a textbook or anything like that. 
  • And third, that was the same method I used in school for six years and did not become fluent. 

So I decided I really needed to try something different, something more effective. At the time, my commute to work was 45 minutes. So I spent 45 minutes driving to work and another 45 minutes driving home from work. So I had one and a half hours in the car every day. I also exercised for about 30 minutes per day. So I had 2 hours available for listening. At the time, during that 2 hours I was listening to sports radio, that is, talk radio where they discuss sports and professional sports teams. I decided I would try listening to podcasts instead during those 2 hours. So I started listening every day. I had to give up listening to sports radio. I had to stop listening to sports radio, and instead, start listening to language podcasts. It was really a strange sensation at first because I could hardly understand anything on the podcasts. But I actually did know a lot of the vocabulary. I understood the words on their own, but in a full sentence spoken by a native speaker, it was almost impossible to understand in real time, to understand fast enough. This sensation just reaffirmed for me that more studying and more memorizing was not the answer. I already knew the words – but did not recognize them in context when I heard them spoken by a native. This made me realize that spending time listening would be the only possible solution. So I did that. I was fully addicted after one month and started reading the transcripts too. 

The podcasts that I used were designed for people learning Spanish (were designed for upper-beginner and intermediate level Spanish learners / Spanish students). When I started, I could hardly understand one sentence at a time – and six months later I could understand 80% to 90% of the podcasts on my first time listening. Within one year (so, six more months) I was “functionally fluent”, so I could say whatever I wanted to say, and I could understand the majority of what was spoken to me. I say “functionally fluent” because I made more than a few mistakes – I made lots of mistakes and did not know the proper way to say things -although I was able to find a way to communicate the idea. 

I don’t remember exactly when, but at some point between six months and one year into this, I started Spanish conversation classes online. I would video chat with a professor, a conversation partner, and practice my Spanish conversation. We will talk a lot about language partners in the future, but right now I will just mention that all of these teachers, that I had classes with, tried to make me memorize grammar rules and vocabulary. So I had to explain to them that I just wanted to talk. I just wanted to communicate about whatever came to my mind. I did not want to do any lessons – no grammar exercises, and also, I wanted them to stop interrupting me when I am trying to talk. I did not find it helpful for them to interrupt me over and over again to point out every little mistake that I made. So I had to explain this and ask them to “please stop interrupting me and let’s just have a conversation”. I continued in this pattern for years. Eventually I stopped listening to podcasts designed for Spanish students and, instead, started listening to podcasts for native Spanish speakers. I would listen to everything from the daily news, to podcasts that tell interesting stories, or discuss current events. I was also fortunate enough to be able to return to Spain and have some incredible adventures with new friends that I made along the way – and also visit Cuba! None of that would have been possible without being able to speak Spanish. 

A few years later, I wanted to start a new challenge and learn a language all at once “from scratch”. That means “from zero”. And I thought French would be a great option because I knew no French. I could not even count to three in French. This time I decided to go straight to podcasts: to start using podcasts right from the beginning. But, I was no longer commuting to work, so it was harder for me to make listening a habit. In fact, it took me almost a year to realize that I needed to approach my habit differently because I simply did not spend enough time in the car for me to use the same habit (of listening wild driving). Eventually, I adjusted my habit so that I would listen to French while I was doing other things that I did every day. But if I am being honest, I probably wasted a year not listening to enough French every week to really make progress. 

Now, when I started listening to French podcasts, I knew nothing about French, nothing. So obviously I had to start with podcasts that are mostly in English and they explain a few French words, or basic French phrases. I continued listening to those beginner podcasts over and over again until I was able to understand a sentence or two at a time. At that point, I switched to a podcast that is designed for students learning French, but it is 100% in French – and they just talk about interesting topics every week. Once I was able to do that, I started making progress much faster. At that point, I started to get addicted to French. 

When you can listen to a podcast 100% in another language, and you can understand it, it feels really good! The feeling is addictive. And that’s a good thing, in this case, because it makes you want to learn even more. It makes you want to listen every minute that you have available. In the middle of my adventure trying to learn French, we had children. Yes, children... three of them, at the same time. As incredible and life changing as having triplets is, you can probably imagine, it made it more difficult for me to find time to start having French conversation classes and to read the transcript of the podcast episodes that I was listening to. Not long ago, I was finally able to implement reading the transcripts and having multiple conversation classes every week. Of course, reading the transcripts and also having conversation classes has caused my ability to communicate in French to Skyrocket. I still have a long way to go before I am fluent in French, but I am making rapid progress and I’m very excited about it! 

Okay, so let’s talk for a moment about the differences between my experience with Spanish and my experience with French. With Spanish, I had a good base of vocabulary and grammar knowledge (from memorizing flashcards for six years in school), but I had to listen to a ton in order to comprehend any spoken Spanish. I had zero ability to understand spoken Spanish

With French, I had no base. I had zero vocabulary or grammar knowledge and no idea how to pronounce anything. And I learned to listen and speak while knowing no spelling, no grammar, and not being able to read French, at all. 

It’s almost funny when you think about it. I studied Spanish for six years and at the end of it, I could more or less read – but I could not understand or speak

Whereas with French, after a couple of years, I was in the exact opposite situation. I could speak and I could understand, but I could not read or spell at all

So, if the goal is to speak another language, then listening has proven effective for me. Learning by listening taught me to be able to understand spoken French and to speak French myself. In other words, to be able to have a conversation, which is a milestone that I was unable to reach even after six years of studying Spanish in school

So again, if the goal is to learn to speak another language, then natural language learning (that is, learning by listening) was the only method that actually worked and achieved that goal. 

Now, in both Spanish and French, I made a ton of progress just by listening. But in both cases, my progress really accelerated when I paired reading the transcripts with the listening, and then it accelerated again when I started taking conversation classes. That is when I started really using the language. 

Overall, French has gone dramatically faster. Learning French has been a much faster process. Between grade school and college and my adult life, I have probably studied Spanish for about ten years now – compared to French, which I’ve studied for three (mostly unfocused) years, and I’m already well on my way to fluency. 

When I think about comparing natural language learning, to the traditional method of studying a language like we do in school, I ask myself, “what is more important?” 

  • Would you rather be able to speak and understand, but not know any grammar rules or spelling? 
  • Or to know all of the rules and spelling but be unable to have a conversation

Of course, the first option is preferable! If you can speak and understand, then maybe you don’t need the grammar rules! And of course, eventually we all want to be able to write and read, so you will need to know how to spell the words. But, trust me, that will happen naturally over time. When you spend enough time listening and then reading those transcripts, and also using the language, you will naturally absorb the spelling and you will naturally internalize the grammar rules without even knowing it. And all of those little mistakes will correct themselves all on their own. That means they will correct themselves without having to memorize any rules. It’s almost like magic. Once you have accumulated enough input (enough time with those main pillars of natural language learning – that’s listening, reading and using the language), once you have accumulated enough of that, you’ll know exactly what to say because it simply sounds correct. And you’ll know when you make a mistake because it will sound wrong to you, to your ear. It’s almost like magic. 

It really is very cool when you can speak a language by knowing what sounds right and what sounds wrong. It’s similar to playing an instrument by ear, where the wrong note just sounds wrong and the right one sounds right. And the best part about it is that this happens automatically after you spend enough time active listening and reading the transcripts. 

We’re going to talk more about this on the next episode as I give you specific advice and specific suggestions on how exactly to use podcasts, transcripts, and natural language learning to become fluent as efficiently as possible. 

We have talked a lot today about my experience with the traditional method of learning a language in school, and then my experience using natural language learning as an adult to actually achieve fluency. I’m sure that some of you, if not most of you, can relate to what I talked about today, and I hope that you’ve been able to learn something from this conversation as you begin to put together your plan to become fluent! 

Thank you for listening to the entire episode! If you appreciate having this free resource along with the free transcripts, don’t forget to leave a five star review! That will help us so much to gain visibility and reach even more people, just like you, that are working to become fluent in English. Feel free to email me with questions, suggestions, comments, or concerns. All of the free transcripts, along with my email address, are on our website, speakeasyenglish.club – that is, speakeasyenglish.club . As always, don’t forget to listen to this episode multiple times! Not just once, but multiple times. Spaced repetition will help you make great progress toward your goal of becoming completely fluent in English. Alright, see you next time. Cheers!