Everybody has their own method of learning a foreign language.  Whether it’s Rosetta Stone, Flash Cards or a million other ways, there’s never a shortage of different techniques or tips for learning how to communicate in a language other than the one you grew up talking to your mom in.

I view one’s competency in a foreign language as something that falls into one of the following three levels.

Level 1 is Basic.  At this level you can ask the very basic things such as ‘Where is the bathroom’ or ‘Can I have the check please’.  It’s the most basic level, but still shows that you did your homework and is certainly better than playing a game of charade.

Level 2 is Conversational.  This is a level where you can freely carry a conversation about what’s on your mind.  Even though you still make gramatical and other errors and you’ll probably have a hard time dealing with very specific topics like calculus, physics or anything of this sort, but for day-to-day things, especially in a social setting, you can express yourself freely.  If you can continuously converse with a friend or girlfriend/boyfriend without ever switching to your native language, then you’re at this level.

Level 3 is Fluency.  This is a level usually reserved for people who are born into the language, or have started learning the language at a very young age.  They know the in’s and out’s of the language.  They know all the idiosyncrasies of the language even without realizing that an idiosyncrasy exists.  The benefits is that you know all the necessary vocabulary, speak with no grammatical errors.  The language flows effortlessly enabling you to engage locals, express yourself freer, and even possibly mask yourself as a local (or at least someone from a neighboring country or state).

I’m fluent in 2 languages and conversational in 2 more.  My native language is Russian, and as I learned English at a young age (10), it’s my second fluent language — pretty much at the same level as my Russian.  My Spanish and Portuguese fall into my conversational camp (although my Portuguese is moving quickly to fluency).

So how do you learn to speak a language like a native?  Easy, you must move to the country and live there for a year or two.

I repeat: you must physically move to the country and live there.  The length will depend on your exposure to the locals.  If you get yourself a significant other and a healthy social circle of local friends, you’ll improve faster;  if you only talk to expats, you’ll move a lot slower.

The main reason is that the key to effectively learning a new language is mimicking local speakers, and not constantly thinking about grammar rules and verb conjugations.

Ten years ago, I was driving to work while listening to a Mexican radio station.  Someone called in, and the host asked the caller, ‘Como le va?’  Having studied Spanish in school, I never heard that expression, but from then on that’s what I started using when asking people how are they doing.  I don’t know/care whether that’s a grammatically correct way to ask, but if a local speaker asked, then it’s good enough for me.

So that’s how I’ve been successful in picking a new language.  That’s my secret.  That’s how I came to dominate Portuguese, and which is why it’s much better than my Spanish.  That’s also considering that I’ve been learning the latter for more than 10 years, and I never took a single class of the former.

I mimic people.  I memorize what people say and why they say it.  I look for their emotions when they say something.  Then I repeat it.  I don’t ask why, or ask them to clarify or even whether something else is correct.  If a local speaker says it, I write it down and say it.

I learn how a baby learns, no questions, no argument.  If a local says it, it’s good enough for me.

That’s why it’s so valuable to surround yourself with locals.  Every time you have a conversation, or ask a question, you’re given a free private language lesson.  It’s there, you just have to listen to it.

My Portuguese is even more potent because I know a lot of slang that exists in particular regions.  I know when to say it, I know why to say it.  I can joke, be sarcastic and be emotional in that language.  I can make someone cry or laugh purely using the language.  That’s true mastery right there.

My Facebook/Twitter feed is littered with Brazilian comments about particular situations.  Whether it’s a funny photo, or an interesting news item, there’s always a valuable language nugget that I will memorize and say it when presented with a similar situation.  You can’t learn this in school.  You can’t learn this from a textbook.

Languages are about having an emotional connection with someone above all else.  What good is a language if you can’t do that?


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James Maverick

James Maverick

James Maverick used to work in a cubicle as a code monkey in Silicon Valley. Then, in 2007, he quit his job and a one-way ticket to Brazil. Ever since, he continued to travel, visiting over 85 countries and living in more than a dozen of them. He loved his location-independent lifestyle and has no plans to live in America.
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