Born in Cologne in 1976, I’ve always struggled with becoming fluent in languages other than German.
I learned English for about 8 years in school, and still did not understand much; Latin for several years taught me to learn words, and study grammar on a meta level; and one or two years of French were not fruitful.
After school, I became fluent in English, at first through movies and radio, then by studying biology and reading much scientific literature; now it’s like second nature to me. Also due to taxonomic studies mostly, I know more Ancient Greek word roots than the average population.
But apart from German and English, I kept struggling. I managed to live in Costa Rica for 12 weeks without being able to correctly say »I don’t understand« in Spanish (mostly due to being surrounded by North Americans), later learned about 3,000 Spanish words, but without any idea how to put them together into speech.
I’ve tried busuu.com (for Portuguese), and it has some promising aspects, but is really buggy and ugly, and their tech support is non-existent. Nowadays I’m playing around with duolingo.com, which is really fun, although there are much more powerful methods to learn a language than a translation-based approach.
Some years ago I encountered “Where Are Your Keys“/”Language Hunting“; a way to learn and teach languages, with an emphasis on fluency from the get-go. Check it out if you don’t know about it, much of what will happen here in the future will depend on these techniques.
So far I’ve hunted the following languages (click on them for more information on this blog):
- Dutch (an hour or so, with my former flatmate) — up to want/have/give/take
- lojban — short session with my ex-flatmate
- Brazilian Portuguese — I’m now fluent enough to express myself without having to stop, but did not learn as systematically as I would have liked
- Turkish — during a car ride from Cologne to Berlin
- Persian — mostly up to want/have/give/take
- Mandarin Chinese — twice with a friend from Taiwan (once directly, once via Skype)
- Gaeilge — from the “Language Hunter” videos
- Lithuanian — one session with a CouchSurfer
- Makedonian — one session, with another Couchsurfer
- French — some minutes at a party
- Greek — once, but only some minutes, will have to try again soon