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Speak the Language

A State Department staffer reveals his tricks for becoming fluent fast

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I never had a French nanny. There were no Chinese-language charter schools when I was growing up in Rhode Island in the ’80s. My family may have come from Russia a century ago, but I heard nary a “do svidanya” from my parents. So how on earth did I learn Russian, French, Chinese and enough Kazakh to translate the news?

I ran press conferences in Russian, located lost luggage in Chinese and read Guy de Maupassant in French. There are people out there who speak all of these languages better than I do, but I learned them all — without shortcuts.

It wasn’t easy.

But, to quote Stephen Colbert: I am America, and so can you. That is to say, I was born and bred in the U.S.A., yet I figured it out – and have some suggestions for you (or for your precocious toddler). Follow these easy steps to get on the fast track to Polyglot City.

Make the commitment.
You didn’t think you could make the varsity basketball team without shooting hundreds of layups, right? As with any skill, languages need to be practiced and honed. You probably won’t be able to put in that kind of practice unless your heart is really in it. Pick a language you love and are motivated to keep studying.

I made the commitment to learn Russian when I was reading Nikolai Gogol as a college freshman and with typical undergraduate intensity decided I simply had to understand the tragic Russian soul.

If you’re not dreaming of reading Tolstoy in the original, whispering sweet nothings to a Parisian demoiselle, or starting the next Google in Shanghai, it may be time to re-evaluate whether you really want to learn that language, or whether it’s just another half-hearted New Year’s resolution.

Take a hard class with lots of grammar. 
Maybe James Bond can arrive in Montenegro and be fluent in Serbo-Croatian within minutes. In the real world, you can only learn to speak a language well if you learn how it’s built.

Words are the bricks, and grammar is the mortar. Without solid grammatical skills, you will lose a lot of native-speaking friends whose patience is tested to the breaking point. Trust me, I know: I barely survived making inadvertent sexual innuendo to my host mother in Moscow when I used the wrong form of the verb “to end.”Take a hard class that really teaches you grammar. If you’re not learning declensions and verb conjugations in your first weeks of Foreign Language 101, you’re wasting your time.

Troops go to boot camp before they deploy. It’s the same deal for languages, except instead of ammo magazines, you’ll need boxes of notecards for vocabulary and verb tenses. If you’re not doing homework and drilling vocabulary nearly every day, you will have a hard time making steady progress. Build at least a few minutes of study into your daily routine. The Metro is a great place to flip through your vocab notecards.

Open your mouth.
In all the language programs I’ve ever been part of — and I’ve sampled quite a few — having the opportunity and gumption to speak regularly is critical.

If you aren’t speaking in class, it’s like reading “Juggling for Dummies” without picking up any balls. Force yourself. Not only does speaking give you practice for the real thing, it reinforces the knowledge that you have just acquired, cementing it in your brain.

And keep in mind that when your luggage is lost in an airport in remote southwest China, you won’t get it back by telepathy. Trust me — I’ve tried.

Now there are even foreign-language practice websites and channels on YouTube that let you practice speaking, so you can interact and get feedback on your oral skills wherever you are. Try BBC Languages, LiveMocha or Babbel.

The very best way to acquire speaking and listening skills quickly is to participate in a summer immersion language program. You can go anywhere to do this — in fact, I argue that the best opportunities are often in the U.S. These programs — some of the best-known take place at Indiana University, Middlebury College in Vermont and Middlebury’s Monterey Institute in California — help you focus on rapid language acquisition on picturesque college campuses without all of the logistical, cultural, social and safety issues inherent to venturing abroad.

These programs are admittedly expensive (sometimes in the range of $10,000 for six to 10 weeks), but a quality program can help you leapfrog entire academic years in a single summer.

Buy a ticket.
So you’ve taken a year or two of college-level Spanish (or the Rosetta Stone equivalent). Now what?

Time to test your mettle in real-life situations: Do you know how to ask whether a store in China has shampoo? Or what to say to the customs agent who frisks you at the Russian border?

For that kind of fluency, you need in-country immersion, preferably at least four to six months. If you’re a student, a semester or year abroad is ideal.

If you’re gainfully employed, there are other options. Take a two-week studycation at a language institute in a warm-weather area of your desired country. Go between jobs. Apply for a scholarship, such as the Fulbright or the Critical Language Scholarship, which are both run by the U.S. State Department. Or find a place to volunteer with native speakers.

Go on a date.
Once abroad, it is critical not to get stuck in the comfortable cocoon of the expatriate community. So why not date?

Granted, if you’re married this one is not advisable. But maybe you’re young, unmarried and possibly even attractive. You’re also probably American, which is better than beer goggles in many foreign countries.

So put on your party shoes and hit the nightlife. A couple of drinks should provide the necessary social lubrication. Dating a native speaker gives you the motivation to learn and brings with it the nonverbal situations, companionship and patient interlocutors that make learning a language fun and survivable over long stretches when you can only express yourself with a first grader’s vocabulary.

My girlfriend in Moscow, Ira, not only tolerated my grammar mistakes, but took me to the coolest indie-rock joints in town. She also nursed me back to health after a nasty bout with mono. Can your Rosetta Stone do that?

If dating is out of the question, find other social activities that provide similar language-learning opportunities — clubs, sports teams, charities — any hangout where informal, friendly interaction is de rigueur.

If you have a soccer ball, you’ll have friends — and language practice — within minutes practically anywhere.

Get a job.
After dating, the next best thing for learning a language is getting a job that requires using it. There’s nothing that concentrates the mind like an assignment with no shortcuts.

While studying in Moscow in 2000, I took an internship that required me to cold-call people in Russian. I’ve never looked at a phone with so much horror before or since. (I was comforted to discover the guy who answered the phone at the Korean Embassy had a worse accent in Russian than I did.)

I was constantly forced to be on my game. Sure enough, within a couple of years I was giving press conferences in confident Russian.

Bonus: Professional-level language skills are a huge leg up in a tough job market.

Don’t lose it.
Some people can go years without practice and pick up where they left off. Not so for others of us, and certainly not for languages that aren’t deeply ingrained.

I haven’t spoken Kazakh since 2007, and it’s virtually gone. Solution: Return to Step No. 1. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.

Depressing? Si, un poco. But not letting all your hard work slip away is critical, and perhaps the hardest part of all.

My advice: Call your old friends abroad regularly, meet native speakers at home, watch movies, listen to foreign music and read the literature. My wife, Hannah, calls me an overscheduled child for all my language activities: Chinese class on Wednesdays, Russian happy hour on Thursdays, and on and on.

Keep the flame alive, and make sure you remember why you undertook this crazy language quest in the first place.