To start this week’s post, let’s engage for a moment in a thought experiment. First, imagine losing all ability to communicate with others—no ability to speak and listen, no ability to share meaning.
Now, imagine the opposite extreme. You can suddenly speak every language in the world. You can travel anywhere and establish shared meaning with anyone.
What makes the second scenario so ideal, and the first so dire?
Language is an immensely under-appreciated gift. Without it, we’re disconnected from one another and shared meaning is lost forever. With it, we cooperate, we develop, and we progress. The more skilled and free we are in our language use, the more hope we have as a civilization to achieve mutual understanding and the more meaning we enjoy in our own lives.
We all have an innate ability to move toward this latter ideal—a world in which we communicate more openly and freely with one another.
So, this thought experiment leads us to the more functional purpose of this week’s post: what is needed to acquire a new language? After seven years developing the Chinese Language Institute, our team has simplified the process down to four core drivers. The human brain is hardwired to learn language and share meaning. As a result, if we dedicate ourselves to the following four practices, we can acquire any new language and unlock endless opportunities to establish newfound meaning. Each of the following drivers are equally important:
1. Find your classroom
To get the ball rolling, it’s essential that you conceptualize your target language alongside the guidance of a skilled native speaker who fundamentally understands the mechanics of their language. There is no correct “in-class” environment—your classroom can be anywhere and under any circumstance. There’s also no overarching requirement for who your language teacher can be—you can learn from practically any native speaker.
Bottom line: learning in a structured environment from a native teacher who understands the mechanics of your target language is essential. Pay careful attention in class and absorb as much as possible.
2. Study alone outside of class everyday
To learn a language, you have to put in the work. There’s no substitute for rigorously memorizing vocabulary, internalizing grammar mechanics, and then memorizing more vocabulary. Devote time every day to self-study. Think of it like eating. When it comes to language learning, you need self-study to survive. Especially early on, you have to do it everyday.
3. Interact daily in your target language
In-class learning and out-of-class self-study are only preparatory steps for the real show: interacting with others in your target language. After all, this is what language learning is all about, right? When acquiring a new language, you need to do this all the time. Ideally, you can learn language in a country that speaks your target language, but if you’re unable to do so, find native speakers in your hometown or chat with native speakers by phone or Skype.
4. Think in your target language
This is the X factor. We can’t stress this enough. In order to reach fluency, you must establish an instinctual habit of thinking in your target language. By establishing this habit, you not only constantly practice your new language skills, but you also no longer need to translate your internal thoughts into your target language when speaking. You can thus speak naturally and fluently. Language is a habit. It’s our greatest tool to share our thoughts. When our thoughts are in the target language, they can be shared without the interruption of translating native language thoughts into target language words. Only when this habit of thinking in your target language can fluency be achieved.
Now it’s all about action. You have the tools necessary to acquire new language and move a step closer to that ideal we explored at the beginning of this post. There’s no better time than now.