Becoming Fluent: The Missing Piece

You want to be fluent in another language. You have dedicated time to study. You’ve attended a language class and haven’t missed a session. You’re on DuoLingo every day. Yet you’re not making the progress toward fluency that you hoped to see after hundreds or thousands of hours of study. You want to be a part of the music, but you’re still a solo artist.

Language is not something you learn in a classroom. It is not something you learn from a language textbook. Merely understanding grammar and knowing vocabulary words are not the same thing as being a fluent speaker. The missing piece for real, actual fluency is human connection. If you want to make harmony, you need a musical partner.

Language is a Tool for Human Connection

A language is a tool for creating personal connection. I remember as a teenager living in Korea, watching children speak Korean fluently. They would hold complex conversations with adults around them. Paragraphs of beautiful prose spilled out in a never-ending stream from their mouths. They told jokes, laughing with their friends. They cried. They fought. They shared their worries. I wondered how long it would take for me to become as fluent as a six year old child. But, these kids had spent the previous six years doing something I hadn’t. They’d been listening to the rhythm of Korean.

That degree of fluency is not far from us. It doesn’t start with vocabulary or grammar, with a golden textbook or an inspiring instructor. It begins and ends with human connection. It’s that human connection that teaches us the rhythm. There are four keys to leveraging human connection to gain fluency and find the rhythm and beat of a language.

First, find a “language parent”.

Second, mimic the beat.

Third, find your voice.

Finally, relax into it.

Find a “Language Parent”

You need someone who can be a role model for your language. The only rule is that your “language parent” should be someone who speaks better in your target language than you do.

What makes a good “language parent”?

A good “language parent” has three qualities.

  • Availability.
  • Humor.
  • (Slight) Sadism.

Your language parent must be available. You can’t learn the rhythm of a language from someone who isn’t around to make the sounds. Having a roommate is ideal. You don’t have to live together, but the ability to spend a large quantity of time together is invaluable.

Your language parent must have enough of a similar sense of humor as you to make the interaction relatively frictionless. If you don’t enjoy spending time around them, you won’t! You have to have fun together. Fun doesn’t have to be in your target language, either.

Your language parent should enjoy putting you in . . . situations. I know what to say to a bus driver in Taiwan because my Chinese language parent wouldn’t let me ride the bus without saying the magic words. Your language parent should derive a slight amount of sadistic pleasure from watching you struggle, and a tremendous emotional payoff from watching you succeed.

I can’t tell you how to find a language parent because everyone is so very different. A university student will find a language parent in a very different way than someone who works in an office. I can tell you for certain, however, that you won’t make it to fluency by yourself. The rhythm and beat of a new language won’t just come to you. You need a guide to prevent you from going down wrong paths, to lead you down paths you didn’t know existed, and to help you to become the native speaker you were meant to be. You won’t have just one language parent throughout your life, but you’ll need at least one to start.

Once you have a language parent, you need to listen and mimic them.

Mimic the Beat

Language, like music, relies on repetition. We connect what we hear to environmental cues. Children show us the way. Language is mimicry. Repetition helps our brains build useful connections between sounds and emotions.

This can happen in your native language just as well as it happens in a foreign language, as illustrated from this anecdote from Reddit:

When I was younger, my father said to me “Knowledge is power. Francis Bacon.”

For some reason I understood it as, “Knowledge is power. France is bacon.”

For more than a decade I wondered over the meaning of the second part. What was the surreal linkage between the two? If I said the quote to someone, “Knowledge is power, France is bacon'' they nodded knowingly. Or someone might say, “Knowledge is power” and I’d finish the quote “France is bacon'' and they wouldn’t look at me like I’d said something very odd, but thoughtfully agree. Once I asked a teacher what “Knowledge is power, France is bacon” meant and I got a full ten minute explanation of the Knowledge is power bit but nothing on “France is bacon”. When I prompted further explanation by saying “France is bacon?” in a questioning tone I just got, “Yes”. At twelve, I didn’t have the confidence to press it further. I just accepted it as something I’d never understand.

It wasn’t until years later I saw it written down that the penny dropped.[1]

Francis Bacon and “France is Bacon'' are effectively the same sounds. The mimicry was perfect! The storyteller was still able to use those sounds to be a part of the club. If you do the same in your target language, it won’t take you ten years to understand what you are saying, especially if you have “language parents”.

I did the same thing with the Korean word for “frequently”. I remember as a teenager hearing someone use it as though it were vocal filler. I adopted it, admiring the person whose repeated stuttering of the word sounded endearing. By choosing it as a vocal filler, I was bound to use it hundreds of times per day, incorrectly.

My Korean “language parents”, then a handful of university classmates, took swift action to protect their ears from this atrocity. I thought I was mimicking the melody, but I was in a different key and the beat was off.

Language is no more about grammar rules and lists of vocabulary than a bass is strings and wood. Language is pattern and repetition, just like good music is chords, chord progression, and melody. You’ve got to feel it, and the only way to feel it to hear it and try it until it becomes a part of you. You need a language parent because you don’t have the ears to hear it at first.

Generally speaking, your language parents will prevent you from parroting the wrong things. They’ve got ears that are trained for this. If you are lucky, however, they won’t hold back. As one of my Korean language parents once said, “You are my masterpiece. I’ve tried to expand your language bandwidth. I’ve only taught you colorful words and expressions because I have confidence that you won’t use them in inappropriate circumstances.”

Find Your Voice

Once you’ve got the rhythm down and you’ve heard a bit of the melody, someone’s going to cue you in. It’s your turn to play! Your language parent is here to guide you.

“Wo ist das Carl Zeiss Planetarium?” I said, reading out loud in my best approximation of what I thought was a German accent. Guido and Martin, my German roommates laughed at my pronunciation as I asked the concierge at the Park Inn Hotel over a Skype call. “He really has a Korean accent. We’d better play this up,” said Guido, my primary German language parent, typing another sentence on the screen.

“Und der Fernsehturm?” I read, butchering the word.

My juvenile delinquent language parents were having me ask for directions to locations in Berlin. Unless you are completely blind, it is impossible to miss the 386m tall Fernsehturm, especially from a hotel where most of the windows open directly to a view of the television broadcast tower.

My German language parent was trying to break me of shyness and fear. He wanted me to open my mouth and speak, even if it wasn’t perfect. He wanted me to try to play a part of the melody.

As my old orchestra director always taught, you must make your mistakes big and obvious if you want correction. If you are not making any mistakes when speaking a language, you aren’t trying hard enough.

“Situations” infuse emotion into the learning process. Emotion helps cement memories in place. Ask any fluent speaker of a language if they can describe when, where, and how they learned a particular word. They all have stories about when they realized the meaning of a particular word. It wasn’t the first time they encountered the word. It was the first time that the word had meaning to them. “Situations” stitch facts into memory using emotion.

The emotion helps us to remember what notes to play, and what notes not to play. We feel when to use a word, and just as importantly, we feel when not to use a word.

“Relax” into Fluency

Over time, you build up enough of a repertoire which comes to you rapidly. You are able to respond to situations in the same way as a native speaker. Congratulations! For some subset of the language, you are fluent. In these situations, you no longer search for the correct utterance to use at the correct time. The sounds become a part of who you are.

It is at this point that most language learners stop. But greater command of the language gives you greater access to others’ hearts. To match or exceed the fluency of your native language, you’ve got to “settle in” to your new home in your target language.

There are at least two good ways to approach “settling in” to your new home. The first is to take the social approach, and the second is to take the bookworm approach. These are not mutually exclusive!

The social approach is simply to have as many experiences as you can in your target language. Just keep riffing with friends! Depending on your friends, the curve can be steep. One minute you’re ordering at a cafe, chatting with friends, and before you know it, you are sharing your knowledge and your experiences before a crowd.

I started out teaching Sunday School at my local Korean language church to a mixed crowd of Korean-American teenagers and fresh international students. Seven months later I was having tea time with the Senior Vice President of the LG Group. Eighteen months after that, I was giving a guest lecture at Korea University Medical School.

All in Korean.

The bookworm approach is simply to be an avid reader as you would in your native language. This is akin to studying the works of great musicians. Breadth is better than depth. Superficially covering hundreds of pages of text to get the general gist of what is going on – known as Extensive Reading – will do more good for you than trying to understand every nuance of every word and every grammatical structure on a single page. Over time, you will find that you develop an entirely different aspect of your language ability. Your “bookworm” language will spill over into your spoken language, and others will come to regard you as having the vocabulary of a highly educated person.

At this point in your language journey, you are not looking up words. You are following the adventure of a character. You are ingesting facts. There are words you still do not know, but you are now equipped to enjoy the process. If you had started here, each paragraph would be a slow trudge, neck deep through unknown vocabulary. Now, you only dip occasionally into the dictionary. More often, you ask your language parent to explain, and then only after having encountered the word enough times for it to matter. Joy and curiosity, not obligation or willpower will drive you forward.

More often than not, the dictionary won’t tell the full story. It won’t matter, because your intuition will kick in. You will feel a sense of ownership of a word. Take the Korean word “hyung” (rhymes with “sung”). The dictionary says it’s “older brother.” I have no older brother, but I have many “hyungs”. I can tell you how to be a good “hyung”, and I can tell you how I feel when someone calls me “hyung”, but the essay that it would take to describe the concept of “hyung” won’t fit in the dictionary.

But it doesn’t matter! There is nothing frantic or frazzled about your new language home. Strictly speaking, there is nothing to “memorize”. Your target language becomes enough jazz for you to improvise. Your taste and your skill will get better as you continue, and it will be enjoyable for you and those around you. The music of your new language will inspire others.


The music never ends. Each crowd, each group, each city will have a slightly different beat. When you transition from university to your career, you will grow and may meet a new language parent who can introduce you to a new crowd. You’ll pick up the local improvisation on the rhythm. You’ll mimic it, and after time someone will cue you in. You’ll make beautiful linguistic music. It won’t be a chore. It will be pure bliss. It will be a part of who you are.

Your fellow musicians, both your language parents and those you meet along the way, will be friends for life. You and they will all be a part of the same grand symphony.

  1. Reddit, /u/Lard_Baron comments on What word or phrase did you totally misunderstand as a child?

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