How to Learn to Speak

The Internet is full of advice on how to learn to speak Chinese, or more precisely - how to learn a foreign language, and most of all, how to learn it fast.

Not surprisingly, all these methods have one thing in common - they are each presented by an individual who has gotten amazing results him or herself - gained fluency in jaw-dropping few months - or even days! (and who no doubt explains that he has no special gift or talent for learning language himself - in other words, is just like you and me, or at least no better than you and me as regards natural gifts for acquiring language.)

Who Do You Choose as Your Teacher?

Of course we want the super learner who says he's just like you and me, right? Who else would you want to teach you to learn a language super fast other than someone who has done it super fast himself? Seems like a safe assumption.

But actually this is an assumption that ought to be challenged. And why?

Because it's wrong.

I'm not saying that such folks don't have good advice. Because they often do have some very good advice - particularly if they are genuine, and most, in my estimation, are quite genuine.

The problem is, it is more 'niche' advice than they realize. What I mean is that often this advice, however 'right' it may be, is largely such that only a niche group of learners can, or more accurately, will carry out or profit from.

I have no doubt that most of these super learners would disagree with me, or would see my point as invalid. But that's ok. We can ask a different question: why would it be more to our advantage to seek out advice from other successful learners apart from the folks in 'the super fast club'?

Let's use an analogy.

Would you rather learn about building a successful business from:

  1. someone who succeeded at business surprisingly quickly and handily, perhaps meeting just a modest number of bumps in the road
  2. someone who failed many times, and gradually, over time, refined his approach until he met with solid success

Well, there's probably no need to point out that my own choice would be the second individual. And here are some of the reasons why, if not already apparent:

As one example of this last point, I have observed that no small percentage of the fast learner club are hard-core adventurers, and their emphasis is almost invariably on 'going out and communicating' with others to the point of even intentionally putting yourself in situations where you are forced to communicate.

It should be plain to see that, while this is an excellent method, and will find good support from the fundamental theorem of language learning, nevertheless, it is an activity that is much easier for someone with a definite taste for adventure to sustain for a long period, than for, well, someone like me.

Of course, all of the fast learning success-story gurus don't one and all put their emphasis there. This is just one example of a simple bias that can and does come into play when we look to anyone from this group offering their brand of secret sauce.

But make no doubt: there is nothing wrong with gathering bits of advice from wherever it may be offered when it can potentially motivate you or inform you of useful strategies or concepts to aid your language learning. Including those offered by the lightning learners.

But we ought to be especially keen to the fact that there are others apart from the 6-months to mastery bunch, such as my own self with my own relatively long trek of climbing the Chinese mountain, who have in their hard-earned attainments, some especially refined gems to offer. And because of the more complete process of refinement these gems have undergone, they are likely to offer a potency that is superior, and more universally applicable to learners of all walks, of all dispositions, termperaments or inclinations than the attractive objects more easily happened on.

The place to start, which will give you a surprisingly accurate tool for evaluating any method of learning, as well as a guide for adjusting your own activities to make them as beneficial as possible, is the fundamental theorem of language learning.