Thursday, July 10, 2008

Three Ways to Know You're Headed for Fluency

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LEARN HOW TO LEARN SPANISH Use The Right MethodsI often get the following comment from tourists we meet on the streets of Mexico when they hear that my wife and I have lived here for more than five years:

"I bet you are really fluent by now."

To which I've always responded:

"Then you would lose that bet."

I use that as my standard response since I do not ascribe to a linguistic belief (and this does emanate from a particular philosophy of linguistics) that living in the culture automatically assures fluency. The various Gringolandias (enclaves) you find all over this country are testimony to that fact. You can live in Mexico and never gain more fluency in Spanish than to be able to say:


"How are you?"

"Where's the bathroom?"

"Can I have a taco?"

There are Gringos of the American flavor who really, honest to God, think they are fluent in Spanish because they can order a ham sandwich or a cup of coffee in a restaurant. But, I digress. That's another story.

I've found in the literature that it really depends on who you talk with, which research paper you read, or which expert you consult that determines what second language fluency means. And, it is a question that weighs heavily on the minds of those who take out third and fourth mortgages on their homes to send their kids, or themselves, to language schools in the countries of their target language.

The linguists, the Second Language Acquisition (SLA), and the Foreign Language Instruction teachers can, and often do, give radically different and sometimes bizarre definitions of what it means to be fluent and how to achieve fluency.

I read recently an American author and foreign language professor who actually used the phrase:

"That magic moment when fluency finally comes."

I find that astounding!

I've discovered those who come to Mexico with a kind of last-hope desperation to master Spanish have a very pragmatic approach to the issue. They want to develop the ability to listen and understand what is spoken to them and to be able to muster an intelligent response. Primarily, this is what the average Gringo is looking for when he or she comes to language school. Some have told me that if they ever get to the reading and writing stage, it would be a wonderful bonus. But auditory and spoken understanding is what they seek.

So, how do you know if you are reaching the fluency goal?

Watching and Emulation

You are aggressively involved in a "Silent Period" in which you are listening to simple, level-appropriate speech in the target language. You aren't producing speech in the desired language but are watching body language and making associations. If you watch someone make the hand motions for "come over here," you are making an association between the body language and the sounds you hear the native speaker make.

This is why watching really childish cartoons in the language you want to learn is so good. There is a TV series in Spanish called, "Dora the Explorer" that I used to watch (and still will if I can catch it) in which the simplest Spanish words and phrases are pronounced and acted out.

Emulating what is seen and heard is one of the most difficult things to get across to American adults, especially older American men. They simply won't do it. They will call me a liar for suggesting it. Consequently, though they are spending a fortune taking Spanish classes in Mexico, they remain unable to speak and understand Spanish.

Playing has long been forgotten by older Americans. They will not do what they need to do because they think it too simplistic and childish.

Simple Production in the Language

After a highly individualized "Period of Silence" in which you've listened to months and months of level-appropriate speech in the targeted language, you finally feel ready for a little speech production in the language. This is a highly individualized thing. You can't say everyone will be ready to start speech production at the same point in time. Someone might need more watching and emulating than another person.

The feeling of confidence that you might venture beyond merely asking to where you can find the bathroom, to there's no toilet paper in the women's restroom is an indication of progression.

Children will often begin speaking and using phrases and words in their native tongue or second language that have specialized meaning to their environment like:

"No! I don't want to!"

"I want a cookie."

"I want the ball now."

"You can't make me."

"It's my turn now."

Linguistic Intuition

If you have Watched and Emulated, you will soon begin to develop a sense of what sounds right in the language.

If I showed you a photo of a cat and asked you to tell me in your native language what it was, you would not have to think about it at all. You would simply know the word without having to think about it. If I showed you the picture and asked you to tell me what the word was in Spanish, for example, you might have trouble if you tried to recall what the word was in Spanish.

In other words, you will know you are reaching fluency when the words in the target language just come when see pictures and objects and you don't have to try to remember what the words are that you need to express yourself.

When you went for a walk with your child in the park and he saw a cat for the first time, a predictable response is that he screeched, slobbered, made all manner of incomprehensible babbles while reaching for the cat. Your predictable response was acknowledging your child's excitement by trying to move the stroller closer to the cat sunning itself and telling your child the name of the thing he is so excited about.

"That's a cat, Jimmy."

"See the kitty?"

"Cats go meow."

Your child had the need, expressed by his overenthusiastic response to the visual stimulus, to know the word for what he was seeing. You made the appropriate sound when pronouncing the word CAT. When he reaches adulthood, your child will not have to try to squeeze out a long-term memory definition to associate with the visual presentation of a cat. He will just know.

I used to read kid's books to a college roommate's son. When he would see a picture of a truck, he would make the sound a truck makes, "varooom," but could not at that point pronounce the word, TRUCK. He had made the sounds a truck made but wasn't at the point of knowing the word.

You know that you are making proper progress toward fluency in the language if you are making associations, not memorizing, with the sights and sounds found in the second language you so ardently desire.


It is so crucial that before you begin trying to produce speech in the target language, you strive for meaning. No one began making meaningful speech in his or her native language before understanding what it was he or she was trying to say. If I wanted to say to a restaurant proprietor:

"Would you mind terribly putting some toilet paper in the men's room?"

I have to know what those words mean before I can say them.

The words just come. I don't have to try and grunt out definitions from memory first. I just intuitively say it.

I don't have to try to recall the Spanish word for CAT.

"Gato" just comes out of my mouth.

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