Learning a second language to fluency
5 min read

Learning a second language to fluency

The start of the pandemic ruined everything.

With my first taste of solo travel still fresh on my tongue, I was forced to pack my bags and return home from Vietnam, only the third country I had lugged my backpack to since making my first long-haul flight from Toronto.

What followed was a serious case of the post-travel blues. I had just been 8,474 miles out of my comfort zone and now I was being abruptly yanked back into the mundane routines I so badly wanted to escape in the first place.

On the bright side, I'd have a lot of time at my disposal: my city was among those with the world's longest COVID-19 lockdowns. I made a decision early on, way before we really knew how long the pandemic would last for, that I was going to do everything I could to make the most of my time under lockdown.

Learning a Second Language

I'll never forget how I was treated when I landed back in Canada. The pandemic was finally hitting peak news coverage in North America, though Asia had been on top of it for months prior. Airport security was visibly startled that I was wearing a mask. Masks were a requirement to leave the house in Vietnam, but they were still completely foreign back home in Canada.

The government mandated 14-day quarantine for new arrivals banished me to basement apartment I found on Airbnb and left my wallet $1,400 lighter. I installed Duolingo on a whim, hoping that productive exposure to a foreign culture would scratch my travel itch. I had no plans of learning a language to fluency.

The beauty of Duolingo is its mastery of gamification lulls you into believing you open the app to learn a language, not to get your hit of dopamine from the pretty colors and rewarding sounds triggered by submitting correct answers and building your streak. But this is a good thing—it's the latter that leads to the former.

The hardest part of any productive habit is getting started. Duolingo is incredible at dangling a carrot at just the right height above your nose, forcing you to exert just the right amount of effort, gradually leading you towards a larger vocabulary and a real sense of progress. I was seriously proud of myself once I knew how to say 10-15 new phrases in my target language by memory.

These quick wins supplied by Duolingo manufactured my desire to really learn a language, something I never thought was possible prior to installing the app out of boredom.

At that point, not having spoken to a native speaker yet, I figured I needed to break free from the hypnotic drip of dopamine being supplied by Duolingo and actually practice speaking. This terrified me, but after some convincing from a friend, I knew it was necessary. And that's when I signed up for a private class on Italki.

Scheduling 1 class every week on Italki gave me someone to try and impress. What started as doing simple exercises and reviewing my mistakes became a weekly catchup call with a friend from the other side of the world. I started spending even more time grinding on Duolingo, hoping I'd master new words my language tutor on Italki wouldn't expect me to know already.

I stumbled on the Tandem language exchange app somewhere around the 30-40 class milestone. Tandem gives you access to native speakers of your target language who are studying your native language. I went from speaking with 1 native speaker to speaking with dozens, overnight.

I cringe when I look back on these chat logs now: my choice of words are consistently too formal, my grammar is suspect, and my phrasing is awkward—but I'm speaking a foreign language and being understood.

This combination of Duolingo, Italki, and Tandem brought me to the tipping point of language learning: being able to sufficiently understand native media.

According to modern language learning theory, you don't learn a language, you acquire a language via prolonged exposure. The ability to understand native media—movies, TV shows, or YouTube videos—puts language learning on autopilot.

By the time lockdowns were being phased out and borders were being opened again, I had reached the early stages of conversational fluency in my target language. A little part of me still doubted that strangers on the streets would understand me to the same degree that strangers on the internet did.

I was 1.5 years into studying my target language from my home country, a little less than an hour per day, when I found enough courage to speak to someone at the airport. They understood me! And I understood them! I had built a strong base of vocabulary and was able to express myself (in a basic way) to people who could not speak English. But there was still more work to be done.

I might have earned the proverbial 'basic conversational fluency' badge at this point, but there were gaps in my knowledge. Here's a story of when one of those gaps revealed themselves:

When learning a new language, it’s typically wise to focus on learning the words that occur most frequently in casual conversation. You may go weeks without saying “obstruction” yet the words “almost” or “because” could be spoken dozens of times every day.

“Cross” is not a word I had ever needed to use in conversation until this past week. It turns out that it’s very difficult to ask “how do I cross this street?” when you don’t know how to say “cross”.

"I want to go there", while pointing at nothingness across the street, does not work. "How do I get from here to there" is slightly better, but I didn’t think of it until after. I had to accept failure and pull out Google Translate for this one.

Living in the country where my target language is spoken has gone a long way in filling these gaps and training me to speak in a way that sounds more natural to native speakers. For example, imagine greeting someone with "has anything changed with you?" versus "what's new?"—both ask roughly the same thing, but the latter is just... weird. There were (and still are) plenty of small adjustments like that to be made.

Self-study took me 65% of the way to conversational fluency. Living in the country for almost a full calendar year has brought me to 75%. Now I have friends who can't speak English, and others who do, but still prefer to speak their native language with me. It's been an immensely rewarding challenge that I never planned on taking on until I installed Duolingo out of boredom.  

As proficiency increases, gains are harder and harder to make. The path forward is slow: more exposure, more learning via osmosis.  Since I don't plan on using this language professionally, I have no intention to reach advanced fluency. But I am looking forward to applying what I learned this time around to try and acquire a third language before the end of 2023.