How to get fluent in the new year

It’s a new year. A moment to start fresh. Clean slate.

Maybe you are new to learning languages. Maybe you have tried and failed many times. But if you’re reading this article it’s because you have a genuine desire to succeed.

But the truth is that you probably won’t. Because you have one thing in common with most other people: you are the victim of a system. A system that begins at primary school, continues through high school, and then into adulthood. And what is this system?

The education system

I want to start by asking you a question: what is mathematics? Everybody would probably give slightly different answers, but in general people would say that it’s about numbers. Adding, subtracting, decimals, fractions, and especially about formulas and rules to solve equations.

But what would a professional mathematician say? They would say that mathematics is ART. And that’s not just my opinion. This is what the mathematician Paul Halmos wrote:

“Mathematicians have very little to do with numbers. Mathematics is a creative art. It is a creative art because mathematicians create beautiful new concepts. It is a creative art because mathematicians live, act, and think like artists, and it is a creative art because mathematicians regard it so.”

The only reason that most of us don’t consider mathematics to be art is because our culture doesn’t recognise it as art. And because we are victims of the education system.

We are taught that maths is all about numbers, and then we are taught that it is practical and important. Maths will help us in the future to work out the interest rates on our bank account, or do science, and create amazing new technologies. Maths is different from other subjects like painting or music which are done just for, well, enjoyment, expression, but for no practical reason at all.

And in the same way we are taught that language is also practical and important. Students must learn English so that they can travel, and do business, and get jobs and compete in the global economy.

But the truth is that most adults will never use the maths they learn at school, and most adults will never use the language they learn at school. 

Because language and maths are no more practical or important than art or music.

So why teach them?

We should teach them because they teach us important things about being human. Maths is about curiosity and problem solving, and language is about communication. Curiosity is the reason we do science and create technology and explore the world, and communication is the tool that makes it possible.

People often ask me why I don’t make more practical videos, videos about grammar and vocabulary, you know, videos that will actually help students to learn language.

The reason I don’t is because the education system has given everyone a false idea about what language is. There’s been a big problem with the perception of language since the first grammar book was written thousands of years ago. We think of language as consisting of tiny objects like nouns, and verbs and tenses, and we think that they explain language. That we can use those things to teach language. But those tiny objects are an achievement of language, not what makes language work.

Language doesn’t exist because of grammar, grammar exists because humans communicate.

And unfortunately the way that we teach and learn languages reflects this huge misperception. As a result language classes are inefficient, ineffective, and worst of all boring. Let me give you a specific example:

I’m going to eat pizza – past plans
I will eat pizza – decision now

Fill in the blank: 

I have a ticket to Spain. I ____ (fly) there next week.

This is not learning. It’s the adult version of this. There is nothing for the student to do. The question has been asked and answered at the same time. There’s no opportunity for the teacher to explain or for the student to ask WHY? What are the historical, cultural, linguistic, and psychological reasons that ‘going to’ means one thing and ‘will’ means something different? And how does that apply to all other parts of English?

All everyone knows is that it will be on the test, and if you follow the ‘rule’ then you get a reward. A letter or number like ‘A2’ that is supposed to be able to reduce the infinite complexity of human language down to meaningless categories, and then in the future that will be used against you to decide if you:

  • can get a job
  • move to a different country
  • or study at university

And during all this nobody will bother to ask if you can even communicate.

It’s a crime against language.

But you know the worst thing about this example? It’s not even true. ‘Will’ vs ‘going to’ has nothing to do with when you make decisions or plans. It’s a rule that’s been mindlessly passed down and regurgitated from generation to generation.

Learning the technical details of language is only slightly useful for people who will go on to become professional linguists, and almost completely useless for people who want to simply use language to communicate. It’s the opposite of what students need.

The deep and important lessons about language are not to be found in its complexity, they are found in its simplicity. Look at this sentence:

A son goes up to his father and says “Hi Jim.”

There is easily a whole class of fascinating discussion and deep understanding about language that can come from that one simple sentence:

  • What does it mean to a native English speaker when they call their father by their name, instead of calling them dad?
  • What are the cultural reasons that it’s insulting?
  • What are the linguistic reasons that it’s insulting?
  • Can we think of any other examples in English that use the same linguistic device?
  • Was it always like that in English?
  • Is it the same in all English-speaking countries?
  • What do we do in my language?

And finally:

  • Wait a second, why does he ‘go up’ to his father?

Ask yourself what type of language classes you want for yourself, your children, and your teachers. What kind of students do we want to create? Do we want to kill the joy of language?

I want everyone who is in a classroom right now, or studying on their own to succeed. I want you to succeed. I want you to get some results from all the precious time and effort that you are investing in learning. But it requires you to do something really brave. It requires you to challenge everything that you’ve been indoctrinated to believe about what learning really is.

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