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CHAPTER 2: Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It

Do away with vague daydreams, such as “learn Spanish,” by setting specific end goals within specific time frames and incorporating new language learning techniques to achieve concrete results.

The most common time of the year, by far, to decide to take on a new language is of course January 1, as part of a New Year’s resolution. Generally, the resolution is something along the lines of “Learn Spanish (or whatever language it may be) within a year.” Unfortunately, many fail miserably. This is precisely why I recommend you pick a specific target with a specific deadline for your language learning project. I don’t have resolutions; I have missions. The word mission even has a sense of urgency and requires a plan of action beyond what simply promising yourself ever could. Having watched probably too many action movies and TV shows while growing up, I like to add a little drama to otherwise mundane tasks, and the concept of a mission to be completed against a ticking clock makes it seem much more exciting.

This brings us to the title of this book: Fluent in 3 Months. The point is not that you have to aim for fluency in three months, but that you do need to be specific about what you’re aiming for, and this title is one such example of a very specific target and a deadline to reach it by. Successful language learners are those who are as specific as possible with their goals.

To help you gauge what to aim for, I’ll dive into what fluency and other useful targets really mean, and we’ll look at how much time you need to reach those targets. Plus, I’ll explain why “Fluent in 3 Months” has been a great goal for me personally and why fluency—and beyond—is a goal more of us can strive for.

What Fluency Isn’t

The question of what fluency means is one of great controversy, depending on whom you ask. I want to provide a much more precise understanding of fluency once and for all.

First, some definitions can be way too loose. A monolingual novice with next to no language learning experience may ask me which languages I speak fluently, but before I quantify my answer I will ask for her understanding of the idea of fluency, because her definition may be more what I’d consider that of a functional tourist—a level easily achievable by anyone within a few hours or days—and not fluency at all.

Second, there is sometimes a too elitist way of looking at being fluent (or saying that you “speak” a language) as being equivalent to a native speaker in all ways. People who look at fluency this way sometimes go overboard and demand that you should be able to

participate in a debate on a complex or philosophical topic, speak with no hesitations, use complex vocabulary and advanced expressions, never have any serious miscommunications, and be able to participate in a discussion that any typical native might have.

The problem here, though, is that if you have such high criteria for fluency, then I have to confess I am not fluent even in English, my native language!

I can’t participate in a debate on many complex topics (including philosophical ones; it’s just not my forte). I hesitate all the time in English (watch any unscripted video of me speaking English online, and you’ll hear plenty of ums and uhs). I am not the kind of person to use pompous vocabulary in everyday conversations, or even in formal ones. And because I’m Irish, I have had to learn to adjust the way I speak and the words I use whenever I’m with Americans or other foreign native-English speakers.

Finally, I can’t participate in any conversation a typical native might have. If you start talking soccer (or any sport, for that matter), which I don’t follow, you’ll lose me quickly. Many guys can talk sports for hours, but I’m just not that interested, so I can’t join in. If you start talking about nice fashionable clothes, which many native English-speaking women can do fine, I’m a dunce and can’t contribute. I almost never watch TV in English anymore, so if you start talking about the latest show everyone is crazy for, I’m going to be able to offer nothing more than defeated shrugs.

These aren’t necessarily complex conversations, and they are conversations many typical natives with no specialization or advanced studies can participate in, but I can’t because I’m not either interested in or familiar with the topics.

So if you had these criteria for fluency in the past, discard them immediately, because this is effectively saying that you have to be able to do in your target language what you can’t even do in your native language, which is a totally unfair and unrealistic standard to set for yourself.

What Fluency Is

Let’s look at a more formal definition, from the Oxford English Dictionary:

fluent adjective: (of a person) able to express oneself easily and articulately; able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately; (of a foreign language) spoken accurately and with facility.

I don’t see any implication here that you have to pass yourself off as a native speaker or never make mistakes. Speaking a language accurately and with facility is precisely what I have in mind when I aim for fluency.

However, this is not something you will ever get a consensus on. There is no absolute, discernible point you pass when you can say, “Now I speak the language fluently.” It’s like the idea of beauty, in that way. You can have more of it, but there is no threshold you finally cross that signals you’ve arrived. It’s all relative.

This is a problem if we want something distinct to aim for, though. And even if we each came up with a personal understanding of what feels accurate or good enough, because we are all filled with bias, confidence issues, unrealistic expectations, and elitist standards, as well as definitions of the word fluent that might be way too flexible, I don’t think such vague understandings are useful for a mission with a specific target.

The CEFRL System

With such conflicting ideas about what constitutes fluency, the system I rely on is a much more scientific and well-established language threshold criterion used by the major bodies that examine language levels in Europe. Foundations like the Alliance Française, the Instituto Cervantes, and the Goethe-Institut all use the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFRL), a comprehensive guideline of language evaluation.

This system uses standard terminology, accepted across Europe (and used by many institutions for Asian languages, even if not adopted by those countries formally), for specific language levels. In the terminology, basically A means beginner, B means intermediate, and C means advanced. Each level is then split into lower 1 and upper 2. So upper beginner level is A2, and lower advanced level would be C1. The six levels on this scale, from the simplest to the most complex, are A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2.

On this scale, an A level is what I would generally call a functional tourist: good enough to get by for basic necessities, or a beginner in various stages. C level implies mastery: you can work in the language exactly as you would in your native tongue and are effectively as good as a native in all ways, though you may still have an accent.

In my mind, fluency starts at level B2 and includes all levels above it (C1 and C2). More specifically, a person who reaches the B2 level on the CEFRL scale, relevant to the conversational aspect, is defined as someone who

can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.

This means that, for a solid fluency goal, you should aim to participate in regular conversations without strain for either you or the people you are speaking with. That’s regular conversations, not debates on sixteenth-century French politics.

For me, B2 fluency—at least in a conversational, social context—implies that I can live my life in this language exactly as I would in English. I can go to any social event that I would typically go to in English and chat with natives without having them slow down for my benefit. I can discuss anything I would in English at a casual event, and natives can generally talk to me as they would with another native speaker.

What it doesn’t imply is also very important to consider. Hesitations are okay, and accents are fine. (In fact, you can earn a C2 diploma with an accent, as long as it doesn’t hinder communication.) Also fine at the B2 level is the inability to discuss some very complex topics.

Realizing your limitations is essential, because aiming for perfection is a fool’s errand. You need to be realistic, but you can also aim for the milestone on your path of maybe someday “mastering” a language. There is never an end point at which you can say your work in learning the language is done. Even in my native language of English I still encounter new words and aspects of other dialects I didn’t know before. Learning a language can be a lifelong adventure, but the point is that you can reach certain stages within finite times when you have those stages well defined.

Even if you don’t agree with my specific definition of fluency, make sure your definition is as clear as possible and includes specifics of what it is not.

How Much Time Do You Need to Reach Fluency?

Now, as you read previously, you can have a particular milestone in mind to aim for—advanced beginner (A2), conversational (B1), fluent (B2), mastery (C2), or others—but here comes the big question: How long does it take to get there?

This book, of course, suggests that you can become fluent in three months, but fluency won’t be achieved if you don’t do the work! You have to live up to your side of the bargain—you have to put in the time and stick to the plan. Also, the process requires a lot of strategic mental and emotional adjustments. It’s very hard, for example, to realistically become fluent in three months if this is your first-ever language learning project.

Generally, I would recommend you aim for conversational (level B1 on the CEFRL scale) or advanced beginner (level A2) in three months. In the process, you’ll discover tweaks you’ll need to make to your learning approach in order for it to work best for you. If you succeed in learning one language to fluency over a longer period, then your approach may be ready for you to use in a shorter—say, three-month—period of time on your next language.

An intensive language learning project demands your absolute focus. But if you’re serious about learning a particular language, you will always make the time and give it several hours a day, even if you work full-time.

Ultimately, languages are learned in hours, not months or years. It’s not about the amount of time that passes from the moment you begin the project, but the amount of time you put into it. Whether or not your process adds up to a huge number of hours, the only thing worth counting is the time when you are 100 percent focused on learning, living, and using the language. To realistically expect to make good progress in a language in a short amount of time, you have to put at least two hours a day into it, and ideally more. As mentioned in the previous chapter, you can always make the time, even if it’s a few minutes a day, to advance. But you have to set aside much more than scattered study sessions if you want to advance quickly. Do what it takes to create this time, avoid other side projects, and fill your language learning slot every day. If you put just a few hours a week into it, fluency in three months is indeed impossible.

There’s no magic fluency number either. You can’t multiply eight hours (the number of hours a day you would theoretically have available if you could work on the language full-time) by ninety days to figure out how long it will take you to learn a new language. You simply have to put in as much work as you can, as intensively as you can, with as much emphasis on solving immediate language problems as you possibly can in order to progress. If you do, you will quickly see how much time is necessary for you to advance to a higher level.

So why am I so crazy about three months? The answer is incredibly simple: that’s all the time I’ve had during many of my projects. When I would go to a new country to learn the language, the visa limit for tourists was about three months. Fortunately for me, that’s the amount of time I usually liked to spend in a foreign country before moving on to a new one. So I had only three months to reach my deadline. It’s as simple as that.

Even though I no longer go to a country to learn a language, and I now prefer to learn in advance of traveling abroad, I have found that three months is as good a time line as any. It’s long enough to realistically aim for a high fluency goal but short enough that the goal is always within sight, that three-month deadline pressuring you to work harder.

When we make a resolution—such as a New Year’s resolution—with a vague deadline of learning a language within a year, or to speak it fluently “someday,” even the best of us can get lazy. There are seven days in a week, and “someday” is not one of them.

When you give yourself a short deadline, rather than thinking you have plenty of time, you tend to work as efficiently as possible. Deadlines of one, three, or six months are excellent for this reason. Even if you’re more interested in a year deadline, break that year into smaller achievable chunks.

You don’t have to pick three months for your major end goal; I’ve also had missions of “conversational in one to two months” and “get by as a confident tourist in a few weeks,” but my successes have more often been with a three-month time line.

If three months feels right to you, focus on one project and have an adventurous end goal. You don’t have to pick fluency, but look at that CEFRL table (fi3m.com/cefrl) and see which level would be enough of a challenge to truly push you but still be realistic, given the time you can put in.

Various Grades of Success

Remember that language is a means to communicate. The only way you can fail is if you don’t try to communicate at all. And the only way you can fail in your language learning mission is if you are at exactly the same point at the end of your first mission as you were at the start.

I’ve missed my goals plenty of times. When I moved to Taiwan, for instance, I aimed for fluency in Mandarin in three months, but I didn’t reach it. Was my Mandarin, and the entire project, therefore a waste of time? No. I actually reached B1 (conversational, which was checked independently by the Live the Language [LTL] Mandarin School in Beijing). As long as a person spoke slowly to me or rephrased what he or she had said, I could socialize. I wasn’t fluent, but I was conversant. And I was really proud of this. Thanks to that intensive project, I can continue to speak Mandarin for the rest of my life, and I have a fantastic new place to start from as I strive toward fluency and beyond.

With language learning there is no true failure if you can communicate with other human beings. However, you should always strive for the highest grade of possible success. If you can “only” speak conversationally, rather than fluently, after your intensive three months, you have still successfully learned how to communicate with another person in a new language, which will inspire you to take your language skills to the next level.

However, be careful not to use the “even small successes count” perspective as a crutch to rationalize slacking off. Be sure to push yourself outside your comfort zone. If the goal you’ve set for yourself has a 100 percent chance of success, then frankly you aren’t aiming high enough.

Mini-Missions

Mini-missions, as I like to call them, take on the absolute biggest specific problem you may have at a particular moment with a language and help you focus on solving that problem as quickly as possible.

For instance, when I started studying Mandarin there were, of course, many things to learn, and I found that when I tried to use phrases from my phrase book, people didn’t understand me. My tones were way off. Because of this, my mini-mission—my absolute priority—was to focus on getting my tones right. I focused only on tones, not on vocabulary or reading Chinese script or any number of other things—just tones. I didn’t “solve” this problem in my first week, but I did become easier to understand when I spoke. Once my tones were in good enough shape, I was ready to tackle basic vocabulary.

By week two, my biggest problem was that I relied too much on my phrase book. I needed to work on saying things spontaneously, from memory. So I tackled this issue as a mini-mission, and soon enough I was able to speak several phrases from memory, and I continued with this pattern of setting mini-missions for myself throughout the project.

These mini-missions give you a very real—and earned—feeling of accomplishment and progress. They are specific plans of action that fit your particular language needs precisely and help you deal right away with your most immediate challenges. This helps you focus on each challenge until you conquer it, while also helping you make huge strides toward the bigger goal a few months down the road. As an example, rather than assigning myself a vague weeklong mission to learn Mandarin vocabulary, I made sure I processed sixty flash cards a day with the specific intention of learning how to order food while traveling freely around a new country.

At the end of my first month learning Mandarin, I felt I had reached something of a plateau. I could have basic touristy exchanges from memory and with passable tones, but these exchanges lasted only ten to fifteen seconds. I couldn’t have an actual conversation. So I gave myself a brain-melting mini-mission. As the name implies, brain-melting forces you to think fast, try to extrapolate what you’re hearing, and remember vocabulary, all while processing the context for clues. During the week following that first month, I scheduled time to sit down with native speakers for hour-long conversations.

What a week! But at the end of it, I had practiced so much that I could hold a conversation for several minutes. These weren’t complex conversations—I mostly described what I did that day—but this is exactly the point of a mini-mission. I had successfully forced myself outside my comfort zone and, in the process, figured out how to talk for several minutes and understand a native speaker’s questions beyond my limited range. Plus, since I had only one goal and one mini-mission, it was a lot easier to tailor my work specifically to make this happen.

I remember when I was beginning to learn a little Hungarian, and I received my first phone call in that language. I couldn’t rely on visual cues, as I tend to do in the early stages, and the call quality wasn’t all that great. I had to think fast and attempt to get information out of the caller. After that very short one- to two-minute call, I felt exhausted. I could almost feel my brain being pushed into overdrive. Since then, I’ve added phone or Skype calls to my mini-mission itineraries.

Through brain-melting mini-missions like these, you can push on to a new language level. If you don’t try several brain-melting sessions throughout your project, then you’re simply not pushing yourself hard enough. Learning a new language should certainly be fun and enjoyable, but pushing through the frustrating parts determines whether or not you’ll reach the next level. You have to move out of your comfort zone. And the mini-missions are designed to do just that.

Focus on your biggest issue and tackle it. It will be hard (that’s why it’s your biggest issue!) but get through it, go headfirst into frustration, and, like tearing off a bandage, you will come out on the other side happy that you got it over with quickly.

Burnout

For those of you taking on this project full-time, there’s a catch. If your entire project is made up of brain-melting moments, you can burn out incredibly quickly. Unfortunately, burnout is one of the biggest reasons people give up on learning a language entirely.

At first, I thought three full months of focused learning would be the ideal amount of time to reach my target, without any breaks at all to speak English. What I eventually figured out, though, was that I could only keep up this kind of active, intense learning for about three weeks. After three weeks, I couldn’t retain anything else for about a week. I reached a saturation point. If you have greater endurance than little old me, then perhaps you can keep on going, but I think most people realistically reach a burnout point.

Absolute full-time immersion and pushing yourself as much as I suggest require you also take breaks. Since discovering this, I have found that working full-time all week on a language, then giving myself one evening off each week to socialize in another language, helps me recharge my batteries and, ultimately, work the most effectively.

Once a month I would also take an entire weekend off the language project and hang out with other foreigners like myself, go for a swim, dance for a few hours—anything not related to the language I was learning. I got great mileage out of this while doing my Arabic learning project in Brazil, as well as my most recent one, to learn Japanese in Spain.

Breaks like this are also an effective psychological tool. I had weekly goals and then “rewarded” myself with a break just after (hopefully) reaching those goals, and I gave myself much longer breaks after achieving any much larger monthly objectives. Breaks are essential during a full-time immersion project. Use them to recharge your batteries and as motivation to work harder to reach a specific milestone.

Frustrating moments are inevitable. To keep them to a minimum, try to have fun with your language every day. Assign yourself language tasks that you actually look forward to. Reward yourself after studying several dozen flash cards, for instance, by watching a few minutes of a silly soap opera in the language you’re studying or reading a comic book in that same language. When it doesn’t feel like work, you can accomplish so much more.

Plan of Action

Discipline is choosing between what you want now and what you want most.

All the best ideas in the world are worth nothing if they aren’t implemented. That’s why you absolutely need to have a plan of action. Before you get started on your project, be sure to keep these points in mind:

Decide precisely what you are aiming for. Have a look at a more detailed explanation of the various levels of the CEFRL system at fi3m.com/cefrl and decide which would be slightly higher than a safe target for you, so you really push yourself. Pay careful attention to both what is required and what is not required at that level.

Set aside a specific period, whether it is one, three, or six months, and make sure your language learning project is your highest priority during this time.

During your intensive learning project, make sure to focus on the biggest issue you have and try to solve it, or greatly reduce it, with mini-missions rather than going through a generic course, which may not be well suited to the precise point you are aiming for.

If you do take on this project full-time, make sure to take breaks so you don’t burn yourself out.

Announce your mission to the world, which establishes a chain of accountability since your friends and family will then be aware of your goals and can follow along with your progress. You can do this with Facebook status updates, a blog, or your own log on the Fluent in 3 Months forum at fi3m.com/forum.

With all obstacles cleared, and a good plan of action for where you aim to be throughout your language learning project, it’s time to start looking at the tools that will allow you to accomplish this project. The first one is the memory to absorb all that new vocabulary!

For more thoughts on language missions and other topics relevant to this chapter, check out fi3m.com/ch–2.

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