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Imagine each object in the world, both abstract and concrete, is assigned a combination of letters that form a word (there are about 170,000 words in English). Enter verbs and pronouns, a new set of words invented to connect these words and to replace them—and that is just the beginning.


Next, a variety of rules are formed that dictate how we are allowed to combine each of these elements- where even the slightest change can have a dramatic effect on the intended meaning. Oh, and by the way, once you learn all of these rules, you still can’t be completely sure of yourself because there are these things called “expressions,” which are conveniently permitted to disregard the rules and have non-literal meanings (not cool, language).

To speak a language, we have to somehow put all of this in our brain and then recall it instantaneously to form coherent sentences, often while in loud bars and stressful situations. We need to pronounce each sound in these sentences correctly if we want to be understood, but also recognize them accurately to have a meaningful conversation (even when the person speaking has an accent that literally makes it seem like a completely separate language and changes all of the sounds that we have previously studied).

It gets worse. In France, it has become a cultural fad to pronounce words backwards using a style known as “verlan.” pushing every French student just a little bit closer to giving up (don’t do it!). And you may still be optimistically thinking, “Well, at least some of the words in my native language are the same as those in my target language.” But then you probably haven’t heard of False Friends: words which are spelled or sound similar in two languages, yet have completely different meanings—and sometimes disastrous consequences. Students often try to use the French word “excite,” which means sexually aroused, because it sounds and appears to be conjugated in the same tense as the English word “excited.”

Yeah, learning a language is complex. Sometimes it is even anger inducing. On a positive note, if we are aware of the underlying complexity a language has, we can be a bit less hard on ourselves when we make a mistake and reap the benefits of remaining confident while we learn.

So the next time someone tells you that they became fluent in one day, week, month, or year, be a bit suspicious of the claim and maybe question what their definition of fluency actually is.

Related Words

Pronunciation, Confidence, Fluency


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