Insights on reaching ‘Native-like’ fluency in your target language

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At a polyglot gathering in Berlin in 2014, Italian polyglot, Luca Lampariello, gave a hugely insightful talk on what it takes to reach native-like fluency in our target language. The talk was particularly insightful as it went beyond the cookie-cutter ‘C2’ definition of fluency and touched on the importance of human connection and emotion in language learning, an oft neglected aspect of the process. This post will outline and expand on Luca’s main points.

The talk begins by addressing the question of what exactly constitutes ‘native-like fluency’. Firstly, Luca points out that the highest achievable level within the CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages), the earlier mentioned C2 level, is, although a standardised and generally well-validated test system, subject to some interpretation. The official definition of a C2 language user is as follows:

Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.

CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) definition of a C2 level language speaker

This, Luca says, is not for the most part a skillset that even native speakers have. This definition can also be somewhat discouraging, of course. At this point Luca begins to make his case for his own vision for the definition of ‘native-like’ fluency and how we can go about achieving it as language learners.

Native speakers at 18 years of age will have been living the language for nearly 80,000 hours. This accounts for time asleep too, where a good portion of our learning actually occurs. This 80,000 hours or so consists of time ‘living the language as a whole’: speaking, listening, interacting, feeling, and so on. It is time which constitutes what Luca calls the ‘obliged path’ to fluency we all take as we grow up living a certain language. Think of how we begin by listening to and absorbing the language at a young age, attempting then to speak it as we get older, and then eventually learning to read and write it while in school.

As the learner of a foreign language there is no obliged path to learning, we can choose the order in which we want to learn. We all learn to speak our native language in a similar way along the obliged path, but as adults we can make the choices about how we learn a new language, choices which directly affect our learning process.

Luca suggests thinking of the language learning process as laying siege to a castle through the use of four knights. The castle you want to gain control of symbolises the language, and the four knights symbolise reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

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Luca suggests that learners ‘attack the castle from different directions’, for the band of knights, if given equal amounts of focus and attention, work to reinforce each other. The words you pick up from a song can then be used later in the day when writing your journal entry. The words you learn through reading that Tolstoy novel can then be used in speech over coffee with your Russian-speaking friend. In this way language learners can very effectively advance toward native-like fluency.

But there is that slippery term again, ‘native-like fluency’. Luca holds that it isn’t necessary for us to live the language for the same 80,000 hours an 18 year old native speaker has done in order to be fluent in a language. He presents the image of a sphere with an inner core and an outer ring. The goal should be, he says, to firstly build up a solid core of basic words, grammar and phrases that anyone might use in a day. For example, anyone, regardless of profession or background or interests will certainly use many of the same few hundred words as everyone else in a day. These words, one can probably guess, include: the, he, she, it, on, where, when, at, and, go, eat, sleep, work, think, feel, and so on. With a core made up of the most commonly used set of words in language, a person can actually express a great deal. Luca refers to the principle of recursion, and provides the following example to demonstrate: “I think that John is cute”, “I think that she thinks that John is cute”, and so on. Our core set of basic words allows us to express a huge deal in this way.

The outer ring of this sphere surrounds the core of basic fluency, and constitutes personal fluency. This relates to all the words relating to our work, our interests, our background, etc. Learning both the basic words of the language and the words which matter to us personally allow us to converse very fluidly with people. This makes sense if you think about it through the following clarifying situation; take for example a person who is very interested in music. Music is a subject they will talk about with people when they get the chance, they will likely go to events and places that relate to music, and generally be attracted to others who are interested in music. This goes for any of our interests. We can become fluent in this way because it is through this path that we will do the most speaking, interacting, thinking and feeling in our target language. Learn about the mechanics of a car engine in a language and you might get a conversation or two out of your car breaking down, but for the most part, it will be totally useless (especially if like me you can’t pass your driving test and doing so seems like a galactic distance of a possibility after four failed attempts). So, learning first the most basic vocab, followed by the vocabulary which directly relates to all of the most prominent aspects of your own life, is one of the most effective paths to fluency.

Of course, a solid core of fluency made up of the basic and personal components, although allowing you to converse fluidly in the situations you are likely to find yourself in throughout most of life, won’t mean that you can read a complex book, which is something generally comprised of thousands of words not regularly used in everyday language. However, according to Luca, once at the stage of fluency so far outlined, the core we have built acts almost like a net or spiderweb in which all the other elements of the language are caught up much more easily and effectively.

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This roadmap to fluency as defined by Luca is therefore initially highly personal, allowing us to really think, feel and interact in our target language, and once we have begun to live it in this way, picking up the rest of the language becomes much easier.

Luca supplies a final analogy at the end of his talk which compares the achievement of fluency to the building and structure of a sandcastle. The substance or sand of the sandcastle constitutes passive exposure to the language. This refers to what we read, listen to, and watch. The water, he says, is interaction and emotion.

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“When you learn a language for real so that it becomes a part of you, you have to incorporate feelings and states of mind into the language learning process”.

This need for interaction and emotion is key according to Luca. This is why it makes even further sense to build up vocabulary relevant to you own life first, not only because it consists of the words you are most likely to use, but because they also mean something to you. The conversations you will have about your passions in life ought to be emotionally engaging, and therefore most beneficial to the language learning process.

The key takeaways then are to attack the castle using each of the four knights a little bit each day. It really must be on a daily basis. Luca says we need to live the language as much as possible and organise our lives around it. He also says something which reminds me of Moses McCormick, who was one of the very first YouTube language learners, and who recently passed away quite tragically. Moses, or as he called himself in Chinese, Laoushu, went out everyday to restaurants, malls, and anywhere he could to find native speakers of the language he was learning while at home in America. He, as Luca advised we do, “created chances”.

“It’s the way you live that makes a huge difference”.

Luca Lamapriello

The importance of living the language to the extent we can, whether that means creating chances at home or actually visiting somewhere where that language is traditionally spoken, is, claims Luca, that language is actually a whole lot more than just words. It is a way of thinking. He references customs in France such as never cutting the salad, or how it is almost sinful not to greet a person with ‘Bonjour’ first and foremost before speaking to them on the street or upon entering a shop or restaurant.

This may sound disheartening to language learners, but the truth is that there is a great deal we can do to build that net from where we are, and if we are honest and take Luca’s advice on board, then we can probably admit that there is always some way that we can create the opportunities for ourselves to speak with native speakers and to live the language in some way, too. Moses McCormick’s YouTube channel is a great example of that.

Luca’s talk offers an extremely interesting way of thinking about how one can go about achieving fluency. Start with the universal basics of the language, then work outward towards that which has most relevance to your own life, use a little bit of the four knights each day as you lay siege to the castle, and ultimately, focus on human interaction and connection.

Luca’s talk at Polyglot gathering: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WQB_w3maAio&t=1002s

Luca’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/poliglotta80

Moses’s YouTube Channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCbRaUB7Hfe3clmKqqj8Nm1Q

2 Comments

  1. I teach English as a foreign language and find this fascinating! I’ll definitely share it with my students- thanks 🙂

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