[This is based on an unpublished article I wrote in July 2017.]
I wish to address the topic of languages, and the challenging relationship an overwhelming majority of aspiring language speakers share with acquiring a new language. I am familiar with many of the language myths surrounding the process, having been myself a believer of them at a younger age. However, I find surprising and upsetting that in spite of the abundance of very accessible and readable ‘demystification’ resources online, the overall language-learning stigma as I perceive it has hardly changed. In this article I want to explain from personal experience why I believe the process of effective language development to be extremely straightforward. Not easy, but straightforward. The process demands consistency and discipline, but is hardly mystifying.
I presently wield five languages: English, Russian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Polish, each to a different, but satisfactory level of proficiency. Specifically, I can express myself in each of these languages at least as well as reasonably established immigrant in the respective country, speaking with occasional lapses in grammar and vocabulary, but perfectly understood, and often as good as a native speaker who perhaps spent too long abroad and may erroneously substitute a foreign word at times. My listening fits a similar paradigm - at worst, I may ask the speaker to slightly slow down and repeat, which, by the way, happens even with my best language(s). However, I’m unlikely to be trapped in a conversation, nor is my conversation partner ever likely to become frustrated with the rhythm. See my self-assessed analysis of the different languages by category below.
The table above ranks each category from 1 to 10, but these don’t correspond to percentages in the direct sense. For example, a listening score of 8 out of 10 in Polish doesn’t mean I understand 80% of what I hear, which would render the language not practical to solely rely on. Rather, I understand everything crucial in about 80% of the conversations, and in the other 20%, an element of uncertainty might exist, which, by the way, can easily be remedied by virtue of a clarifying question, a situation common to languages of even the highest skill in the category. The score in the writing category, on the other hand, I consider to correspond roughly to how you might be ranked in that category on a formal language exam, although your informal writing (social media, short emails, text messages) might already have reached a satisfactory level, which, in many cases, is the sole aspiration.
Note the categories Formal Use and Informal Use. The former refers to the capacity to wield the language to the limit of it’s depth, aesthetically, philosophically, and technically, or rather, the capacity to lecture, inject subtle insight into the conversation, carry out scientific conversations, but most importantly, deviate from standard forms of speech and improvise in clever ways. This category almost directly impacts the capacity to wright, since we must leverage formal language in order to create content of, let’s say, publishable quality (subjectivity noted). The latter category, on the other hand, I personally consider most important in daily use for someone not aiming to reach any highest echelon in the respective tongue, but rather, simply communicate on a daily basis. Every one of my languages beyond English and Russian I have undertaken with this being the priority.
My formal and informal skills not only don’t correspond to each other, but carry an inverse relationship in the extreme cases. For example, with respect to informal use, I ranked myself at least an 8 in most languages other than English. Russian earns the highest ranking of a 9 because for at least the previous 8 years it has become the generic language of my subconscious and the most proficient language to carry out the most naturally sounding down-to-earth conversations, despite the obvious gap in the formal category.
I abstained from assigning a 10 to Russian, not so much because of any infrequent grammatical oversights committed, which I attribute more to the formal category, but largely because having a personality inclined towards cultural disparity, I lost the yearning to speak in a manner considered most informal or purely native to any region. English, despite the formal prevalence, I ranked 7 in the informal category, since I have long ago lost the interest as well as appreciation to carry out simple conversations in this language, with every such attempt deviating towards formal speech. I even receive feedback, sometimes in the form of criticism, to the respect of sounding like a professor in a context that does not warrant such an approach. Personal conviction, or lack thereof, can largely impact each respective language category.
Pronunciation, interestingly enough, can carry an immense secondary influence to the development of other categories, especially speech. Incidentally, naturally-sounding pronunciation convinces your listener that you wield the language better than might otherwise be the case. It also tends to sustain longer, undisturbed conversations, and stimulate the internal input/output feedback loop, which causes the speaker to not only feel a greater sense of gratification, but to also develop quicker. My Polish pronunciation, for example, sounds fairly natural (because I experience much ecstasy in speaking it), to the extent that I progressed my informal use of the language fairly quickly, in a matter of several months, without hardly dedicating any notable time to the more formal or even grammatical elements.
The Reading category, I consider more of an indicator to read formal language not only in simple publications, but also literature. This has been my secondary focus in all languages since reading literature has remained one of my few consistent hobbies since adolescence. A score of 7, I consider sufficient to undertake even more profound literature and comprehend mostly everything, at least by context, with infrequent aid of a dictionary. I have even read several novels in Polish, lowest-rated in this category, although mostly translations of other previously read material. Lately, however, I finished the not previously read Franz Kafka’s Castle (Zamek), surprisingly without too much difficulty.
I included the above table mainly to illustrate the possibility and the likelihood of directing attention to different aspects of the language in the process of its development (or decline.)
The main reason I observe why someone fails to make progress or even initiate the language acquisition journey, is lack of clearly defined reasons and goals. Let’s start with the reasons. Why do you wish to speak the language? Better yet, what do you find inadequate with the language(s) you already speak? Ideally, you should devise several responses, but at least one must be exceptionally strong. To help throughout travels? Experience suggests that lack of the target language will rarely devastate your travel plans. What have my reasons been for each language?
Russian and English Russian is my first language. I lived in Belarus for the first ten-eleven years of my life, where Russian is the commonly spoken language. Having moved to the US, I became accustomed to English out of necessity - not of out intrinsic desire, since I would have happily spoken Russian. Necessity serves as a powerful agent. I could not lead a comfortable life in the States without basic English.
Spanish The reason for directing my attention to Spanish emerged not during my two obligatory years of a foreign language in the US, but ten years later. One, I found Spanish to be incredibly beautiful, and became conscious of the beauty of the different forms of Spanish spoken in various countries. I also desired to integrate further into the culture, difficult without the proper language exposure. This, however, was still insufficient as a motivator.
Fundamentally, I became bored with the use of English, especially the mainstream spoken English. The pattern, the choice of vocabulary, the constructs became entirely predictable, and my attempts to explore the less common roads, encountered more frequently in literature, rarely found reciprocation among my peers. Russian, on the other hand, I always treasured even in the simpler form, but living in the US, I could not surround myself with enough Russian speakers to satisfy this need daily, not to mention that many Russian speakers around me were more accepting of assimilation and more likely to switch to English, which added to the frustration. Having become entirely dissatisfied with the linguistic state of affairs, I needed to communicate in another language mainstream enough in my surroundings.
Polish Why did I later undertake Polish? I adore the sound of Slavic languages in general, but specifically, the Polish language grew on me during the years I lived in Chicago, marked by an immense Polish diaspora. I had no issue encountering the Polish language there, pervasive not only in the various neighborhoods, but also on the radio, throughout the city newspapers, in many restaurants, and being one of the city official languages in general. The beauty of the language to me even prevailed that of Russian, although this point generates much controversy. The two languages, however, share much in common, which made the prospect of not understanding it increasingly frustrating.
None of these reasons were staggering. My approach to Polish was most nonchalant among all the languages, and consequently my usage has remained largely informal. However, even under such constraints, my mission was to enjoy the language, and speak it as if I owned it, despite any present gaps, and in a short time period (6 months - 1 year) I advanced my Polish expertise far beyond what I had envisioned, as far as being commented by multiple native speakers that my accent is hardly distinguishable from the native, or at times questioned if I’m of Ukrainian origin, considered for the most second-language speakers.
Portuguese The language, latest to enter my life as of this writing, developed in my subconscious over a number of years by virtue of music. My parents always played various Brazilian records at home, although, regretfully, mostly exported Bossa-Nova. The charm, the provoking similarity to Spanish, my discovery of more genres of Brazilian music, and my eventual fascination with Capoeira, resulted in having attained significant curiosity in the culture and undertaken the language. As of this writing, I have spent significant portions of the last two years living in Brazil, and feel completely at ease and natural in regards to the language.
The more reasons you can devise, the more likely you are to proceed. After you progress to a sufficient level, however, even as some of the reasons diminish, the momentum will carry you forward and insure the language remains present in your life, if you so desire. The polish language, for example, simply became one of my languages even as I no longer live in Chicago. I love the aesthetics, and I love listening to myself speak, something I can leverage in many settings outside of Chicago or the country of Poland. The Spanish language, even if initially an eradication mechanism from my then present language frustrations, now exists by its own nature.
No matter what array of reasons I usually experience from unsatisfied language practitioners, they never seem to provide the one strong reason. They are typically much content with the culture that surrounds them and feel no linguistic gap. Likewise, the craving of integrating into another culture is not fully realized. As such, without some external motivating factor, they cease to advance.
First, I have noticed and been surprised that many people don’t actually desire to speak the language, but are content to mainly highlight that they are capable of the deed. Example: ‘I studied French for 5 years.’ If the goal of generating potential energy without converting it to kinetic sounds worthwhile, then no need to proceed further. If, on the other hand, you wish to presently speak the language in the world we occupy, you must refine the goal further because you will otherwise lack direction.
What aspect of the language do you wish to develop? Do you wish to communicate in daily informal situations? Master technical vocabulary? Read simple online publications? Read literature? Listen to conferences? Relish music? Perhaps all you desire is a touch of listening comprehension and have no need to vocalize yourself? The more concrete your domain, the more straightforward the process. If your goal is daily informal communication, what is your expectation? Are you a pedantic perfectionist? In this case, you may as well not even proceed. Or are you at piece with the reality of achieving a basic communicative skill-set in a tiny fraction of the time (months), and spend years ‘perfecting’?
As explained earlier, my main goal for most languages stemmed precisely around this daily informal communication with a palatable accent, and I was perfectly content with making many mistakes in the initial stages (and later). And this goal of oral and listening proficiency I achieved to the desired extent. Reading comprehension, by nature of my endless fascination with literature, even as a secondary goal, always developed in parallel. In Spanish I had specifically yearned to read Gabriel García Márquez, and ultimately attained having read not only a few of his works, but also those of Allende, Benedetti, Cortazar, and others I had not previously even been familiar with. My personal goal with Spanish also involved technical communication, allowing me to employ the language in the workplace among native speakers. This too, I achieved, albeit not perfectly. I was simultaneously minimizing the extent to which I needed to communicate in English, an always inherent parameter.
In the context of the polish language, I lacked a clear secondary goal, so my expertise remained mostly informal, although I read some literature, as I’m typically inclined to, (mostly translations of previously read material) but this was a bonus. Portuguese, on the other hand, was an interesting and a unique case where I developed interest in music and lyrics from the early stages, so I invested much energy in enjoying and decomposing Brazilian songs. Shortly after arriving in Brazil, however, I almost immediately undertook the reading of Incidente em Antares, by Erico Verisimo, with my previous reading experience revolving almost entirely around blogs and podcast transcripts, but finished the novel after a few months with an infrequent dictionary reference, and seemed to capture most of the content. I suppose the Spanish language also serves as a powerful reinforcement agent, especially in the written Portuguese, but my presence in Brazil throughout this period certainly provided much fuel.
Before I explore the different strategies I prefer in achieving expertise in one or more languages, I want to eliminate certain artificial constraints that are entirely debilitating to approaching any language.
First, as you may have noticed, I avoided the terminology ‘foreign language’, opting instead for ‘language’. Can you see why? At which point is a language even considered foreign, and at which does it become native? Russian is my first language, best in informal situations, and the language in which I construct my thoughts in any neutral context, at least since having retrained my brain accordingly in the last 7-9 years. English is my most qualitatively effective language in formal situations, technical communication, and writing. I wish I had the Russian expertise to devise an article of this nature, but never developed it into a priority. As you can see, each of these two languages serves an almost disjoint function. I used to be natural in English even in informal settings, but this trend reversed after I turned 25-26 in light of my frustrations and cultural disparity surrounding the informal language.
Is any one of these languages then entirely native or entirely foreign? Proceeding to the remainder of my languages, while I dedicated significantly less time to their development than the first two, in the context of many domains, I can use them as effectively. What then is the use of the so called foreign element? Does it not reinforce the notion of something belonging or not belonging to us? Does it not too easily accommodate the protective nature of each language under the proprietorship of native speakers? Does it not reinforce the behavior we’re too accustomed to, that native speakers communicate in the language between each other, and eagerly switch to a neutral language under the presence of an outsider? Overwhelming momentum will happily comply with this dogma. To me, however, such a stigma is not only useless, but destructive. I find it easier to categorize each language simply by degree of proficiency in different categories - one language as more proficient, another as a little less proficient, and so on. But all the languages are mine, or arguably, equally foreign.
I am sometimes considered an outsider by native Russian speakers, having spent too much time in the States, and yet, almost never having been treated as a native in the States. Beyond the age range of possibly 14-20, when I was most assimilated, I spent a lifetime being asked about the origin of my accent, and frequently implored to repeat myself since I tend to speak in a way that doesn’t fit the native cadence. Arguably, all languages I employ are somewhat foreign based on where I find myself, but I fail to see the relevance of that superficially drawn line. You are free to take ownership of any language and don’t need to prescribe to any yours/not yours categorization.
The second constraint is the learning aspect of a language. I was careful so far to limit my usage of ‘learning’ a language, because I consider it hazardous to progress. Malignant. This must sound paradoxical, so let me clarify. I believe in learning something that is tangible and measurable. You can learn to recite the alphabet, to prepare oatmeal in a microwave, to balance yourself on your arms for 10 seconds, or to ride a bicycle. Each of those skills is clearly defined and you know once you have attained it. With certain other skills, the spectrum of mastery is far less precise, and the time investment vs. expertise obtained is anything but linear. Skill in a language (spoken or programming) fits this model. So does playing an instrument, drawing, running, public speaking, driving an automobile, or even romantic endeavors. All of these activities share a common phenomenon - you can start quickly and master over a lifetime.
Fortunately, there’s rarely a need to attain mastery status unless you are seeking to become a specialist, teacher, trainer, etc. Sex, for example, a topic arguably richer in literature than religion, does not seem to overwhelm a majority of adolescents in the respective pursuit, at least in communities not imposed by religious constraints. The other activities I mentioned are similar in this nature, the only difference being a modest learning curve - that is, days or weeks before the activity is realized at a basic level. Why then do we trap ourselves in the learning stage with some activities, and are eagerly performing with others? Convenience? It appears that when we approach an activity outside of the cultural status quo, motivation dwindles, and we employ all sorts of clever tactics such as endless learning to justify lack of progress.
I have unnecessarily lost much energy in endless exposure to the stereotypes surrounding language difficulty, such as that inherent to to Russian, and the Slavic languages in general. The notion ‘Russian is difficult’ entered the realm of clichés as far as I’m concerned, tossed around with such imprudence, as if I’m expected to support this claim a priori, or one of similar nature. Every language contains certain aspects relatively more difficult than that inherent to the other languages, and vice-versa. In many cases, this perceived difficulty does not translate to linear time investment, but as common to the Pareto Principle, 20% of the effort will achieve 80% effectiveness. The many cases present in the Slavic languages, for example, are not strictly speaking necessary for basic communication and to be perfectly understood. On the contrary, you could limit yourself to a few and interchange the others almost ephemerally with little consequence. I’ve been acquainted with people like this, and the common set of traits I’ve observed are 1) I understood them to near perfection, 2) notably bold personality 3) adventurous spirit. There you have it. I considered these ‘risk-taking’ speakers actually more pleasant to be around.
On the other hand, I find such details mostly irrelevant. This difficulty element only fuels our prejudices and impedes the excitement with which we might otherwise approach an activity, step by step, be it language acquisition, or otherwise. If you are passionate about a certain language, and have clearly defined reasons and goals, you will have attained the desired language expertise and enjoyed the process quicker and more effectively than in a language labeled even the uttermost simple, but one for which you have no natural inclination.
Resources and Strategies
Below I list the different types of resources and tactics I relied upon for developing expertise in the various languages, roughly in the order of decreasing emphasis I placed on each, although this need not necessarily be the case for others. My emphasis is maximal immersion in the language, minimizing the usage of any other language in the process, regardless whether you reside in the country with that language as the primary spoken.
The rewarding aspect of such an approach, or any variant thereof leveraged by most polyglots, is very quick progression, in a matter of months, acquiring the language in a way that’s naturally joyful, and avoiding traditional theoretical approaches such as textbooks, endless grammar practice, classrooms, rigorous pedagogical drilling, and what I find most malignant, learning the new language by way of your native language. Their dreadfully slow progress, their dry nature, usually don’t result in actual language conversation, not in a way that’s natural, not without additional immersion, by virtue of which, you might as well have avoided the entire traditional, theoretical approach from the beginning, as you will here.
Almost everything required here is entirely free, with some infrequent exceptions (discussed shortly.) I personally prefer not to pay and proceed more rapidly, in a matter of months rather than years, despite the likelihood of some initial stress, at least for those more accustomed to the traditional classroom/textbook setting. I also cannot emphasize enough that many of these methods can, and should be applied in parallel.
Podcasts Podcasts have served a fundamental role in rapid development of each of my languages, especially in the initial stages. The inherent questions raised are how to procure the right podcast, and how to leverage it effectively. First, I only prescribe to podcasts composed entirely in the target language. The goal is maximal immersion, not your overall initial comfort. The parameters the podcast should respect are the following:
- In the target language.
- Natural content.
- One speaker (initially).
- Topic of natural interest.
- Contains transcriptions (ideally).
- Clear diction and reasonable rhythm.
The idea revolves around maximizing your listening exposure to naturally sounding content, listening to material you already find interesting, which you may already have been experiencing in another more comfortable language. I’m not referring to any ‘language podcasts’, but independent material not even geared necessarily to language learners, such as material related to music, fashion, culture, history, psychology, or anything towards which you already bear inclination and have some familiarity, even the very topic of language learning.
When you first begin with a new language, you may understand nothing, especially if the language bears no relation to any other you already wield. Even that being the case, simply start listening, dedicating 100% of your attention to the rhythm, pronunciation, and the overall phrasing. Focus not necessarily on isolated words, but on overall patterns of expression, as that is precisely how you will develop intuition for their meaning and purpose. Transcriptions, in the initial stages, are extremely beneficial in clarifying any unrecognized dialog.
While listening to/rewinding/clarifying the meaning of the content, write down (especially in the early stages of familiarity) verbatim, as many of the uncertainties as possible, even if that means annotating the entire podcast, despite lack of spelling proficiency. If transcripts are available, use that to compare your annotations, and make any corrections. Additionally, repeat everything you hear, to the best of your ability, trying to mimic the speaker’s cadence. This is where it benefits having one sole speaker possessing clear diction and rhythm.
In this fashion, you simultaneously develop your reading, writing, and shortly speaking and pronunciation, while stimulating your brain neurons from multiple angles. Listen to the podcasts anytime and anywhere you can dedicate at least 15 minutes - be it during breakfast, on a walk, on a bench in the park, on public transit, or any occasion you might find during the day. Clearly, you may not always be in a condition to ‘interact’ with the podcast to an equal degree, since you cannot easily annotate or read transcriptions while on a walk, for example. Nonetheless, do what you can, when you can. At least load your podcasts on a device that facilitates simple content navigation in micro intervals (5-second rewind intervals).
With time and increased comprehension, feel free to relax some of the above parameters. You may listen without making annotations, without reading transcripts (assuming their availability), find programming of more relaxed nature or even containing multiple participants. The process resembles somewhat of a self-feedback loop: use the little you have learned to intuitively, or with some reference, recognize more content, and use the result of that to recognize more still.
Video Content To complement pure auditory content, watch video content, sometimes in a form referred to as video blogs, but this can originate from any source. Watch the content online or download for offline viewing. Proceed similarly as in the case with the podcasts. As long as you have ease of accessibility and content navigation, I see no disadvantage of opting for video content throughout even the entire process. In my experience, however, I had greater fortune finding well-spoken and better directed purely audio content than video, since the speaker places greater emphasis on diction when limited to the auditory context. In later stages of development the latter point plays a far lesser role, so feel free to diversify.
Writing You should already be developing writing practice in the process of annotating the audio/video content. Beyond that, maximize your writing exposure in any way possible. Find contacts (native or non-native speakers) to exchange text correspondence with, be it in the form of emails, text messages, or pen-pal, a term that sometimes indicates a similar form of a correspondence-based communication.
Once your vocabulary and phrasing develops to a sufficient level - a level far more basic than you imagine, feel free to start making personal notes in the target language, or even write diaries/articles - whatever you may naturally be inclined towards. No need to devise anything too complex. Set out to slowly transition your writing to the target language where possible. Work-related correspondences might be an exception. If you have access to some native speaker who you wish to correct some of your writing, feel free to leverage. Otherwise, your writing will naturally improve anyway as long as you are consistently exposed to the language through the various forms.
Conversations You must ultimately carry out improvised conversations in the target language in order to speak, right? If you live in an environment with easy access to native speakers, the problem becomes fairly straightforward. Make every effort to speak in that language. Your constant listening to natural language content, practicing your writing, mimicking speech, interacting with the language in other words, should insure that you reach this stage relatively quickly - a few months even with a language not too distant from what you already possess. However, there is no shame in initiating conversations much earlier, which by all means you should, regardless of lack of certain vocabulary. After all, you will never completely have reached a state of initiation without first having committed a vast amount of mistakes, something applicable to any source of aspiration, really, but having reached a particular level of self conciousness in the realm of language acquisition.
An alternative form of conversation practice comes from language or conversation meetups. Many of these are organized in major cities, but may not always be available. Some different labels for these meetups include ‘language meetup’, ‘conversation meetup’, ‘conversation exchange’, ‘language tandem’, ‘tandem group’, and similar. The idea sometimes revolves around conversation exclusively in the target language, and sometimes around language exchange between speakers of different languages, although in the many years of my very active participation in these types of meetups, I have yet to encounter overly strict rules.
An additional form of conversation practice that you can combine with the others, or rely exclusively upon if you live in an isolated area from the respective language speakers, is that of online conversations. Many portals exist with the purpose of connecting you with native speakers of that language over video conferencing. I will not specify these here, but the options are plentiful. Sometimes this can be arranged entirely for free, if you either have language contacts and simply ask, or alternatively, in the form of a conversation exchange, where each half of the conversation is devoted to each speaker’s target language. On other occasions, depending on the language and the geographic location of most corresponding native speakers, you can arrange video conversations for a relatively inexpensive rate. This strategy might be the only exception bearing a small cost.
As a last resort, no forces of nature can prevent you from having conversations with yourself. Perhaps after reading or learning certain material, summarize it to yourself by means of a short verbal epilogue, which carries an additional bonus of reinforcing the material. The nature of such conversations with yourself limits itself entirely to your imagination. If you enjoy recording mini video content, for example, record daily clips as short as 5 minutes in duration in the respective language.
Literature If you are a literature enthusiast, read literature in the target language. Feel free to undertake literature far beyond your perceived proficiency level, but I recommend such that you understand enough from the context in most of the situations, never mind the subtleties, such that you experience overall satisfaction even if missing much of the intended meaning. Consult the dictionary from time to time to clear up the meaning of any word you may find critical under the circumstances, but not with any frequency to render the entire process tedious. There are no hard principles in respect with how you should approach literature, foreign or otherwise. Your goal, remember, is gradually increased language proficiency, not publishing a critical review in a literature journal.
Device Language Settings Reconfigure some, or all of your device language settings. This can include your cellular phone, tablet, camera, computer, or television even. I find this easily attainable and yet surprised at how relatively few aspiring language speakers reconfigure any of their devices. The idea of struggling to access certain settings or applications can initially seem daunting, but you will quickly get accustomed to the new language interface, with the bonus of having attained an additional domain of extremely useful high-level technical vocabulary.
Physical Immersion If you have the means to visit the country for any time period, be it even a couple of weeks, every bit exposes you to more of the language. However, the more disciplined you are in incorporating the above strategies into your daily life, the less of an incremental benefit will you acquire from physical immersion. Remember, your presence in the country only increases your language opportunities, but rarely imposes communication in the language beyond the minimal essential. You certainly hear more of the language around you, but you are already in control of your listening practice to a large extent.
The ease of increased speaking opportunity is really the main benefit I find from physical immersion. This increased opportunity, however, will only yield incremental benefits if you leverage it. Why, otherwise, do you encounter dwellers having spent months, or even years in the country, while barely struggling to communicate? On the other hand, others start to communicate after days, weeks, or a few months in a language without having even visited the respective country!
Minimize your Native Language Be it in the country of the target language, in the context of language meetups, or during an online conversation, minimize, or completely eliminate reverting to your native language, even in your thoughts. The more strictly you abide by this principle, the quicker you will develop the language. Sometimes this carries the implication of distancing yourself from certain groups, or missing part or even most of the meaning of a conversation, but be mindful of your priorities. From personal experience, I have found these short-term sacrifices infinitesimal in light of the long-term gratification inherent to rapid language development.
The more actively you leverage the above strategies in your daily life, in parallel, the quicker you will find yourself communicating, regardless of physical immersion.
How to Start
How can you begin to listen to podcasts entirely in the target language if you have little to no prior exposure to the language? If you accept the previously mentioned idea that there is no precise point at which the language is considered ‘learned’, you realize that all levels of proficiency are sufficient to extract utility. If you have either prior experience in the language or in a one that’s similar, you should already understand 20-30% from context alone. Otherwise, you may recognize very little, but be mindful that after even mere weeks of familiarizing yourself with rote theoretical details of a completely new, unrelated language, you should already recognize something, be it as little as 5%. Otherwise, you are not listening.
A few steps to initiate the process:
- Listen to the language to develop the feel for the rhythm and pronunciation, irrespective of comprehension level.
- Familiarize yourself with some very basic, but useful vocabulary. As the Pareto Principle demonstrates, 20% suffices in 80% of the context. You can reference one of the ‘100/500/1000 most-encountered-word’ lists for the target language if you don’t yet have intuition for this.
- Similarly, familiarize yourself with very basic grammar elements, enough to get a rudimentary idea for the language structure. (This can consume as little as a few hours in some more familiar cases.)
- Start to actively listen to and ‘interact’ with podcasts in the language. See resources.
The above steps can encompass as short as a few weeks as you start to develop momentum.