Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.

—WInston Churchill

The assumption that many language learners make is that a polyglot (or a hyperpolyglot) has every aspect of language learning figured out.  Given our years of experience, we know exactly what to do at each and every stage of the learning process.

While, in general, that statement is mostly true, it all depends on the language. 

Learning Greek for the last five years hasn’t been an easy task and I would be remiss to claim that I’ve anticipated the challenges and difficulties in advance. My journey to becoming a language user, rather than a language learner in Greek, has led me down many unexpected paths. 

However, five years after picking up the Greek version of Assimil (and covering it in my chicken scratch notes), three major lessons have bubbled to the surface of my mind.  The following lessons have been the difference makers for me and my development in Greek. 

I’ve always believed that one never stops learning unless they deliberately choose to do so and learning a foreign language is a beautiful way to keep your mind as fresh as a daisy.  Well, at least it’ll feel fresh sometimes, other times it may feel completely overwhelmed by the amount of information it’s trying to process.  More on that later, for now, let’s dig into the three most important lessons I’ve learned about language learning from my escapade with Greek

1. The Power of Flexibility

No, I’m not referring to yoga or proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation, but rather keeping your approach, strategy and methods as flexible as possible when learning a new language. 

Every language you learn will have its own quirks, nuances and difficulties.  While a language like Spanish, for a native Italian speaker, will probably be relatively easier to learn, the same cannot be said for Greek.  In certain parts of Italy, you’ll hear the phrase “una faccia, una razza” (literally translating to “one face, one face”) as a reference to the common bond between Greeks, Italians and Spaniards.  While the sentiment is appreciated, it didn’t help me at all with the achilles heel of my Greek learning experience - pronunciation. 

My ego was having a nervous breakdown at the thought of a polyglot struggling to pronounce specific words and sounds in a new language.  

What are you, a language peasant!?  You sicken me, Luca Lame-pariello!

It sounds silly in retrospect, but my ego had gotten the best of me, expecting Greek to roll out the proverbial red carpet in my presence.  Far from it, I was walking down a seedy alley infested with rats and scatterings of garbage along my path. 

To put it in a less metaphorical manner, I was expecting to pick up Greek like I did any other language and that wasn’t the case. 

From convoluted polysyllabic words such as συνέντευξη (pronounced "si-ne-dev-ksi", try it yourself!) - which means “interview” to monosyllabic conjunctions such as “κι” or “και” (both mean “and” depending on context), Greek pronunciation turned out to be way trickier than I thought. 

It forced me to step out of my comfort zone for the first time in a long time.  Naturally, I was applying my Bidirectional Translation method in the early stages of learning the language, but in addition to that, I needed to spend an additional 5-10 minutes per day focusing on the pronunciation.  I would practice saying specific words (and sounds) out loud, making sure I was getting the sounds right from the get-go. 

This is obviously important when it comes to learning any language, but it also pays dividends when it comes to speaking as much like a native as possible down the road. 

The takeaway for you? 

If you’re learning a language with particularly challenging sounds, it’s important to identify which ones are causing your tongue to go haywire.  Once you’re aware of where the friction is coming from, it’s your responsibility to tackle that issue head on.  Don’t avoid it, don’t “circle back to it later,” address it immediately and move on once you’ve made significant progress.  

As the great Jim Kwik says:

“What you practice in private, you’re rewarded for in public.

It’s why I am praised by many for my authentic sounding accents when speaking in foreign languages. I deliberately practice that aspect of a language.  

And you should, too! 

Especially at the beginning, when you haven’t established any (bad) habits that may require a bit of correcting in the future.

Adjust your plans to attack your glaring weaknesses early and suffocate them with never ending resolve! 

2. Interact with Native Speakers

Apps, Artificial Intelligence and who-knows-what-else have changed the way we learn languages.  

While it’s easy to get lost in the maze of various options, there is one simple principle that absolutely remains at the core of learning a language.

You must interact with people in real life. 

To truly become proficient and fulfill the requirement of being “fluent,” you have to actively use your language with others.  Once you’ve hit a certain point (known as the intermediate plateau), it’s no longer about words and phrases. It’s all about how many experiences you have had with a foreign language. 

The associations you create on an emotional and psychological level from “living and breathing” the language cannot be compared with “hitting the books.”  You can only get so far living and dying by the guidance of ChatGPT or a random Tandem partner.  Even talking to the same tutor for a while has its shortcomings, because you’re limiting yourself to an experience that’s safe, comfortable and to some degree, predictable. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with sticking with your preferred italki tutor (affiliate) for years on end, but you can’t limit yourself to that one activity if you expect to become fluent. 

Learning a language is about interacting with others in unexpected ways.  Think about your native language and how it naturally expands through the everyday encounters you experience via going to the store, using public transportation, visiting a new neighborhood etc. 

Ask yourself this, would you feel confident going to the doctor in your target language? 

I know that for me, visiting a doctor in roughly 5 of my languages would be a disaster.  I might be going in trying to treat an indefatigable cough and coming out with a metallic hip! 

Ok, that might be an extreme example, but the point I’m making is that it takes deliberate practice of your target language in real time situations to “fast forward” towards fluency.  Even though I had been studying Greek for nearly five years, I still wasn’t completely confident in using it (in the famous words of Shakira) whenever, wherever. 

In fact, until last year, when I visited Crete and Athens, I kept having particularly negative conversations with myself.

What are you going to do if your mind goes blank when talking to someone? You’re over the hill, you’ve lost your golden touch for learning languages!

You think you can understand native Greek speakers from both Athens and Crete? HAH! Tell me another joke so that I can laugh like I never have before, you fool. 

Yes, even if I learned so many languages, I still struggle with the deluge of doubts when it comes to using a language. Contrary to my concerns, when I engaged in conversation with the locals in Crete and Athens, my doubts dissipated and that fear I had felt slowly melted away.  Every experience I had using the language empowered me with a little bit more confidence, eventually coming to an epic climax during an interview with Dimitri and Marilena from Easy Greek.   Based on those experiences, I had a shift in mentality.

My skills didn’t degrade nor did they upgrade in the matter of a few days, instead, it was my mind that refocused and changed the conversation I was having with myself.  Those experiences gave me the confidence I needed to let the Greek flow out of me, naturally, regardless of any mistakes I was making. 

And what a beautiful feeling it was, to simply let go!

I cannot say it enough, get out and use the language with real people - now!

3. Be Patient

In today’s world, it’s not enough to get good results.  You must get those results in a record amount of time or else you’re meant to feel completely worthless. 

At least, that’s how life is according to the world of online influencers. You're being fed the message over and over that speed is more important than proficiency.  The thing is, that speed looks impressive, but it’s also completely unrealistic for 99% of the population. 

Learning a language to the point of fluency takes plenty of time and effort.  Your level of intensity and frequency when it comes to learning the language will determine how quickly you pick it up (along with plenty of other factors).  Do not measure a language in hours, weeks or months.  Some may have reached a certain level of proficiency in weeks or even months, but they’re the outlier and have often had a very beneficial set of circumstances to help them in achieving their goals in record time.

This is not meant to discredit anyone’s achievements, it’s simply an objective look at language learning and what you can expect once you’re in the thick of it. 

Personally, I believe you have to measure language learning in years.  If I had a few weeks or months to master Greek, my accent would be horrible and I would be thrown in prison for massacring the beauty of such a majestic language.  In order to achieve fluency within that limited time frame, I would need to drop everything else in my life and dedicate 8+ hours per day to becoming fluent.  Not fun, not my cup of tea and not how I want to spend the majority of my day.  

Early on in my Greek journey, I was incredibly frustrated at my sloth-like rate of progress.  The fact that I had learned so many languages before Greek, led me to believe that I should have an easier time with verb conjugations, pronunciation and everything that comes with mastering a language.

My expectations were not lining up with the reality of the situation, so what was I to do?

That’s when it hit me, “Slow down. What’s the rush?”

Greek was unlike any other language I had learned up to that point and it should have been obvious that I was bound to struggle with certain aspects of it.  Instead, I got into my own head about how quickly I should have learned it and dragged my feet in addressing certain fundamental aspects of the language. 

Therefore, I implore you, I beseech you, be patient with yourself and your ability to learn a language. 

Stick to a functioning system that allows you to consistently learn the language for at least half an hour each day.  That’s what I did.  Above all, I made sure to listen to the language every single day, rain or shine, because the language needs to live inside of you.  Don’t underestimate the effect of listening to a language, even if it’s while you’re doing other activities, and its long term impact on your progress towards fluency. 

Every single aspect of language learning requires patience.  When I went through my rough patch of chastising myself for not being “better,” I took a step back and told myself that it was time to listen to more content, watch more Easy Greek, review my tutoring sessions and to give myself more time to let all of those activities sink in properly. 

It’s best to ignore the noise you hear about how fast you should be progressing.  

Learn to enjoy the process and give yourself all the time in the world to slow down when you need to, and a kick in the rear end, when you know you’ve been slacking. 

In the End

The art and science of language learning is never an exact process. It’s highly individualistic, but there are common truths that apply to learning a foreign language that’ll keep you sane.

Life changes can sneak up on you when you least expect them, so be prepared to adjust your language learning as you go.  Be adaptable, be forgiving and be willing to do things differently if you want to make language learning a productive use of your time. 

In addition, when you’ve reached a certain point, burying your head in the books will begin to hinder your progress.  Close the books, put on a pair of sneakers and go out with the mindset that it’s time to use the language with real people.  Bring the language to life by living with it, instead of just studying it. 

Finally, give yourself time to achieve your language learning goals.  Some people are speedsters and that’s great for them, but for the vast majority of us, it’s about remaining consistent and committed, even when it feels like our progress has slowed to a standstill. 

Your “overnight success” is waiting. 

It won’t be overnight, but it’ll be just right, for you.

Happy language learning!

Written by Luca Lampariello

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