31 Day Dutch Challenge: what is fluency anyways?

Status update on my 31 Day Dutch Challenge: niet slecht. I excel at watching TV (it helps that the Olympics are on now!) and I’m doing well with flashcards, reading and the Taaltempo book. These past two weeks show that my weakness is speaking. I haven’t been to the Taalcafe once yet, and I have an hour and 15-minute speaking deficit that I’ll have to make up in the next two weeks.

When I visit the US people ask me if I’m “fluent” in Dutch. I take that to mean that I understand everything, and speak flawlessly. Based on that interpretation, the answer to that question is, “hell no”. But that’s a high bar.  My mom, who works in a library, recommended Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, to help me learn. Wyner, an opera singer who established a technique for picking up languages, gives a more generous interpretation of fluency:

Fluency, after all, isn’t the ability to know every word and grammatical pattern in a language; it’s the ability to communicate your thoughts without stopping every time you run into a problem.

His Lifehacker article provides a good synapsis of the book; it’s not the typical “Learn any language in 5 days!!!” clickbait. He provides a number of techniques as well as some perspective on advantages adults have when learning a language. In my last post, I kvetched about how much easier children are able to pick up languages. From Wyner:

Kids seem to succeed at language learning where adults fail, but that’s only because they get much more input than we do. In a kid’s first six years of life, they’re exposed to tens of thousands of hours of language. In our few years of language classes in school, we’re lucky to hear more than a few hundred hours, and many of those hours are spent talking about a language rather than talking in a language.

He advocates getting in and playing around with the new language and to avoid using English as a fallback/crutch. Even if you know the perfect word in English (The Economist found that the average English native speaker knew 20,000 – 35,000 words[1]), don’t switch back to English. This is difficult for me. Switching quickly back to English has been my biggest barrier to learning – it keeps me from getting the feedback I need from other (preferably native!) speakers, which is the best way to improve.

So for the next two weeks my main goal is simple: Talk. In. Dutch. Often.

Of course, I’ll continue to build my vocabulary by using flashcards, and taking classes to improve my grammar. All of that will continue to help with speaking and understanding.

Like Charlie Parker said, there’s a whole process to learning, and all the steps need to be followed:

Charlie Parker

[1] Take The Economist test here: http://www.economist.com/blogs/johnson/2013/05/vocabulary-size

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