Written By: Blair Bourassa (Academic Director, ESL Instructor & Author, HOFT Institute ESL Program)
Students often make the mistake of believing they are too “lazy” to learn to speak a foreign language, since they imagine that endless grammar exercises and classroom drills are necessary to succeed. This, however, is a mistake. Often, the personality traits associated with “laziness” can actually help you achieve your language goals!
My Observations as both Instructor and Language Learner
I am both an experienced language teacher (12 years in the classroom) and experienced language learner (fluent in 6 different languages at different times in the past). I also have a degree in linguistics and a diploma in English language teaching from Cambridge, so I know a lot about language learning theory, and I can say with certainty that “laziness” can actually help students achieve great levels of fluency! Many “lazy” people who spend their time socializing instead of doing more formal study are often able to learn languages relatively rapidly, while “hard-working” students, who are focused on book learning, often remain unable to communicate.
A Common Story
I remember a story an old linguistics professor told me of two friends who went to Germany to learn German. One was a “straight A student” who always did well on paper tests and had already studied two semesters of German in university, and the other had no German experience and had always been perceived as a “slacker” who rarely “hit the books”. They went to study in two different German cities and agreed to meet again in three months to see who had progressed the most. When they met, the “bookworm”, who spent eight hours a day in the library and read many classic German books in the original language (word-by-word with his dictionary), was barely able to hold a conversation, while the other, who had been going out to mingle with locals every night and rarely studied, was quite fluent. He also reported actually ENJOYING the learning process, whereas the other student was miserable and discouraged.
Language Learning = Habit Formation
Language is a physical skill based on habit formation, like learning to play a musical instrument or driving a car with a standard transmission. You learn to speak by speaking, and needing to correct yourself along the way when communication breaks down.
One of the key points I learned in my studies to become a qualified language teacher was this: Fluency (speaking without focus on grammar) leads to accuracy (correct grammar), and not the other way around.
Being drilled again and again on grammar forms or minor pronunciation points in a carefully controlled context (like many teachers do) rarely leads to learners being able to speak fluently. But being in REAL COMMUNICATIVE SITUATIONS leads to correction of your mistakes–because errors lead to the inability to communicate, and it becomes like a game to overcome the barriers.
Four Tips for Learning the “Lazy” Way
From personal experience, I can offer these key tips to help speed up your language learning:
First, join social networking groups in your city that have regular meetings, so you can get to know local people who share your interests. That way the conversation will be inherently interesting to you and you don’t need to pretend to be interested just to get language practice. In North America, Meetup is probably the best website to join, since it has hundreds of different groups in most cities.
Second, try to find one local friend who you genuinely like being around, and work on building a close relationship! Just one good friend is enough! Having someone who is almost always nearby, who you are totally comfortable with, and with whom you want to communicate about everything that happens in your daily life is the best way to become fluent. If they can’t understand you, they will correct you, and you will improve naturally, because you have a real interest in keeping communication alive! Good places to meet such a person are places you yourself like going to, e.g. the gym, the park, the library, the university lounge area, etc.
Third, approach interesting people! Take the initiative! If you see a musician playing some good music in the street, hang out and shoot the breeze. If you see someone reading a book while you are waiting together for the bus, ask about the book and why they are reading it! If you are genuinely interested in people, they will enjoy talking to you. And it is better for you to choose who you spend time talking to, instead of waiting for strangers approach you for conversation. Especially for a woman, the latter option can even be dangerous!
Finally, use your own linguistic and ethnic appeal! Most big cities in English-speaking countries these days are multi-ethnic, so a Russian/Spaniard/Brazilian native will not be distinguished from any other local walking around unless they open their mouths and start talking. I notice that many learners are afraid of speaking because they know they have an accent, but in fact, many foreign accents (especially European, Latin American and Russian ones) sound cool and exotic in North America, so people who hear your English will often become interested in learning about you. And if you are smiling and seem approachable, you will soon have multiple conversation partners at any social gathering!
The Three Month Challenge
So don’t be mistaken! “Lazy” students can learn very fast! I can almost guarantee that if you are outgoing and take the advice above, you can arrive in America or any other English-speaking country with a low-intermediate level of English, and reach an upper-intermediate level in three months!
Leave the books behind and talk! It is the best way to learn!
Good luck and happy learning!