Learning a Foreign Language: How Good Can You Really Get?

by Brian on June 17, 2012 in Foreign Languages,Travel

When I first started learning Japanese in high school I had one burning question, “how good can I get?”

I wanted to know if I could ever sound like a native speaker or if I would always sound like some American version of a foreigner with a thick accent as parodied on TV. I also wondered if it mattered which class I took or what study method I used. And if it was possible to sound like a native, how long would it take?

The answers I found all seemed to conflict with each other.

Several books and tape sets I found at the bookstore advertised that they would teach me to “speak like a native.” Scholarly articles told me that if I was outside the critical period of 12 years of age then I would never be able to speak another language correctly, let alone sound native. Commenters on internet chat boards said, “duh, of course you can speak native, it’s just a matter of learning.” And finally, my high school Japanese teacher said that I’d come back fluent after spending a semester abroad in high school.

15 years later I’ve learned to speak Japanese and Korean fluently, spent four years living abroad, passed the highest level of the Japanese proficiency test, spent a summer translating documents for attorneys at an American law firm in Tokyo, and married a Korean. I’ve tried just about every learning approach, taken dozens of classes, and have a library full of self study materials.

Along the way I’ve also met hundreds of other language learners, and come up with some surprising answers on what it really takes to learn a foreign language and how well you can learn to speak it.

Problems defining fluency

One of the major problems with learning to speak “fluently” or “like a native” is defining what that even means. It may seem fairly obvious, someone should sound natural and speak without an accent. However, it’s not that straightforward.

The most readily available examples in America are Mexican immigrants who learned to speak English as a second language. If you couldn’t see them and were talking to them on the phone, some of them would be indistinguishable from native speakers, some would phrase things in ways that sound very natural but still have a noticeable Mexican twang to their pronunciation, and some would speak in broken chunks of words with very thick accents.

All of them are communicating to some degree, but where do you draw the line on fluency? Is the person who sounds natural, but speaks with an accent fluent? If he occasionally makes a grammatical error or doesn’t know how to say something, but otherwise speaks correctly 95% of the time does that count as fluent?

Also, let’s say someone sounds native 95% of the time, but occasionally has a bit of an accent on words they aren’t familiar with. Does this person “speak like a native?” Or in the case of one of my ex-girlfriends, sounds native except for when she gets nervous then hints of her accent come out. Where do you draw the line?

Education level is another way that language fluency has been defined.

Let’s say we define fluency as speaking at a high school level. Does that mean that born and bred Americans who drop out of high school aren’t fluent in English?

Or what if someone who learned English as a second language has a college level vocabulary, but still a noticeable accent. Is she more or less fluent than a native 10 year old with a 4th grade vocabulary?

I could give many more examples, but it should be clear by now that fluency is actually a huge gray area and it’s more accurately viewed as a spectrum than as some specific threshold that you cross and are now “fluent.”

Levels of fluency

In my experience, there are a number of general levels of fluency that seem to come in about the same order when learning any new language.

  1. Rank beginner – you know a few words that are enough to get around (bathroom, restaurant, phone, food) and identify a few basic road signs. Conversation is not possible, but you can get by on the basics of life with a little bit of pointing and gesturing to make up for lack of words.
  2. Basic conversation – you can carry on a basic conversation about what you did or what you’re going to do, order food at a restaurant, and do simple day-to-day things.
  3. Intermediate conversation – you can now go beyond just describing the simple who, what, when, where, and how of events and begin to talk about what you thought and felt about things. When new words come up, you can understand it when people explain them to you. While you still don’t understand everything, your vocabulary begins to explode at this point.
  4. Watching TV – once your conversation skills are fairly developed you can begin to understand (most of) your basic sitcom and drama type TV shows that use everyday language. News and shows about complex subject matter are still difficult to grasp.
  5. Reading the newspaper – at this point you can read the newspaper, albeit with the aid of a dictionary.
  6. Watching the news – eventually you begin to acquire enough vocabulary that you can make sense of the news.
  7. Take classes taught in a foreign language – this will be tough, but doable if you have a dictionary on hand and keep up to date on the texts for the class. Some of it also depends on the subject matter.
  8. Advanced conversation – you can pretty much talk about anything you want to. Even if you don’t know the right words or don’t express things in a sophisticated way, you have enough vocabulary that you can talk around something and communicate it just as effectively.
  9. Reading literature – you can start reading literary novels, albeit with a dictionary. Reading literature is perhaps the most difficult thing to do for a non-native because there are many “book” words that aren’t used in everyday speech and there is so much nuance to the writing that makes it difficult to follow.

As a caveat, this is only a broad outline and someone else might list the levels differently. In general your in-person conversation skills and reading skills will vastly outpace things like your ability to understand TV, speeches, or plays. I speak Korean fairly well–my mother-in-law calls me a “fake foreigner”–but I still have a difficult time with TV.

Another twist is that women are generally easier to understand than men (apparently we like to mumble and speak incoherently).

Also, even if you speak very well one-on-one, you may find that the speed of group conversations leaves your head spinning.

How good can you get?

So then, back to our original question, how good can you really get?

First, the bad news. The scholarly papers do seem to be correct in that you will never really sound native if you start learning a language after about the age of 12. And the possibility starts to drop off rapidly as you get older.

By way of example I have a Bulgarian friend who moved to the US when she was 13 and her sister was 15. Both girls are razor-sharp smart, so should have had equal mental capacity to pick up English. However, my friend sounds mostly native except for the occasional Bulgarian twang, but her sister still has a pronounced Bulgarian accent and sometimes phrases things oddly.

Just below the threshold, I had a Japanese friend who attended part of elementary school and junior high in America before moving back to Japan (about age 8-12). He sounds American as apple pie except for his obviously limited vocabulary.

Even having an extremely high aptitude for language learning doesn’t seem to overcome the age barrier. Some years later I ran into a guy from one of my Japanese classes at Stanford who commented that he was impressed by how easily I picked up Japanese and thought that “the rest of the class was just holding [me] back.” You might be fooled for a little while talking to me on the phone in Japanese or Korean just because you aren’t expecting a white guy, but if you talk to me long enough it becomes obvious that I am not a native speaker.

I have never met or even heard of someone who started learning a language in high school or later who managed to fully sound like a native. If you learn a foreign language as an adult you will always, even if ever so subtly, have a bit of a twang to your accent.

That said, there is good news. You can get good at a foreign language as an adult–really good.

You can learn to do all the things that really matter for day to day life. You can pick up enough fluency to have deep conversations with friends, laugh along with others at jokes that are no longer lost in translation, take classes in a foreign language, read foreign literature, or work for a foreign company.

How long will it take?

Aye, there’s the rub.

How long it will take and how far you will get depend greatly on a number of things like motivation, how social you are, what language your significant other speaks, time commitments, and whether you live in the country or not.

First, I would posit that if you don’t live in the country where the language is spoken natively or can’t do so for at least a full year (ideally longer), you will never achieve any meaningful degree of fluency beyond the very basics. You would be better off spending your time on the couch watching TV. It just ain’t gonna happen.

That said, if you can live in the country where the language is spoken, living circumstances matter. If you have an English-only speaking wife in tow, work for a foreign branch of a company where the office language is English, and don’t have a lot of free time otherwise then you probably will not make much progress learning the language.

I have many friends who’ve gone to Korea and Japan as English teachers in hopes of learning Korean or Japanese while they were there and come back with barely more than they started with.

Under ideal circumstances–you live in the country, are dedicated to taking language classes full-time the first year, have many native friends and/or a significant other who speaks it natively–you can expect to achieve results in some fairly predictable time frames:

  • 2-4 months – basic conversation abilities (level 2 above)
  • 6-8 months – intermediate conversation abilities (level 3 above)
  • 1-2 years – most practical abilities (level 7 above)
  • 5 years – full confidence in nearly any situation you’d encounter

In other words if we look at this from the perspective of the 80/20 rule and diminishing returns, you can learn the 80% of what you need to know in 1 to 2 years studying abroad. Picking up the remaining 20% and feeling really confident in most situations you will encounter takes a minimum of 5 years under ideal circumstances–even if you are super smart.

To put that in perspective, in 1 to 2 years you can be about as fluent as a Russian mobster portrayed on TV who speaks English well enough to understand the news and do business in the U.S. but still has troubles expressing himself eloquently. But to be really fluent in the way that you are most likely thinking of it will take 5 years or more.

NOTE: It has been pointed out to me that my observations on language learning progress are–perhaps not surprisingly–similar to the CEFR guidelines. So it’s not just me!

Why does it take so long?

WTF? 5 years Brian?

Think about how much English you knew when you were 5 years old. Not much.

Of course that’s not an entirely fair example, but think back to your high school English classes. You were still memorizing reams and reams of vocabulary words for tests. And even more words for the SAT.

In other words, you weren’t done learning English yet. Even with a full native advantage and speaking English every day of your life for 18 years, there were still lots of words that you didn’t know yet.

We find that vocabulary follows the 80/20 rule. About 400-500 words make up 80% of everyday conversation. But an educated adult might know 15,000 – 20,000 words on average.

It should be fairly obvious that you can learn 400-500 words a lot quicker than you can learn 15,000 – 20,000 words. Not only that, but it’s easier to learn the core 400-500 words because they are used the most frequently.

Picking up the remaining words takes longer not only because there are a lot more of them, but because they are also used less frequently and context specific. If you’re living in a foreign country your car might have to break down before you learn words like transmission, spark plugs, or A/C compressor. You might have to visit the dentist before you learn words like cavity, molar, or braces. And none of these are even words that most native English speakers would consider big words!

It’s even harder to pick up and remember words like iridescent, superfluous, and magnanimous that you might only see occasionally–and might even only have a general sense of what mean in English.

What really makes learning a foreign language take so long is not any inherent difficulty with the language, but the sheer volume of what you have to learn.

Conclusion

I presume if you are reading this post you are most likely over the age of 12, which means that you will never be able to “speak like a native.”

However, speaking like a native is mostly a matter of sound and accent. While you will always have a bit of foreign twang, if you are dedicated to it you can learn to speak a foreign language fluently. And if you practice your pronunciation diligently, you can smooth off the rough edges of your accent and speak well enough to impress the natives even if you don’t 100% sound like one.

To achieve a meaningful level of conversational fluency you should expect to spend at least a full year abroad dedicated full-time to language classes and conversing with native speakers. For full mastery, you will need at least 5 years abroad–even if you are really, really smart.

There is no short or easy path to learning a foreign language, but the prize is there for the taking if you want it.

{ 45 comments… read them below or add one }

Susanna Perkins June 17, 2012 at 2:39 pm

Excellent article, Brian! Even if it is discouraging. I know that my attempts to learn Spanish have been much more difficult than I expected, since I handled French, German and Latin pretty well when I was younger. . . and I don’t ever expect to speak without an accent.

My goal is to understand most conversations and be able to transact normal business here in Panama, and to make myself understood in those situations as well.

That said, I don’t know if I’ll accomplish that as (so far anyway) I haven’t put much effort into language learning since I arrived. I wish there were an actual language school available in the area where I’m living (Las Tablas, Panama).

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Brian June 17, 2012 at 3:27 pm

Hi Susanna,

It can definitely be tough if you don’t have some kind of formal instruction in the foundations. If you do have enough Spanish that you can carry on even a very broken conversation you might try finding a language exchange partner. That was my secret weapon in the early stages. I’d find a native speaker who wanted to learn English and we’d get together once a week for coffee and speak English for an hour then Japanese or Korean for an hour. It’s also considerably more fun than pounding the textbooks or rote memorizing vocab.

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Daniel June 17, 2012 at 8:40 pm

Hello dude, it’s quite an interesting articule! I’m 26 and have just studied 2 years of english. Every time I meet a teacher she/he asks me whether I’ve lived abroad and I obviously reply that I haven’t. I’m extremely close to being fluent, I sound almost like a “native”. I say this because I think that if one really wishes to learn a language and sound as similar to a native person as possible, it can be achieved. Due to my ability to use the english language I’m intending to be a teacher next year. I’d like to be corrected if I made any mistakes :).

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Shannon June 18, 2012 at 2:02 pm

This is a really interesting article. I like the way your broke up defining fluency and I agree that even if you are capable to participate in one-on-one conversations that group conversations or situations where there is a lot going on (noisy restaurants, etc.) it is a lot harder to understand.

Although I have to disagree with you somewhat on having to live in the country to speak fluently. As long as you have native speakers or people to communicate with in your new language, you can learn to speak fluently (this has been my personal experience).

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Brian June 18, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Hi Shannon,

I don’t entirely disagree with you there. I learned to speak Japanese pretty well just by taking classes and having a lot of Japanese friends without having spent much time abroad. However, making the transition from being conversationally fluent to being capable of doing graduate level academic work or giving a professional sounding speech is a whole different level. The deeper I got into learning Japanese I discovered how much more there was to learn than I ever realized, and it seemed the hole just kept getting deeper. It goes back to the how “fluent” is fluent problem.

My view is also somewhat biased since my experience is primarily with Asian languages. I could see it being relatively easier to pick up a language like Spanish or French that is much closer to English.

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Ivan July 21, 2012 at 9:41 pm

I got here from a “google” search..
I’m a naturalized Canadian and live in Latin America. I’m fluent in English but of course have an accent since I was born in Bulgaria (just like your friends) and moved to Canada at the age of 22 where I learned English..
Even though I understand everything I have a noticeable accent.
I’ve been living in Costa Rica for the last 10 years, got married here and have a 6 years old boy. I’m teaching him English but I’m desperate for him to sound “native”..
I’m planning on moving back to Canada (this being the main reason) but personal tings such as properties etc are holding me back (for now).. Does this mean that if my boy get’s back to Canada before the age of 10-12 he still has a chance to sound as native speaker??
Best Regards
Ivan

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Brian July 21, 2012 at 10:15 pm

Hi Ivan,

If you can get him there while he’s still young there’s a pretty good chance. A few other things will come into play like does he make Canadian friends or does he wind up mostly hanging out with other Spanish speaking friends. The young have an uncanny ability to pick up accents.

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Ivan July 21, 2012 at 9:44 pm

On a side note..
It depends on the language.. Even though I learned Spanish in my 30s my CostaRican wife claims that I sound totally “native” as if I was born in Costa Rica and that I do speak Spanish without an accent..
Even though I consider English my stronger language. If someone listens to me speaking Spanish they’d believe I speak Spanish better than English, which is not entirely true.. Weird, isn’t it?? 🙂

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Shan April 23, 2013 at 8:00 am

Hi Ivan

There are linguistic theories support that learners are more likely to sound native when they learn additional languages beyond their second languages. Supposedly, your mouth has been used to pronounce a wide range of sounds other than your first language.

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Tom July 22, 2012 at 7:52 am

Hey, Brian
I really liked your article. I looked up “what can you do if you speak Japanese and Korean” on Google and this is what came up. I was pleased to read such an insightful article.
Japanese was my first language so I speak Japanese and English fluently. I currently live in Korea for an intensive Korean language program. I have only been studying Korean for about 5 months. I would say I’m at the basic conversation level right now.
I’m curious to ask you, besides translation jobs, are there any good job opportunities for someone that speaks Japanese, Korean and English at a proficient level?
I guess what I’m trying to figure out is if learning Korean is worth the time and effort for someone who already speaks Japanese fluently. If knowing all three of these languages make much of a difference in today’s competitive job market. AND how good do you have to be in the language to actually be able to work overseas with other natives?

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Brian July 22, 2012 at 11:55 am

Hi Tom,

I would say it really depends on what other skills you have. Unfortunately Japanese and Korean aren’t really job skills in and of themselves. Most of the people I know who’ve been successful at working abroad were techies that were able to leverage their programming or engineering skills into a position at an overseas branch of a multi-national company.

Since it sounds like you’re a native Japanese speaker your best bet would probably be Japanese companies with branches in Korea or Korean companies with branches in Japan. Korean companies will tend to prefer using their own on both sides of the ocean. U.S. companies also tend to staff up with native speakers from other countries though there might be some opportunities.

One thing I’ve learned is that there is a huge gulf between being conversationally fluent and being able to communicate on a professional level for business. The catch-22 is that the only way to really cross that gulf is to find a place willing to give you a chance so you can pick up those skills. Getting a visa can also be difficult. After an extensive and painful job search in Korea, I was shot down by the local Gucheong that refused to issue me a work visa.

I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that trying to get a job abroad or one that uses multiple languages is by far the hard path. I’d say if you do it, do it for the love of it. It’s infinitely easier to just get a regular job someplace where you speak the language natively and don’t have to worry about visas.

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christina fernandez November 30, 2012 at 10:46 pm

I have a question. I’ve been around Spanish all my life because my family speaks Spanish, although not to me. I have a Dominicanish accent oddly mixed with an American accent when I speak the little Spanish I know. If I ever do study Spanish, do you think my American accent would go away when I speak?

Also, I’m studying Japanese right now. I started when I was 12 or 13 in high school and my accent right now is on the mor natural side, but obviously I still have an American accent. I’m planning on becoming fluent, so do you think my accent will become more natural as I learn more?

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Brian December 1, 2012 at 12:18 am

Truthfully your American accent probably won’t ever completely go away, but you can definitely make huge improvements in your accent through practice for both your Spanish and Japanese. I wouldn’t worry about trying to sounds too perfect as long as you’re being understood. The more you speak the better you’ll get. To put things in perspective, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been in America so long he actually hired an accent coach to prevent him from losing his native Austrian accent for the movies.

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Nicolas December 28, 2012 at 6:05 pm

Really intoxicating article!

I agree with you up to some extent. Fluency is very subjective. Hard to define precisely. Supposedly we’re fluent in our native language. But where do you draw the line? If you can’t understand scholarly articles outside your field, does that signify you’re not fluent in your own language? Obviously not. If you can’t grasp “everything” in a novel, does the same logic follow? Of course not. There are way too many words in English (for example) for a person to learn and use—active vocabulary, not necessarily on a daily basis—. It seems to contradict what we think we know.

My native language is Portuguese. I started learning Spanish and English concurrently at 16, which was a horrible idea. It’s better to learn one language at a time. Now I’m 20. I like to think I speak Spanish and English fluently, but I guess that’s just an illusion. More like I’m quite confident that I can make myself across in a variety of contexts without having to resort to Portuguese and understand others—or bijective mapping, if you will—. I used to ponder on the same ideas you exposed here.

I would try to copy a native’s idiolect verbatim. Eventually I realized I was aiming too high and let it go. Are you familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR)?

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Brian December 28, 2012 at 6:30 pm

Not familiar with the details of CEFR. We have something similar in the US–the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Proficiency Guidelines.

The sequence above is not based on either, however. I noticed going through several distinct phases of ability while learning Japanese, and then I noticed repeating the same phases again when learning Korean. I suspect there is a lot of overlap with CEFR and ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines.

I also came to the same conclusion as you about learning multiple languages–best to do it one at a time and not at the same time. One intrepid quarter in college I was taking Japanese, Korean, and Chinese at the same time. Definitely not a good idea.

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Nicolas December 29, 2012 at 1:26 pm

I’ve heard of that model. I looked into it and was kind of adamant to reach a conclusion, being no expert on the matter. Linguistics is just a hobby for me. I just feel that it’s a rather convoluted topic and scholars just oversimplify it all—not saying it’s a bad thing. That’s the way to break it down. I started to call into question CEFR’s guidelines as I stumbled upon people who had official certifications but didn’t match their respective levels (in Portuguese). Maybe I misconstrued it. I know it varies greatly from language to language. Measuring a person’s proficiency in a given language is no trivial task. I’m sure you’ve thought it through yourself.

Parenthetically, congrats on your achievements! It must have been painful/difficult to go from English to Japanese/Korean. For me it wasn’t that difficult since English is similar to Portuguese. And Spanish undoubtedly gave me a hard time as I had to “parse” and filter out every sentence/word so as not to mix them up.

What are your thoughts on the maximum number of languages a person can speak “fluently” (according to the standards outlined here)? Do you really think formal certifications measure what they’re supposed to (assuming that the person has obtained them through honest means)? And what was it like for you when you started learning Japanese?

On a side note, I don’t think it’s strictly necessary to live abroad to reach fluency. I know people who’ve never lived abroad and they speak fluent English—not necessarily the only language they managed to “master”. But hey, what do I know? It’s not even my native language.

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Brian December 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm

In general I’d say testing breaks down because it usually mostly measures recall–your ability to hear or read passages and “recognize” the answers in multiple choice or short answer questions–rather than generative ability, or the ability to generate language from scratch and/or respond in real time. Recall ability is always greater than generative ability. The actual amount of difference varies quite a lot. This is why you get people with tons of book knowledge who can ace tests but can’t hold a conversation to save their life on one hand (lots of recall ability, very little generative ability), and people who speak very fluently but don’t perform as well on tests on the other hand (smaller gap between recall and generative ability).

In my view people who can pass the highest level of a given proficiency test haven’t reached the end of their journey, but have just finished their prep work and are now at the beginning of it. The highest level of the Japanese and Korean tests, for instance, are supposedly pegged to the level of a high school graduate. It’s a huge leap from there to sounding professional in a business context or doing graduate level work in a foreign language. Or even being able to really read and understand most literature for that matter. Of course the journey never really ends.

I can’t speak to a limit from personal experience, but I’ve heard 4 or 5 languages as the high end of what you can achieve and maintain at a high level of fluency. I suspect that’s probably accurate–though I’ve never met and only ever even heard of a handful of people who might able to back up this claim. A certain amount of forgetting happens when you’re not using a language, so you find the non-used languages atrophy when you’re focused on acquiring more languages. Though it’s certainly possible to maintain some degree of fluency in many more languages than that. I think some special circumstances have to be present in your life to keep them up. I knew people in Japan who spoke Korean at home, English at school, and Japanese outside. People who make claims like speaking 20 languages will almost always admit that they only speak 2 or 3 really well and that they just have basic fluency or minimal vocabulary in the rest.

As for living abroad, my experiences are somewhat skewed by learning languages completely different than my native tongue. I work with Swedes who speak fairly good English, but have never lived in an English speaking country. Circumstances matter though. Especially among Europeans there seems to be a huge divide between people who grew up in countries where English language TV is subtitled or dubbed.

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Nicolas December 29, 2012 at 6:23 pm

Precisely!

In fact, I was planning on learning another language—Japanese or German—but just the thought of going through it all again—ugh! I’m uncertain as to what method you actually used. I’m inclined towards “caching” as much data as I can in the beginning in order to have good latency (response time). As I advance, I opt for producing new sentences irrespective of the context, as long as it passes my internal filters—“OK-this-sounds-fine”. Of course, this is just a gross simplification. It worked two times. But that doesn’t mean it will work again. It might, it might not.

I wholeheartedly concur with you—the journey never ends. Apropos of the deterioration thing, that happens to me from time to time.

The highest level of a proficiency test in Spanish surpasses the level of an average high school graduate, I believe. I’m acutely aware of the fact that even if you have a certification of the highest level, that’s just the beginning. In the old days I used to believe people who claimed to speak tons of languages “fluently”. The more I thought about it, the more convinced I was of its “unattainability”. As you pointed out, circumstances matter. For instance, translators/interpreters spend lots of hours a day using different languages. That’s a way of maintaining one’s proficiency.

Here in Spain movies are dubbed, which in part, I believe, contributes to Spaniards not being able to speak English well. I heard in Nordic countries they don’t dub anything—just subtitles. I think it’s a great approach and that’s the way it should be.

Did you use to think in Japanese/Korean in the beginning? Do you do that now? Despite having reached the “highest” level, how often are you confronted with a situation in which you’re at a loss for words—say, talking about a complex topic you’ve never really talked about before?

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Brian December 29, 2012 at 8:34 pm

I’d like to learn a couple more languages myself, but don’t plan on doing it until I actually have an opportunity to live abroad again and the language becomes practically useful.

My learning process is a bit chaotic. I’d say classes are a must for me. As disciplined and driven as I can be about language learning, having a formal commitment where other people are expecting me to show up and perform helps keep things on track. I also think that in the very beginning a structured covering of the basics is a huge help. Other than that I’m pretty fanatical. I’d carry an electronic dictionary around with me everywhere and constantly be looking up words, I’d buy and read textbooks other than just the one’s in my classes, and try to spend as much time as possible with native speaker friends. When not abroad, I got a lot of value out of setting up language exchanges where we’d speak 1 hour in English and 1 hour in Japanese or Korean. I like watching stuff subtitled in English too, it helps your ability to get a feel for how everyday expressions that don’t have a 1 to 1 translation in English are expressed in the language.

In my view people should try to think in the language as quickly as possible. Learn how sentences fit together and build them “natively” so to speak. I’d say I started doing that from the very beginning. Trying to build word-for-word translations is one of the biggest reasons people systematically say things wrong in a foreign language and ingrain bad habits that they can never get rid of. I think you really have to try and get the feel for how things are expressed in another language–one reason I try to learn whole sentences and not just individual words. Though from time to time if I run into a complex sentence I have a hard time expressing I’ll still stop and check how I would say it in English as a reference. Actually, I’d recommend every language learner take at least one intro class in computer programming to get a feel for functions and modularity. Learning to think in another language has always been a very analogous process for me.

Honestly, I’m not entirely sure I’d even qualify myself as the “highest” level even though I’m pretty comfortable in most situations. I always feel like I’m going back and forth between stages of being amazed at how good I am and depressed at how bad I am. From other high level speakers I’ve talked to, this seems to be a fairly common experience. Trying to sound professional is always a struggle, as is reading literature. I can be watching one TV show just fine, and then I flip the channel to a detective drama and they’re using all kinds of jargon I don’t understand. Just recently I went to a Korean dentist for the first time and had to learn a whole new vocabulary of teeth and dentistry to figure out what they were talking about–heck I couldn’t even have told you what dental onlays were in English before then. It’s more the everyday stuff than the complex situations that take me off guard. There are distinct holes in your vocabulary that you don’t even realize are there until you run into a situation you haven’t been in before in that language.

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Nicolas December 30, 2012 at 8:35 am

I still value self-teaching over for formal classes. It wouldn’t make sense to live abroad and not have formal training though—I have to be careful here. My experience is limited to languages of the same family so to speak—, unless you had time to hang out with the locals and knew how to approach it autonomously. It all hinges on the language. Some have more resources than others. Swedish is an example of that. The mere fact that movies/TV shows are not dubbed makes it harder for people not living in the country to practice the spoken language (assuming they don’t know any Swedes online and/or in real life). Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. Countless variables to scrutinize.

Seems like your methodology coincides with mine. The roller coaster effect and the binary approach—omnipresent among advanced language learners: one minute you think your skills are outstanding. Next you’re wondering how you came to that conclusion in the first place. Either good or bad. There’s no “in-between”. Surprisingly enough, you don’t really realize how weird your native tongue is until you learn another language. The catch with thinking in your target language isn’t so obvious at first sight (for the inexperienced). On one hand, your latency gets quicker; it might even seem impressive to monolinguals. On the other hand, things start to get weird in your head as your native language and the others get less attention and subsequently rusty. Occasionally I have trouble recalling basic words.

Programming can be dreadful. It’s very different from real languages, though. Any seasoned programmer would pick up another programming language in 2—3 weeks without any problem. Now, regardless of how close your native language is to your target language, how often do you think the same rule applies? Probably never. However, it can be fruitful to those who are patient and truly interested in how computers work. It teaches you how to think algorithmically. Non-math people might get a feel for how complex the whole learning-a-language thing can be and how it can be optimized from the standpoint of a computer scientist.

Anyway, thanks for sharing your experiences. Very insightful!

Katie December 29, 2012 at 10:03 pm

Hi, thank you for the informative article! I have a couple questions for you. I’m moving to Argentina for a year in Oct. 2013. I don’t have to know Spanish fluently when I get there, but I would like to be at an intermediate level going into it.

I am worried I won’t pick it up because 1. I don’t know any Spanish right now 2. I’ve taken French in High School and college and came away knowing basically nothing. It’s very hard for my brain to understand another language and it definitely doesn’t come easy! So, do you have any tips or programs that you recommend? i.e. rosetta stone, taking classes, etc.

Thank you!

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Brian December 30, 2012 at 12:48 am

I’d pick up the Michel Thomas Method Spanish programs and take a class if available. Avoid Rosetta Stone, it’s a waste of money.

Most high school and college classes progress very slowly, so I wouldn’t worry too much about your previous experiences. Once you have some basics under your belt I’d recommend getting a language exchange partner to practice with. There’s really no substitute for actual conversation.

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Daniella February 26, 2013 at 12:08 pm

This is one of the best efforts I have seen as someone defining fluency in a foreign language. Problem is once people are “rank beginner” they claim that they are advanced. That makes the scale actually all confused and no one knows what their level is. Thanks for setting up the list, and setting goals for me to achieve!

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Jonathan May 15, 2013 at 9:58 am

Hi Brian,

I have read your article and I agree with some of the ways you have tried to learn another language. I am a non-native English speaker, but I really like travelling abroad on my own to learn something else rather than the language itself; I mean ‘survival.’ I am a graduate in English Studies and I wish to teach English and Spanish (my mother tongue) as foreign languages, although I am now interested in studying a Phd or a Master’s degree abroad in order to gain ‘prestige’ and guarantee better and greater chances to get a job. Personally, I feel that I lack of confidence when speaking another language just in case I make some kind of mistake, but that is something coming straight from my mind, in other words, negative suggestion. People abroad normally tell me that my English is very good because of the many vocabulary items and words I know coming from different disciplines other than Linguistics and another technicisms own of my degree, although I do not think so, due to this lack of self-esteem. Indeed, I must admit that I am starting to believe in myself and I feel shivers when I see how well I can manage in real life when living abroad.

This is my personal message to those wanting to achieve the best of something, not only to be the best speaking a language: keep progressing, never give up, lose your shyness and trust yourselves. No matter what others say or talk about you, just follow your own intuition and personal criteria.

J.

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Alyson August 13, 2013 at 7:31 pm

Very interesting article! I am a native English speaker, but I have been living in Berlin, Germany for 4.5 years. I was at a C1 level in German on the CEFR when I moved in 2009, which is about, in my opinion and in my situation, a 6 on your scale. Now, people rarely recognize that I am not German. I have completed a Bachelors and a Masters degree, complete with theses, 20 and 45 pages respectively, and I am starting the state student teacher program in February. I even had a professor recently who didn’t know I was American until I had to show my passport as form of ID to take the exam for the class. I actively participated all semester.

I only started learning German when I was 15, but I heard it as a child, albeit not in the same form I speak it today. My great-grandmother spoke heanisch, which is a strongly accented dialect of German spoken in southeastern Austria, where her parents and in-laws were born and raised until their early to late teens. I heard her speak to her siblings and friends from birth until age 10, when she passed away. This was of course only once a month and not really immersive, but I have read some research suggesting that hearing another language as a child can have an effect on the ability to speak that language as an adult without or with less accent.

How do you feel about this? Do you think it has weight in the discussion?

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Brian August 13, 2013 at 9:12 pm

Alyson, kudos on achieving a high level of proficiency in German.

My experience is that early exposure to language before about age 5 typically results in total loss if it’s not maintained after that. Many a parent regret having emigrated and not kept up their child’s native language abilities. As for early exposure after age 5, I have met a few people where it “stuck” pretty well and they were still able to sound native despite not using the language for many years–albeit with weak vocabulary.

It’s certainly possible to get very good. While I can’t speak to your specific situation, this happens a lot. When you speak at a high level of fluency, people just don’t expect you to be a foreigner (unless you’re, say, a white guy in Asia). If they haven’t divined it on their own, after they find out they often wind up thinking, “now that I think about it, I did notice this one odd thing that I had just been dismissing as a quirk.” I generally don’t put much stock in what native speakers tell me because they tend to be overly complimentary and not analyzing my every word for foreign-ness.

That said, do you sound 100% like a native or not in every situation? I don’t know, but it sounds like you’ve achieved a high enough proficiency to do anything you’d like to do in the language without any real obstacles to communication. At the end of the day that’s what it’s really all about.

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Chun Wang September 22, 2013 at 4:59 am

I cannot agree with you more.
Now, I confront a problem. I am pursuing my Ph.D. degree in my country, that is China. I have few opportunities to communicate with foreigners in relaxed environment.
The only way of learning English for me is listening and reading frequently. But when I tried to speak with a foreigner, I found it difficult for me to make what I think clear. Do you have some suggestions for me? Thank you!
I am expecting your reply.

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Brian September 22, 2013 at 7:41 am

Hi Chun, there’s really no substitute for practice and interacting with someone in real life. If you just keep at it, communication will get easier over time.

Find out if your university has a Chinese language for foreigners program. That would be a good place to find English speakers with lots of free time. They want to learn Chinese too though, so I recommend doing language exchanges. Meet for coffee and speak for an hour in Chinese and an hour in English. I did this all the time when I was at university and it was great practice.

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Chun Wang September 22, 2013 at 8:31 am

Hi Brian,
Thanks for your advice. As you have said, it is very important to talk with a foreigner who is from English-speaking countries. Distinguished from other universities, the major task of the university, or rather, institute that I stay is doing reasearch.
I really admire your experience. You have been to different coutries. You could speak several languages. It is amazing.
I will make a detailed plan to learning English. I wish I would be as excellent as you.

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Dana Fujii December 10, 2013 at 5:12 am

Hi Brian,

Thanks for an interesting article. I found your site while digging around for information on language proficiency and fluency.

I have been feeling frustration with my progress in Japanese. I consider myself fluent in Japanese, but I would not consider myself anywhere near native level, although it is the goal.

Although my mother is Japanese, we always communicated in English until I was in my late twenties. She always spoke Japanese around the house and I would use a few words here or there, but she mostly spoke Japanese to her Japanese friends.

At 23, I entered University where I majored in Japanese and participated in an exchange program. After a few years of working in states, I moved to Japan and began teaching English. I have been here for over five years, and I recently got married to a great guy. The language in our house is Japanese.

However, after all this studying and time (almost 8 years), I am able to speak, read and write Japanese at about the high school level. However, I struggle with the local dialect and novels are difficult without a dictionary. News, movies and TV are generally no problem, but anything “traditional” is out.

For the last two years or so, I have just been reading and speaking in order to increase my vocabulary. I find that it helps, but I still struggle when I try to discuss politics, trade, philosophy, religious ideology, etc with my husband. It just takes a lot of time, and he is patient. However, I am afraid that I am not always as patient as he is.

Does it get better? Will it take ten years? or more? I won’t give up!!
Thanks again for the great read.

-Dana

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Rhea March 27, 2014 at 7:14 am

Great article – I’m glad I found it, now that I’m a few months into learning my second foreign language from scratch. 🙂

The first one I learned was English, under the specific circumstances you described as impossible for achieving a meaningful level of fluency, and that’s why I decided to leave a comment. Disclaimer: I’m not saying you’re wrong, 🙂

I’m not a prodigy and never was; I was an average student, unless I really, deeply cared about something. I started learning English at 12, didn’t take it very seriously until I was 16 or 17, all the while living in a country where English was, at that time at least, barely spoken at all. Now, 15 years later, I’ve only been to an English speaking country twice for short periods of time, but you’d never be able to tell where I’m from if you talked to me.

It is absolutely possible to master a foreign language so that you can not only read literary works, but also write them, without ever living in the country where the target language is spoken (or having native speakers around you in your own country). It just takes a lot–and I mean a LOT–more dedication than most people seem to have, or are willing to find in themselves. I see this now in my Japanese class – four months in it’s already clear who’s going to go beyond the handful of survival phrases.

If you really care, you can do it. It’s actually easier if you have an ear for music–there’s lots of interesting research regarding the correlation between that and foreign language acquisition–but even without it, it’s doable. It’s not even difficult if you do it for the right reasons. It *is* time consuming, can’t deny that, but also really, really worth it.

Just my two cents. Cheers! 🙂

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Brian March 27, 2014 at 7:59 am

Hi Rhea, thanks for the comment. My views are biased towards English speaking folks learning Asian languages and in doing so I’m probably ignoring a contingent of European folks who speak reasonably good English but have never lived in an English speaking country.

Curious, what is your native language?

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Autumn June 27, 2014 at 6:09 pm

Hi! Thanks for this article, it had tons if useful information. I’m 14, trying to learn German and Japanese. It’s interesting yet sad to hear that after 12 I’m not likely to speak like I’m native. Although I hope being 14 gives me a slight advantage in being more fluent, since I hope to be either a translator or English teacher.

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Jael October 30, 2014 at 8:28 pm

First of all, this was a great article! It also gave me some inspiration in my studies. My name is Jael, and I’m 15. I started learning Korean about 3 months ago, and I was wondering if I could ever achieve fluency in my current circumstances. For the moment, I am just studying sources and textbooks online and trying to learn vocabulary and grammar. I also watch Korean dramas and listen to KPOP. I look up the translations and the Hangul to get some more exposure as well. The only down side is that I do not have a speaker to practice with, and if one doesn’t practice speaking a language, it doesn’t matter how much vocabulary or grammar they may know. I’ve tried language exchange sites and whatnot, but it is difficult to find someone who is consistent. (By the way, from a previous reply to a comment on here, you said you met up weekly with speakers. Is weekly speaking practice sufficient, or must it be daily?) Do you have any ideas or tips for how I can get some practice? My options are slightly limited because I’m still a minor, so I’m not sure I could meet up with people to practice on a regular basis or pay for lessons, either. I was planning on spending some time abroad in Korea during or after college, but I’d need to achieve at least basic conversational fluency by then. Furthermore, do you have any tips on achieving a natural accent? I have been living in America since I was 2, so I have a native English accent, but my first language was Telugu, and I find that sometimes, when I say some phrases quickly in Korean, my Telugu accent creeps in just slightly. Thank you for taking the time to read this post! I apologize for so many questions…I wasn’t expecting to write so much! Once again, I appreciate your blog.
Sincerely,
Jael

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Brian October 30, 2014 at 8:47 pm

Contact the international departments of nearby colleges and universities. Often times grad students bring their wives, and the wives often have lots of free time and are happy to make local friends. If you can meet someone daily that’s great, but it’s much easier to find someone who can meet weekly or perhaps twice weekly.

Pursuing a native accent is a bit like chasing rainbows. Most likely you never quite get there. But you can still get good enough for all practical purposes. Just practice, practice, practice.

You don’t need to already be fluent in Korean to go to Korea. The first time I went to Korea I arrived knowing basically nothing. If you come for a language study program or on one of the many teach English programs, the institution will usually be able to help you with housing. But beyond that it’s surprisingly easy to get by.

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Loraine November 24, 2014 at 6:53 pm

I’d like to ask if anyone else who has been speaking a foreign language for a long time, in my case it’s Spanish for over 15 years, if you ever have native speakers of the language tell you you don’t know the language very well even though you’ve been talking in detail with them for hours or years. They misunderstand that sometimes it’s their own logic that is not clear (not the words), or perhaps I couldn’t hear them. Perhaps they used one word I didn’t understand or hadn’t heard used in that way. And granted, I know my Spanish is still with some basic errors, but it’s quite disheartening to have people who don’t know what their talking about say I know “very little Spanish”. I can only chalk it up to ignorance. Does this happen to anyone else?

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Taylor September 27, 2015 at 3:34 am

I’m 31, is it possible for me to still a learn another without having a heavy foreign accent? I’ve thought about trying to become fluent in Spanish or German, but if it has to be with thick accent, I would rather not speak it all.

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Brian September 27, 2015 at 3:46 am

Hi Taylor,

You will probably never speak completely accent free. But there’s no reason you can’t learn to speak well enough that your accent isn’t a major issue.

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Gonca March 15, 2016 at 2:54 am

Hi Brian,

First, I’d like to thank you for your informative article. I think it’s amazing that you have learned multiple languages, especially after the age of 12.
I was born in the States but didn’t know a speck of English until age four. I started learning English when I entered preschool.However, now in my teens, I speak English better than my native language, though I’m fluent in that one too. I was wondering if knowing select languages help learn Korean; for example, I’ve heard knowing Italian helps while learning Spanish because of the similarities between the two languages. Are there any languages you know of, and if there are, could you please tell me? (I’m planning to start taking Korean)

Thank you again,
Gonca E.

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Brian March 16, 2016 at 3:30 am

Hi Gonca,

It’s easier to learn Korean if you know Japanese or Chinese. They don’t belong to the same language family like Italian and Spanish do, but there is a lot of influence from Chinese on Japanese and Korean vocabulary. It’s probably more like how English has a lot of words built from Greek roots. Good luck with Korean.

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Gonca April 7, 2016 at 3:58 pm

Thank you for your reply. It’s greatly appreciated.

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Emily May 15, 2016 at 8:36 am

My daughter’s 12 but she’s turning 13 in August. (We are American and our native language is English, just to clarify) We can’t travel abroad to Japan any time soon, let alone live there.

There’s quite a few Japanese meetups, meaning you go to a certain place, and you’re placed in groups and you speak to each other in Japanese and practice your accent and such. There’s also pen pals, and Skype and stuff.

She’s extremely interested in learning Japanese. In fact, she’s literally obsessed with Japan and everything about it.

Japanese classes start around September (by that time she will be 13). I’m just wondering, will she ever be able to “sound native”?
Or at least get fairly good at the language?

Thanks,
-Emma

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Brian May 15, 2016 at 9:59 am

Hi Emma,

Mileage varies a lot for how native you’ll sound depending on individual talents, motivation, time spent, etc. I wouldn’t worry too much about trying to “sound native.” If she just practices with the goal of always improving there’s no reason she can’t get good enough for all practical purposes. I’ve met plenty of people who started learning Japanese at even later ages in life (including myself) who were able to learn Japanese well enough to negotiate daily life in Japan just fine.

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Emily May 15, 2016 at 11:22 am

Thank you for your response.

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Frances August 22, 2016 at 8:31 am

One of the best articles I’ve read on this subject! I stumbled upon your insightful piece in googling “speak japanese like a native.” I wrote a blog post on how I learned to sound like a native-speaker with only having spent a few months in Japan (https://francesthinks.com/2015/01/23/speak-japanese-like-native-speaker) and was curious to see what others had written on this issue.

I also agree that it’s probably impossible to sound totally native all the time. As a heritage Chinese speaker I noticed that even very advanced Chinese learners who have lived in China long-term mess up their tones here and there. You’d think it’d be easier in Japanese, but I notice I slip up a lot too with my high/low pitches! *sigh*

Also hello from a fellow American who’s studied Japanese and Korean! 🙂

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