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Speaking Exclusively In The Second Language

One of the most crucial decisions you can make in your language learning efforts is to speak the target language exclusively. That means, if you’re learning French, then you talk in French alone. For Chinese, you restrict your interactions to that. And so on.

A Childhood Story

English isn’t my first language. By the time I was in high school, though, I wrote and spoke at a very good level. How? I went to a primary school where English was taught in every grade level

One of the things teachers will regularly do in our English classes is to restrict the use of any language other than English. Not only did they teach strictly in English, they required us to use the vernacular every time we spoke in class. Any time you were heard speaking even a word in any language other than English, there were repercussions. In some classes, you got a fine (a few cents); in others, you got extra assignment; and in some, those who committed transgressions the least amount of times got extra points at the end of each grading period.

On hindsight, that was great for us. Being forced to speak strictly in English an hour a day definitely made for effective practice — one that helped us develop skills at a level and pace we otherwise wouldn’t have achieved.

No English Please

During my experiences meeting with language learners, I’ve met plenty that used the same philosophy of going strictly with the target language in order to quickly build up their skills. Except they went at it more radically. Instead of an hour a day, they worked towards really minimizing the use of English to the bare minimum necessary.

Doing without English forces you to put the target language at the forefront of your mind. It forces you to prioritize that over anything else. Your mind begins to naturally come up with scenarios how you can best use the language to make your interactions smoother, eventually helping you think in the second language instinctively, too.

English Can Hold You Back

Say you’re staying in Brazil for the next year and you’re learning the local language. You take your lessons and do your exercises, following the traditional advice. However, you spend the majority of your time hanging out with expats and English-speaking colleagues. You come home in the evening and read your English-language newspaper. Or go to the internet to read your favorite English websites. You turn the TV and, of course, you’re surfing cable channels looking for shows from back home — in English. Do you think you can learn as fast (or as much) as someone who makes a conscious decision to really use the target language as often as they can?

I’ve actually met many like that — people saying they’re “immersing” themselves in a country when they, in fact, spend majority of their time surrounding themselves with English. Sure, they’re living in the country. Sure, they interact with locals when necessary. Sure, they do the bare minimum, but you get what you put in. That is, you also get bare minimum results.

English Is Everywhere

Avoiding English is hard these days. Not only do a lot of people worldwide have some amount of English facility because of their exposure to the internet and US media, but people trying to practice their own English skills on foreigners is also growing a lot more common. In places where English-speaking tourists are common, English is often used in stores and restaurants, allowing you to get around rather easily. When you come home, the internet and cable TV make English content easily available. Couple that with the English-speaking community in the locale (some of whom you will likely meet through work, if you travel for business) and you can, literally, stay for three or six months in a foreign country without that much exposure to the local vernacular.

Obviously, this is truer in some places than others. In countries like France, for instance, they tend to stick with their own language, so there will be fewer opportunities for you to slide into “English-speaking tourist” mode. In a lot of countries, though, locals may be very accommodating to English speakers and will try their best to really communicate with you in your own language even when you initially talk to them in their native tongue.

How To Pull It Off

Avoiding English completely won’t be easy, especially if you’re in the early stages of learning the local language. In fact, imagining it will probably be daunting. If you think it to be impossible, then do it bit by bit, taking gradual steps towards using the target language exclusively as your goal.

Do note: this is a big change. As such, it isn’t likely to be a choice that’s available to everybody. If you can integrate it in your process, however, you will really see gains that are impossible otherwise.

Here are some things you can do to help towards this end:

1. Make friends with local speakers at work and use their language during interactions. A lot of foreigners who end up working abroad tend to stick to people they can easily converse with. To help your language learning, make it a point to establish connections with native speakers in the workplace. That move alone can help change your social life into one with a lot more opportunities to practice your language skills.

2. Consume local content. When you watch TV, keep the channel on local shows where the native vernacular is spoken. Read local newspapers. Minimize your time on the internet with English content to that which is absolutely necessary.

3. Be comfortable with being misunderstood. This is key. If you avoid English, then you have to use the local dialect strictly. That means, really stretching your comfort zone and not letting anxiety get the best of you during interactions. In reality, this is where most people have a tough time. If you can persevere through adversity, though, that’s how you’ll make the biggest gains.