The Biggest Language-Learning Lesson I’ve Learned

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Is speaking-only a good way to learn a new language.I thought I had it all figured out.

Surrounded by native speakers, probably for ever, there was nothing more I had to do but speaking to rapidly improve my Spanish.

Yep, just plain old chatting would shoot my fluency through the roof.

Effortless, almost.

And so I let go of everything: courses, books, audio, exercises, you name it. All to the dust bin.

I filled my days with nothing but conversing. Man, It was fun!

Regrettably, the bubble burst.

After about a year, I noticed that my level of Spanish had barely improved. I still spoke with the same limited structures and with just a slightly increased vocabulary. There were even times when it seemed I was going backwards.

Admittedly, this was probably not really the case, but the progress I had made was disconcerting, to say the least.

What happened?

Just Speaking Won’t Bring You the Results You’re After

Speak the language, use it! That’s the secret to fast and effective language learning, right? At least, that’s what the current language-learning scene is swaying towards.

Well, I know now, that if that’s all you do, progress will come slow, very slow. Even if you speak in your target language all day long, like I did.

Sure there will be some improvement. The fluency of what you already know how to say will definitely improve. The same goes for listening comprehension of what you already know. But that’s the exact thing, you must already know it.

The amount of new vocabulary and grammar structures you pick up by just conversing is surprisingly disappointing. Sure, if you do this for enough years, you may reach your desired level – but who wants to master Spanish in ten years?

I’m a big fan of learning from context, but it’s much harder to do through conversation, especially if you are a beginner. Native speakers speak fast – they fire off one word after the other.

If you’re not already at an advanced stage, you don’t really have the time to learn new words or grammar structures this way. It all comes and goes too fast. You need to either be exposed to them an awful lot, or spend a little more time training yourself.

Don’t Forget the Back End

I slowly started to realize that if I didn’t make an effort apart from conversing, I would not become as fluent as I liked – or at least not anytime soon.

So I started to go back to my old language learning activities, including the use of native content, with the hope of giving my Spanish a serious boost.

And it worked!

I quickly made impressive progress. And since then, I’ve improved immensely. It has made a real difference in my ability to hold increasingly complex conversations.

Just today, a guy who I was talking to told me that he’d had many Spanish students in his house, but with me it was like talking to another Costa Rican. Now, that’s probably just a little too flattering, as I’m sure people notice I’m a foreigner, but it doesn’t hinder the conversations in any way.

And it all turned around because I realized I had to do more Back-End language learning, as I like to call it.

Conversing in your target language, or casually watching TV, is what I call the Front-End of language learning. Any other activity that’s directed towards improving your target language is the Back-End work.

Back-End work is like training, and the Front-End is the match. Without proper training you will embarrass yourself on match day. It won’t work. You need to be in shape, simulate and practice match situations etc..

So what kind of activities am I talking about? What are Back-End language-learning activities?

  • Language Courses
  • Flashcards
  • Vocab/Grammar exercises
  • Using native content in an intelligent way
  • Basically, almost any language-learning technique you can think of. Even something as little as remembering three words or phrases to use in today’s conversation is Back-End work.

Deliberate input creates output. I.e.: something to talk about and something to understand when it’s fired at you. Remember, you will generally not be able to say or understand what you don’t know.

Greater Than the Sum of Its Parts

The most important thing to remember, especially if you live abroad, is to not neglect the Back-End work.

Yeah, the Front-End is where most of the fun is, but that joy could easily be increased ten-fold by doing the Back-End stuff as well. It’s much more enjoyable to be able to participate in any conversation and not feel like an outsider!

Using only speaking is like learning a new language through a single method, and that’s never the most effective way to do so. Actual conversing is important, of course, but so is the Back-End work. They’re both part of a greater whole. You need to balance them.

When you’re just starting out, the balance sways more towards Back-End language learning. This gradually changes, until, ideally, you won’t have to do any more Back-End work.

You can learn a new language through a thousand different approaches. Even if you stick to a poor method, chances are you’ll get somewhere, but for faster, and better progress you can’t ignore the two sides of language learning.

Pay attention to the both the Front End and the Back End, and you will be able to learn a new language faster.

What About You?

In my language learning this was an important revelation. And one that has brought me significant improvements. What lesson that you learned has made the biggest impact on your language learning? Share in the comments below.

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Comments

  1. You’ve definitely hit the nail on the head there Noel. Living in Poland for four months, I’ve noticed that words that crop up in class are only remembered if I write them down and study them, otherwise they just come up again three weeks later and I’m scrambling through my dictionary only to find out I already “knew” it!

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for your comment, Tom.

      Yes, you have to spend some time with them. That’s key. Even just doing that in your head may help. Ideally, you learn them and then use them, either in the front end or in custom exercises.

      Thanks for the input, I appreciate you stopping by.

  2. Noel, you hit the target! I totally agree with these statements.
    ” The fluency of what you already know how to say will definitely improve…” and “The amount of new vocabulary and grammar structures you pick up by just conversing is surprisingly disappointing.”

    I bet not many people are aware of this drawback of conversing too soon. As for me, I won’t rush to converse in the target language. I prefer to read and write about topics that would be encountered in daily conversation in the beginning, just to get myself familiar so I would be able to talk about it better.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for the comment and the kind words, Teddy.

      I think a lot of people mistake conversing with speaking. (Sometimes due to bloggers like me using the words speaking and conversing as the same thing:-)) Of course you should start speaking immediately — pronouncing the new words or phrases. This helps to make connections in your brain and you will remember the words better. But that’s a whole different thing than conversing, of course.

      Thanks, I appreciate your input!
      Noel

  3. Hi Noel,
    Here I am again,
    I think that so called Back-End work is a non-stop learning process. It can’t be different! When it comes to learn a language properly, everything you said above fits perfectly even one’s own mother tongue. If you want to master your native language, you need to read a lot, to pay attention to both what you are writing and what you are saying, and when you have a doubt, it’s better to search information about it or ask someone, who can help you avoid to make a bad impression 🙂
    Although I have been reading mostly English (my target language) books for a while, I keep reading Italian books (my mother tongue), and sometimes, I still find out an Italian word or expression which I didn’t know, let alone when it comes to learn a new language!!
    Cheers, Luke.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Luke,

      Good to hear from you again!

      Yes, good point. You never stop learning a language. Not even your own.
      The advantage with your own language, of course, is that you can learn more easily from context. In many cases even from conversations.

      Talking about reading: It’s also funny how, if you always read books from a certain genre in a language that’s not your native one, you don’t really like to read books from that genre in your native language afterwards. At least that’s my experience. It just doesn’t read right. But maybe it’s just me!

      Thanks
      Noel

  4. Thanks for the healthy perspective, Noel. Some folks seem to emphasize that front-end as the ‘key’ for learning a language. And they talk about becoming ‘fluent’. I would say I’m very ‘fluent’ in my foreign language when it comes to the things that I, as you say, already know. But focusing on that fact masks the reality of how very far I have to go to really being a competent speaker.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jon.

      You’re right. If you stick to the front end only, you will improve, but you’ll also keep saying things in the same limited ways that you’ve always done. To break out of that, you’ll need to do at least some back-end work.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Noel

  5. Ahhh Noël, thank you for this post, it’s good to hear commitment to language learning in depth from elsewhere too. I’m always saying this thing about the core skills, and what I mean is what you say : Fluency does not come from a “natural” environment if that means an unstructured one..

  6. Hey Noel, good post on balance in learning.

    I think that if you’re just starting out and perhaps not even actively learning a language, you can make leaps and bounds just speaking. For example, I landscaped for awhile and learned a fair bit of Spanish from the Mexicans with whom I worked. Mind you, it was full of rude slang, but when I started learning it in the classroom setting, I felt I was miles ahead of everyone else.

    However, as you mention, if you’re just wanting to ‘keep learning’ from a point of moderate success, you make a good point about keeping the back end of your learning up. It’s almost like solidifying the front with various tools with which your actual speech can then use in different situations if you’re trying to find the right word or sentence structure.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Robert,

      Thanks for your comment!

      You need both. But to get to fluency by just speaking is a long road.

      It’s so tempting to just go out and speak that we sometimes forget about the back end altogether. And I think that’s a mistake, unless you absolutely cannot stand doing the back end work. Then you have no choice but to use the speaking-only method. It’s all about language-learner profiles.

      Thanks for your contribution
      Noel

  7. Sergio Rodrigues says:

    From what I understand, your method is, in essence, not stoping to get input rather than just speaking at all costs, right?
    If so, I couldn’t agree more and is exactly what I have been doing im my English learning ptocess, gettin a lot of input by reading and listening, understanding that speaking is a natural consequence.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Thanks for the comment, Sergio.

      I think you can make faster progress by not neglecting the stuff you may not want to do. But the more you do that stuff the faster you can stop doing it. When you’re at an advanced level you can pretty much learn everything from context, although you may want to do some back-end work to iron out habitual mistakes you make.

      Thanks for stopping by,
      Noel

  8. Hi Noel! Great blog post, it’s great to see a proper perspective and more holistic approach towards language learning.

  9. Its a nice tip to learn a new language easily. But the way that helped me to to learn new languages is through immersion, visiting these countries. In addition to software, you can have books which are useful as well.

  10. Hi Noel, thanks for your blog and well thought-out articles.
    Now, I’d like to ask you a question about vocabulary learning, and especially about its pace. Do you think 20 new words a day is realistic long-term study strategy ?
    Thanks for your time.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Hi Elie,

      Yes, I think that’s definitely possible. I like that number.
      But I think that in order to learn 20 new words a day you’d need to shoot for more, because not all words will stick. In fact, if you don’t repeat the words, you will forget most of them.

      Lots will depend on what method you use. Check out the Ask-The-Experts post on vocabulary for ideas if you don’t have a plan yet.

      Stay tuned as I will be testing a certain type of mnenonics soon, and I will post the results here on my blog.

      Thanks for stopping by!
      Noel

  11. I think immersion in the language really is vital for obtaining a better fluency but to really make the most of it you have to back it up by studying and also putting yourself in different situations that aren’t so day-to-day.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Exactly, the front end and the back end need each other. By using both we can learn a new language faster and better.

      Thanks!

  12. David Feigelson says:

    I agree that having the same conversations makes one feel like there is no progress being made. I experience this almost everytime I talk to a native speaker in Chinese. Perhaps it is a symptom of not challenging ourselves. I think moving to the next level in a foreign language can be scary, especially if one is studying on their own. I just find textbooks boring to work with. Lately I have listening to academic lectures on different aspects of Chinese culture in Chinese. I think the repetition is the key. The more I listen to them, the more my brain makes sense of what I am listening to. Would like to know your thoughts about this method.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Yes, repetition is key. I wrote a post about it here.

      However, not all repetition works for everyone. Technically, flashcards should be the ideal tool to learn vocab, but many people have trouble using them.

      I take it from what you’re saying that what you are trying to improve is your listening comprehension? Or are more than 50% of the words you hear unfamiliar to you? If the latter is the case, then I think you’re not using your time optimally.

      However, it could be that you can’t stand learning in a more traditional way. Then this is the best way for you to learn. How you go about learning a language should IMO always depend on who you are (language-learner profile) and where you are (the stage you are in). If you like you can read more about it here.

      Thanks for the comment
      Noel

  13. Finally someone saying something that makes sense. I kept hearing the experts say that you just have to immerse yourself in the language, speak, and listen. I live in Vietnam and have been studying for several years now. When people speak to me if I don’t know the word, I don’t know it. It means nothing to me. So, you are right, first you have to know words, and how they sound, then try to use the words in conversation. The problem is, when they start speaking back, if I don’t know the words, it’s a waste of time. So, you have to do lots and lots of back-end work before you can speak, and even more before you can listen and learn anything. Thanks, I feel a whole lot better after reading your article.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      That’s great to hear, Frank. Thanks.

      Yes, I’m convinced that you already need to be at a certain level to make conversing really work for you. If you are, then conversing is an excellent way to become fluent in what you know.

      But even then, it’s most effective to keep doing a certain amount of back-end work. For example, I developed the “Saying the Unsaid” method. It’s a method in which you identify what you wanted to say but couldn’t say in a conversation and then using that in your back-end work, and eventually bringing it back to a conversation. BTW the report that explains this method is free for all Smart Language Learner subscribers.

      Thanks so much for your comment. Always great to hear positive comments!
      Noel

  14. Hi Noel! This is the first time I have found your website and blog. I completely agree with this article and I had the same experience and results after visiting Ecuador and Colombia for 3 months recently. Despite talking to people everyday, my level of speaking did not take off like a rocket, I was only able to use the words, verbs and grammar that I already new with more flow. The communication was still quite simple and I constantly felt limited in how I wanted to express myself.

    Perhaps some people are able to pickup new words and absorb the language though speaking and listening but I am not one of those people. If I would have continued with my studying and vocab building while travelling, my results would have been 1000% more impressive.

    I have a website helps intermediate to advanced English students and this is the concept I have been trying to explain to so many people that write to me saying ‘I just need a native speaker to talk with! That will solve all my English learning problems’. They are skipping the training aspect. It’s awesome to talk to native speakers to prove your ability to communicate but the majority of the ‘training’ should be done outside of conversations.

    • Noel van Vliet says:

      Great comment, Amy. Thanks.

      I agree 100%.

      This “skipping” or jumping ahead is a sign of our times I guess. It’s like people want the reward — speaking a new language — without actually putting in the work to earn it, i.e.: the back-end work.

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