Another throwback, this time from 2017. This was the first chapter of an abandoned book project on learning languages, before I realized I didn't really have much new to say about the actual mechanics of learning languages. Though I do still quite like the "theory" I talk about, and do plan to explore these ideas more in future writing. It will not be a "how-to" guide like this was, though.
This abandoned book is quite long, however, so it'll be coming in multiple parts...
When I was a kid, learning languages never really seemed to be for me. It was an intriguing idea, sure, and I always loved movies or stories where the hero was fluent in multiple languages and could switch naturally and easily between them to get done whatever it is heroes need to get done. But that seemed to be a world apart from who I was or what I could do. I remember I had neighbors who were Mexican immigrants for a couple years. They were the only foreigners I ever knew for a long time, as after that we moved to the boondocks, first in Georgia and later in Oklahoma. Like many Americans, I took Spanish all through school. I got good grades in it, like I did in all the rest of my classes, being the model student I was. But it was simply another academic subject, far removed from my life and what I cared about.
When I was 18 I was off to the University of Oklahoma (OU). Surprisingly, there were quite a few foreign exchange students at the University. Hats off to President David Boren for making study abroad exchanges a priority under his tenure. Still, I didn't particularly seek out the foreign students as I didn’t really feel the need to, and there were none in any of the classes for my small and insular physics degree program. The few I did happen across a few during extracurriculars during my first two years of study. I had taken two Spanish classes at a local community college during my last year of high school, and my engineering degree only required up to a third level of foreign language. Or maybe it only required two and only one of the courses transferred. Or maybe I was genuinely interested in learning the language and took the third level Spanish class at OU even though I didn’t have to. I do distinctly recall sitting at my desk in my room Freshman year and contemplating what it would be like to speak Spanish fluently. To be honest, it was really the challenge of it that attracted me: doing something I hadn't done before, proving to myself I could learn a foreign language well. Having never been outside of the United States, I had no idea of foreign cultures or what learning using a new language in real life would look like. Even in my relative ignorance I recognized that learning a language well presupposed traveling, lest there wasn’t much reason to learn it in the first place. Certainly I was fascinated by the general idea of travel, but not so much so to go out of my way to make it a priority. I didn't have a map with countries marked that I wanted to travel to or pins stuck in it or anything terribly cliché. Traveling abroad was a vague concept for me. Turns out, using a new language abroad involves a lot of what we already do in our native language and culture- go figure- but with a distinct impression of being a kid again and spending a long time feeling unable to adequately express yourself. When embraced, being a foreigner can be an incredibly liberating experience: you have an excuse to commit gaffes and make mistakes and you have few expectations placed on you.
Unfortunately I also remember feeling profoundly disillusioned by my Spanish course at the University of Oklahoma. It was more of the same, and despite my good grades, if I heard a native speaker use Spanish outside of the course, I could barely even recognize it as Spanish. The endless succession of courses didn’t seem to translate to results in any meaningful sense despite my academic “success”, and it seemed pointless to continue.
Two things conspired to change this, and the course of my life in general:
This book is for the many people I've met since I've begun my journey that have expressed the desire to learn a language but feel they're not "good at learning languages.” The first thing I always say is the fact that you're reading this in English, and probably communicate in English on a daily basis, means you are "good at learning languages". Certainly good enough to learn a new language! This book is also for those who have begun learning a new language but, like me, have been frustrated by their lack of progress in traditional methods, whether textbook- or software-based.
More than that, though, this is the guide I wish I'd had to learning languages, rather than wasting my time in Spanish classes for eight years of my life before stumbling across and piecing together resources online. This is a guide to unlocking your latent capacity as a Language Natural and rekindling your ability to trust yourself to course correct towards what is important to you. It is also a call to see the process of learning another language for what it is: an adventure, that, should you pursue it, will leave you a new person on the other side.
A few overall thoughts on this book before I go into more detail about what the Natural Method is. What I'm calling the Natural Method is not original. I call it this to give this growing movement a name because the chief insight anyone gains from applying it is realizing that we are all naturals at learning languages. Ultimately I learned from others who began exploring these ideas years before me, some of whom I’ve already mentioned. I encourage you to learn from them as well. See Appendix A for a complete list of recommended resources.
I do think I provide a unique perspective and set of experiences, and I've tried to distill these and make this book as simple and easy to follow and use as possible. My goal was that someone completely new to language learning could read this book and know what to do at each step of their journey, and come away feeling motivated and inspired. It is laid out in steps, but it is more about first principles and how to apply them successfully. I wouldn't call it step-by-step; I'd call it make- your-own-adventure. Ultimately I can’t write a step-by-step guide, nor am I interested in doing so, because your precise course comes down to who you are and what you are interested in.
For simplicity's sake, I will refer to the language you are learning as your adopted language or more simply your language. And ultimately that's what your goal is in learning the language to fluency- to make it "yours", to stake your claim to an identity in it despite not having been born speaking it. But then, who is born speaking a language? Something to reflect on.
I’ll also often use the word beauty. You might wonder why I bring this up in relation to learning languages. We're taught by our society to think of beauty only in terms of postcard-like natural scenes and hot women. For me, beauty is what we are experiencing whenever we feel an awe-inspiring and humbling sense of majesty, curiosity, and wonder. We have an innate desire to move towards beauty. There is even a theory that our sense of beauty evolved to help us survive as a species, if that helps convince you at all. The feelings a sense of beauty inspires should be the clarion calls to explore and engage what is new in our lives. Accordingly, disengagement and sterility tell us what not to explore, as the smell of rotting food naturally repulses us from consuming it. Getting back in touch with our ability to not only tell the difference between the two extremes and to trust ourselves to act in accordance with them is the fight of our lives.
The Natural Method: a Philosophic Introduction
Here’s a question to consider. If we memorize the grammar of a language, the verb conjugations, and the common vocabulary, why are we not fluent? Why can we not understand native speakers of the language? And what's really the only difference between a native speaker of your adopted language and you? When you get down to it, the answer is the same to all these questions. They have made habits, unconsciously and consciously, of being and doing in their language. They have formed an identity in their language. And to boot, they had quite a few years of head start by virtue of being born in that country!
In short, the Natural Method is about arranging your life in such a way that you can't help but learn the language. Just like when you were a kid and soaked up your language, a largely subconscious process driven by a human being's natural curiosity to understand the world around him and interact with it, it is about doing things that you find meaning in, or that you find enjoyable. If we do that, a strange thing happens. The fact that we’re doing them in a foreign language stops mattering after a few weeks or months. Like watching a new sport until the rules start to click, we gradually download the patterns of the language until the output just starts coming out. Output is a function of input.
For example, when I read Le Comte de Monte-Cristo in the original French, for hours after I put it down each time my internal monologue was in French. This was about a year after I’d begun learning the language, and as you’ll see, I hadn’t even been immersing myself very effectively, often going days without any French. The immersion doesn’t have to be perfect, just persistent, and the input eventually adds up.
The entire method revolves around exposure to the language. The more we are exposed, the faster we grow in our adopted language in the same way we all did when we were learning our native language. In doing so, we start to think of the process as a conscious effort of becoming a speaker of that language. Eventually it becomes a natural extension of who we are. At the point at which that language is irrevocably a part of our lives, we are almost certainly either fluent or well on our way to becoming fluent. Recognizing language learning for what it is, identity creation in a new language, and embracing that is a crucial mindset to learning the language. It is not a mere mental affirmation but an experiential quality and observable, objective pattern of your life. Any belief stays at the level of mental abstraction until we anchor it with affirming experiences. Only then does it sink down into our bodies and truly become a part of us. No one will engineer those experiences for us, requiring our action and our initiative.
The key, then, is to form habits in that language that, once locked in, expose us to the language on a regular basis, ideally daily or hourly. The degree to which we are willing to immerse ourselves is the degree to which we form our new language self. As Plato said, "We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” Our habits are who we are. Citizenship aside, I’m an English-speaking American because I have lived in (i.e. made a habit of) being exposed to and living in the language over the past twenty-five years. I had to in order to be able to interact with what was around me. Our goal as language learners is to do, repeatedly, in our new language so much that we become it over time.
Learning our language means, like a native speaker, building habits in that language. New habits mean an identity in that language and accompanying culture. The only way to do this- form habits that will literally reshape who we are, into a bilingual being, with an identity straddling both languages- is to find and do things in that language that we find intrinsically meaningful, interesting, or fun. Without this, the habits will never stick. Mass market language-learning products can never satisfy these criteria because they have to try to please everybody, despite how different our individual tastes and inclinations are. The only way to build habits that can stick is to take charge of your own language learning journey, as this guidebook describes. Applying the Natural Method should rarely feel like work or study. After all, do you work to watch your favorite TV show, or listen to music you like, or read a good novel or comic book?
Ultimately, as with anything, the means are the ends. That is, we cannot wait to do the things we are learning the language to be able to do in the first place. Our objectives for assimilating a language are by necessity the very things we will use to learn it. If we don't love the language and don't do the things we love in that language, we'll never let ourselves become it. If we try and learn a language we dislike, or do things in the language that we dislike, the feelings of sterility and revulsion it evokes in us will make the enterprise a fruitless one.
In learning the patterns of what we do, in any domain of life, we pick up and integrate its accompanying culture, changing ourselves in the process. Human beings are naturally pattern-seeking creatures. Practically, we've acquired a database of patterns that allows us to make snap decisions, plans, diagnoses, or creations that are startlingly accurate. Malcolm Gladwell has a great book, called Blink, that explores this phenomenon in more detail. He doesn’t talk about the incredible phenomenon of language acquisition, including native language acquisition, but he very well could, as the same principles apply: exposure to a database of patterns (the dialect(s) in question) until we’re able compare new input to our experience to come up with a snap decision on how to respond that is close enough for us to work with. Ever notice how often you’re not sure what you’re going to say, but you start talking, and you eventually get your point across, albeit in a serpentine fashion? We never know exactly what we’re going to say until we say it, but we’re able to assemble an intelligible point and engage in meaningful conversation in a rather spontaneous fashion, about an incredible variety of topics, and on a constant basis. These basic language patterns truly run deep in us, from decades of constant exposure.
Any time we do something enough to become an expert, deep changes are obligatory simply because we've invested so much time in mastering that field and carving those patterns into our being. These patterns cannot be isolated from the context within which they exist- what we call culture. I couldn’t learn American English without also absorbing American culture. If you're an engineer, for example, and you spend fifteen years designing and building bridges, chances are when you start a project for a new bridge you have a pretty damn good idea of what it will need to look like, how it'll need to be designed, and what old design you have you could modify for the purposes. You've also probably spent so much time engineering bridges, your personality is probably recognizably one of an engineer. You spend a significant portion of your life thinking and doing in a certain way with other people who are like you. As people get older, they tend to become their profession. I read recently an opinion piece on workplace diversity. It pointed out that a philosophy professor in Peru is more like a philosophy professor in New York than like a shopkeeper or pauper in Peru. The patterns of university and academic life wear deeper grooves into their being than just happening to be from the same country. Naturally, we'll see this with learning a language to fluency as well. Anything that takes years of sustained activity will so change us in this way.
Another way to think about it is that language and culture are closely intertwined, if not inseparable, because what two speakers of the same language talk about, the content of the language, is culture. It's what they think about, care about, complain about, the values they base their decisions on, their ideals, their thought processes. And to become fluent, the learner has to be exposed to a lot of native-level content and communication, whether from media or from flesh-and-blood interactions. Learning a language then entails absorbing a great deal of the culture of those who speak the language natively. And a sense of shared culture is probably a big part of the belonging and community we naturally seek. I suppose it is possible to make yourself miserable for years by forcing yourself to learn a language and accompanying culture you hate, and to always use it dispassionately and disdainfully, but my guess is the thought of that is about as unappealing as your next visit to the dentist.
However, what makes language unlike traditional fields of study is that language is the very medium through which we understand and interact with the world and others. If I'm a bridge-building engineer, we can think about my various bridge-building abilities as computer applications. Each “application” allows me to do, create, or interact in some novel way. But my language is the operating system I’m running all these programs in. Learning a new language to fluency is in my mind equivalent to installing a parallel operating system in your brain, and accordingly has a much greater impact on how the computer works than installing a new suite of programs. So fundamental is our native operating system that it necessarily forms the core of our identity as people. Just think of how vehemently many Mac users identity with their choice of operating system!
To me, language-learning-as-identity-creation explains why so many people have problems learning another language to fluency. Most of us are not willing to loosen their ego attachment to the identity they have of themselves as a speaker of their native language and a member of their native culture. Before they can fill their cup with something new, it must first be emptied. That means renouncing one’s native language for a period of time so that the patterns of the new language can be carved into place. Learning a language is therefore an exercise in release, in letting go, in accepting what comes with a new language and allowing that to shape you.
To continue the operating system metaphor, just like a die-hard Apple fan would never dream of running Windows, an ego-attached language learner will never let themselves learn another language to fluency because their identity is too tied up in the use of their native language and its associated culture. We tend to think that if we lose that one identity then we are lost, floating adrift through life with no connection to it. That is not the case, and letting go of our attachment to our current identity creates the space for our identity to expand, increasing our capacity to connect with the world. Learning a language, while it requires a temporary renunciation of our native language identity, makes it possible to have a larger, more expansive identity spanning multiple languages. In fact, the idea of a single identity is an illusion, anyway. Think of all the ways you define yourself- are there not ways your definitions contradict themselves? I see us as a bundle of identity fragments we tie together as best we can with the narrative power of language, with our personal stories and myths we tell ourselves and others. Perhaps fragment implies a sense of brokenness, and that is accurate to me. If we weren’t somewhat broken, we wouldn’t be human. That very brokenness is what allows us to connect with each other. If you dislike the connotations of the word fragment, feel free to think of it as simply being more faceted.
As a simple example of what this expansiveness can look like, I recall reading an article by a blogger with the self-styled moniker Benny the Irish Polyglot. He runs a website called Fluent in Three Months. In this article, Benny mentions how hard it was to be able to practice Arabic in Egypt. Every time he interacted with an Egyptian, they knew he was foreign and tried to speak to him in English. Frustrated, Benny finally devised a course of action. He sat down with a notebook and pen and just watched how Egyptian men acted, dressed, gesticulated, spoke, inflected. And he mimicked them as much as possible. He ditched his hat and let his beard grow out a bit, for example. He matched their body language and hand gestures. He began inflecting his voice like them.
Suddenly, the Egyptians stopped responding in English, and Benny began having conversations in Arabic. In short, he was willing to suspend what other people might describe as his essential “Benny-ness” in order to develop a new identity fragment, an Arabic-speaking Egyptian identity. But first, the old identity fragment had to be (temporarily, at least) renounced. If we are, as Socrates said, what we repeatedly do, then we must act Egyptian before we can become Egyptian (or assume any identity, really). And learning Egyptian Arabic fluently means becoming Egyptian. Being born in Egypt to Egyptian parents makes you legally an Egyptian, sure. But culturally, Egyptians are Egyptians because they are steeped in Egyptian culture via the Arabic language- in conversations, print, television, radio, music, movies- every day of their lives. They are what they repeatedly do- Arabic-speaking Egyptians. You can't have one without the other, an Egyptian without the Arabic or the Arabic without an Arabic-speaking culture. A language without context, without culture, is dead, as with Latin, Ancient Greek, and even the well-intentioned Esperanto. Language cannot exist without a living culture as human consciousness cannot without a living, healthy body.
Once the native identity is renounced, a new one can be formed- through sustained, repeated action. Make no mistake, learning a language means acquiring a new identity. Anything involving major habit changes does. A simplistic, but fairly accurate, way to assess who someone is to look at their habits. Think about what you repeatedly do- is that not what most readily defines you as a person? Combine this with the fact that language is the very filter through which we understand the world and connect with others. Learning a new language to fluency is bound to be a profound experience, as you're adding a new filter to yourself, a new operating system for your mind, a new way of interacting with the world and with those in it. Acquiring a new language to fluency is surely one of the most fundamentally mysterious, human, and profound experiences we can undertake. It is an adventure both into ourselves and who we are and into the greater world. What a fantastic tool to open ourselves- to new places, new people, new relationships, new ideas, new universes! Such an opening into the unknown can only be described as adventurous.
Ultimately, the amount of people I know who are truly fluent in a consciously-acquired language is quite small. (By “consciously-acquired” I mean they had a choice in the matter, and were not raised bilingually.) One reason why this is so rare to see is because of misinformation and myth, which I hope this book will help dispel in its small way. The other reason I see is that learning a language to fluency is a long journey outside of ourselves and our comfort zone. Even with the right map across the uncharted seas, few want to go the distance. But security is an illusion and we all die anyway, so we might as well make it an adventure.
The Natural Method is a reconnection with our innate language learning ability. Just as there was no "work" or "studying" for us to learn our native tongue, there is little work required to acquire a language with the Natural Method. The work that is required consists of forming new habits, in the language we wish to acquire. It does take time- just as learning our first language did. Probably less than it took us to learn our native tongue, however. With the right habits, a new language can be acquired to a satisfactory level of fluency in anywhere from a year to two years. The exact time depends on how vigorously the method is applied, that is, how strong the habits are formed, and what your fluency goal is with the language. My experience lies with European languages, particularly Romance languages, but I know plenty of people, both personally and through their work on the internet, that have used the principles described in this book to learn Asian languages as well, some of whom inspired my own journey into this topic. My point is it's certainly not limited to European languages. I say I describe these principles, I certainly don't claim to have invented or discovered them. I name it the Natural Method because I'd like to be able to call it something, not because I stake any personal claim to it. In fact, all of us know this "method" intuitively when we are born- but we are taught to forget. Learning and growth so often is stripping away, and that certainly applies to learning languages in an effective manner.
Let me reiterate this point: there is no studying in the traditional sense, no classes, no memorizing vocabulary or grammar rules that were never meant to be prescriptive anyway. At least not at first. There will be room for a small amount of studying later in the process, which we will get to. Again, it depends on your goals, personality, and application of the method. The counterintuitive part is learning to study less and ignore the insatiable academic taskmaster we’ve internalized over the years.
Instead, this method is the natural process of internalizing the patterns of the language. Regardless of any natural hardwiring we may have that predisposes us towards acquiring and using language, humans are natural pattern-recognizing creatures, and given enough exposure to a set of internally-consistent rules (like a language), we pick up on them. Just as an engineer might internalize patterns that enable him to "guesstimate" a new bridge or building quickly and rather accurately, we begin to understand a language when given enough exposure to it without ever needing to have picked up a textbook or grammar book. All it requires is a choice freely made, access to native level materials, and a faith in the human capacity to learn and course correct. The truth is that we have everything we need inside us already and that we are enough as is. We need only learn to listen to ourselves, the most natural thing in the world, and currently one of the hardest to do. We can then begin, following the call of discovery, beauty, adventure, to extraordinary situations that act upon us and change us, in this case, into an "adopted" speaker of our new language.
Let me use myself as an example to illustrate the life cycle of a language natural. I am learning French, so I need to create a French self. What do I do all the time for fun anyway, habits that are currently American but could be French? A monolingual French person wouldn't surf the web in English, they'd look for French content websites they could read. They would have their computer and internet accounts set to French. They would find French videos and music on Youtube. In a way, it's the old fake-it-till-you-make-it advice, just dressed up a bit. I’m faking my way to French-ness until it becomes true. Because right now, it’s not. It’s too easy for me to indulge my English-speaking self. Being French requires daily grooming. After enough time greasing the grooves, deepening my French habits, and forming my French self through life experiences, I get naturally interested in using it to create, to interact, to read and write, to discourse and bullshit. This is where I’m really carving out my authenticity as a French person and deepening my ability to lay claim to the French language. Each difficult conversation, each eureka moment, each relationship furthered in the language is an experience that further shapes my French self, until it is so well developed it seems to take on a life of its own. From my experience with Spanish, I know that I could easily move to a French-speaking country at this point and build a new life there, in that language, and it would seem like a natural thing to do. Eventually, my French self will be so real and alive I’ll have the sense that my old American-English self is wilting. Perhaps I’ll experience something of an identity crisis. At that point I’ll need to reconcile these two competing identities and somehow incorporate my French identity into my broader identity as a person, expanding myself in the process. Remember, language learning is not a process of identity replacement, but rather identity expansion. Once I do this, the cycle of growth and renewal is complete, a full swing of the seasons. To be replaced by a new cycle in life. Whether that be further language-fueled chicanery or not, forward the energy flows, or else I stagnate and decay.
For those of you who don't know, this is The Hero's Journey, or the monomyth, created by Joseph Campbell. All human narrative is a variation on this story, which itself is just a metaphor for the universal human experience of personal invention and reinvention. I find it to be a powerful paradigm when applied to the profound personal changes that arise from making a new language your own, because the process requires a conscious effort at identity creation and a sense of adventure to try one’s hand at living or traveling abroad. In fact, you might say that not only is learning a language an adventure in and of itself, it’s also vastly expanding your capacity to bring future adventure into your life by opening up whole new worlds to you.
The Call to Adventure is what you need to undertake your new adventure, and how to develop the habits that will form a new you in your adopted language. Ultimately this is what this book is about, and about as far as I can take you: applying the method to the point where you cross the threshold past the point of no return and the language is irrevocably a part of your life. You've committed to some deeply formative period of trials and tribulations that will shape you into the person who can win the treasure to bring back to society after slaying the dragon or ogre, really just symbolic of your old self that no longer fits. That means shifting your external reality to be in line with your internal reality by acting on the reason you're learning the language in the first place: living abroad, with all the perils (mostly harmless, sometimes more interesting) that implies. With their treasure firmly in hand, the hero returns home to share their treasure with the world. In other words, what's next? Where do we go after the soul-forming experiences we've had in our new language, as our new self, after years of formation? You've loosened your grip on your identity in your native language to build an identity and ego in a new one. We now have to integrate that back into the whole, expanding ourselves in the process.
In a way this requires that we fall back in love with our native tongue. Never did I love English so much as when I came back from Spain, digested the experience, and began my next, long journey towards polyglottery! Such is life, however. We must leave to be able to come back. And hell, there are perks in the meantime. When I came back from Spain, I was recruited to be the interpreter for a mission trip to the Dominican Republic. I had to work around the clock as the sole interpreter for a group of fifteen in addition to helping out with the medical and dental clinics they organized, but I loved the experience, and at the same time my entire trip was subsidized by the church I was volunteering for. Not a bad deal! And let me tell you, I’ve made it a point to improve my dental hygiene since then. Anyway, let’s explore what this means practically about your journey and what we’ll be covering in this book.
It's time to dive into the particulars of what the method entails and how we'll proceed. I assume you're reading this book because you're already interested in learning a language and are at least intrigued and open to the ideas contained herein. Still, it will be useful to cover details in the next two chapters on the motivations behind learning a language and how not to learn a language: Via negative part I and II. In that chapter I'll also cover briefly the foundation behind why the Natural Method works. For now I'll simply recommend the work of linguist Stephen Krashner. He is the name that seems to come up whenever this kind of language learning is mentioned. The big takeaway as I understand it is that we do not, as we've been misinformed, lose the natural language learning capacity we had as infants and children. Even if this ability does in fact degrade in some way (which is not at all clear from the evidence), as adults we have other advantages that allow us to learn a language to native-level fluency, should we desire, more quickly and effectively than little snotgoblins. Feel free to skip to the meaty stuff in later chapters if you want to, though, I won't mind.
In the fourth chapter I'll cover the first phase of applying the method. This chapter will help you choose a language, or confirm your choice if you're unsure. If you are dead-set on a language, first of all wonderful! The chapter will still help kickstart your application by giving you a useful framework from which to begin immersing yourself in your adopted language.
In the fifth chapter I'll provide a more structured set of rules and practices that will aid you in developing your foundational habits. This is truly the core of the method. These habits are the engine, what will reshape you into the person who can use your language, and propel you on a daily basis across the threshold, the point of no-return on your wild adventure. The question we'll ask ourselves is, What would we do or be doing if we already spoke our adopted language, if we were already a native-level speaker? In the sixth chapter, I'll get more specific on common topics like learning an alphabet, vocabulary, pronunciation, accent and the like, as well as incorporating a regular study process the right way.
In the seventh chapter I discuss how to cross the point of no return, such that your language becomes an integral part of who you are, as well as giving some tips for making the most of travel, work, and study opportunities abroad. The eighth chapter concludes with parting thoughts reflecting on the end of the journey and the necessary act of coming home.
For your reference, here are the five principles that underpin the method, which we'll be covering in detail in the later chapters. These are the first principles, the basic pattern language behind everything I talk about in this book. When in doubt, return to these. And as always, to quote George Orwell, "Break any of these rules sooner than say [or do] anything outright barbarous."
...sees much and knows much