“The doubters said, ‘Man can not fly.’ The doers said, ‘Maybe, but we’ll try,’ and finally soared in the morning glow while non-believers watched from below.”
Learning a foreign language has a lot to do with not giving into your doubts.
Easier said than done, I know.
My thoughts were racing and my heart was practically punching a hole through my chest as I was preparing to sit down for an interview entirely in Greek.
Many people have this faulty perception that once you’ve mastered a foreign language or two, you can master them all by simply waving a wand and saying, “Abracadabra!” Some even believe that knowing multiple languages enables one to learn other languages in an effortless and speedy manner.
These common misconceptions couldn’t be further from the truth, because each foreign language you decide to learn presents its own set of problems.
That was the case with me and Greek. It is a language that I absolutely adore, but it is also one that I have been studying for half a decade.
In 2018, I had some exceptionally lofty goals for my Greek (more on that in my ebook) but I failed to achieve them and my progress stalled for nearly a year and that was frustrating to say the least.
Fast forward five years later, that same sensation of frustration would not be the outcome of my interview with Easy Greek.
Sitting down with Dimitris, though I was initially nervous before the interview, the words poured out of me without much effort.
If I couldn’t conjugate a verb, I used the infinitive and if I couldn’t remember a word, I used the dastardly tactic of asking for it from my lovely host.
I became comfortable with the uncomfortable and after that interview, a feeling of elation, relief and transformation washed over me.
The change I was so eagerly waiting for this entire time had finally happened, I morphed from a language learner into a language user.
What exactly do those two terms mean and what is the difference?
BEING A LANGUAGE LEARNER
First, let’s define a language learner.
A language learner usually fits the following criteria:
- Between the A1-B1 levels (CEFR)
- Relies on subtitles or transcripts when listening to native level material (affiliate)
- Hits the books (affiliate), but lacks real-world experience with the language
Having never used my Greek in Greece prior to this year, I was still in the language learner phase four and a half years after starting. At that point, I found interacting with natives a nerve-wracking experience. Even something as simple as ordering food in a restaurant or asking for directions in Greek made me feel slightly apprehensive.
I have had these interactions a million times in other languages, but when it came to experiencing them in Greek, my confidence melted quicker than an ice cube being thrown into an erupting volcano.
Also, I enjoy being funny in a foreign language, but I don’t enjoy being the one made fun of or laughed at. Not that it happens often, but my mind creates these impossibly harsh scenarios where being the guy who teaches people how to learn a foreign language backfires on me and the next thing you know, I’m being deported from Greece for first degree murder of the language!
However, like any good language learner, whatever confidence I did have came from an essential ingredient in getting through this phase: discipline.
For those who don’t know, I keep a meticulous log of my language learning for each day. This helps me see how much learning (and especially input) I’ve gotten in whichever foreign language I am learning at the time.
For those in the language learner phase, this is of the utmost importance.
Measure what matters by keeping track of how much exposure you’ve had to your target language.
In 2023, I went through a series of health issues that hindered my regular learning schedule.
I felt down on myself for not having stuck to my daily routine, but I was only looking at a teardrop in the ocean of learning I had done for the whole year.
Here’s a quick glance at my three target languages and how much I studied them over the last year.
If I may say so myself, that is a rather impressive amount of Greek consumed (and used) within one year. Suddenly, I wasn’t feeling so dejected.
All of that hard work over five years led to the moment where I could finally feel it and embrace it - I had become a language user!
MORPHING INTO A LANGUAGE USER
Unlike a language learner, a language user fits the following criteria:
- Between the B2-C2 levels (CEFR)
- Uses the language (with mistakes) actively with native speakers
- Creates experiences to further their learning
At this stage, you’re relying a lot less on discipline and loading up on a lot more courage.
The courage to embrace new situations, thrive in the uncomfortable and use the language openly regardless of your insecurities. Unbeknownst to some, I go through the same sensations as any other language learner when I’m learning a new language.
Had I done the interview with Dimitris a year or two ago, I would have folded quicker than a piece of paper in the hands of an origami master.
The entire process leading up to that interview felt a lot more manageable than I could have imagined. I got to meet Dimitris’ family and we warmed into the conversation before the cameras got rolling. That natural segue into our interview made me feel “in the zone” without even realizing it.
I was having a full on conversation in Greek and best of all, I didn’t care how many mistakes I was making!
That sense of freedom and liberty when speaking a foreign language is absolutely priceless.
Being a language user happens spontaneously, but it’s a direct result of all the work you have put into learning the language. Please do not think that this moment of euphoria will randomly strike you because the language gods blindly blessed you for being you.
No, the key ingredient here is courage and this part of the language learning journey can be the biggest hurdle to overcome.
CROSSING THE BRIDGE FROM LEARNER TO USER
Once you have accumulated enough knowledge, you have to use it.
To go from learner to user, you are going to need experiences. In my opinion, that’s the biggest difference between the people who are still struggling and the people who make it look easy.
Every single experience is worth it.
Whether you believe it or not, it will come back to you in one way or another and oftentimes it’ll seem “miraculous,” although it was far from it.
Fluency can often be a measure of your confidence as well as your actual abilities.
To ensure you’re on the right track, consider the following options to go from a learner to a user:
- Don’t measure your fluency in known words or phrases, begin measuring it with experiences
- Interact with (and connect with) people as often as you can via in-person, online or whatever means you have accessible to you
- Make as many real-time mistakes as you can, the more you make, the quicker you’ll learn
- Use the knowledge you have to put yourself out there and discover something unknown
It is easy writing these words and I am sure it is also fairly harmless to take them in. The hard part is taking action and making it happen.
Most of us have plenty of theory in our heads, but we need the courage to create experiences in order to achieve our goals.
As my former Greek therapist and best friend, Plato, liked to say, “Courage is knowing what not to fear.”
Do not fear mistakes.
Do not fear misunderstanding.
Do not fear failure in foreign languages.
Instead, fear the act of not doing what it takes today, to become the person you want to be tomorrow.