9 months, 3 languages

Over the next nine months, I’m pushing for B2/C1 level fluency in three languages: Russian, Mandarin Chinese, and Spanish. For three months, I’ll dive into each language and (hopefully) fill up gaps in my existing skill set***.

Why this madness?

For one, figuring out ways to learn languages more efficiently will make me a better teacher. It also makes sense to avoid juggling multiple languages while working full-time and intensely exploring iOS programming.

But the motivation goes deeper. I want to explore the cultures associated with each language in greater detail—which is difficult to do when struggling with day-to-day communication.

Over the past two and a half years of living abroad, it’s become clear that becoming multilingual and multicultural are two distinct, though related, processes.

Many people spend years accumulating and drilling vocabulary and grammar rules because they define fluency in the limited way schools do: fluency either means passing the highest level of a standardized language assessment, or more generally, being able to express whatever you can in your native tongue.

The thing is, mastering the mechanics of a language—vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation—doesn’t mean you can use it fluently in a cultural sense. Reaching C2 level doesn’t translate into operating well in the culture—negotiating, bargaining, arguing, complimenting, etc. in a way that’s deemed appropriate. It also doesn’t mean that you have the requisite empathy to adapt culturally. With most language resources lacking rich cultural information and many locals being oblivious to the reasons behind their behavior and attitudes, you have to gain most of that knowledge through experience. And your range of experiences is only as diverse as your language base.

As much as I want to believe in the idealistic notion that learning languages translates into greater cultural sensitivity, I’ve met plenty of bilinguals and polyglots who are quite narrow. I’ve also met many open-minded monolinguals who unintentionally get stuck in expat bubbles because of the language barrier. I don’t want to be in either category.

I have no expectation of being able to master all of the cultural subtleties of these languages in such a short time—which is to say, I won’t be fluent. But, I will be in a better position to gain that knowledge later.

So, here’s the plan:

  • Commit to 3 private lessons a week on italki
  • Study for at least one hour a day
  • Master vocabulary and conversation questions for different topics each week
  • Reflect on my progress in a blog update every 1-2 weeks
  • Extra credit: build an iOS app related to each language at the end of each mission

And that’s it. Tomorrow I begin with Russian.

***After six months of self-studying Russian, I’ve reached an A2/B1 level. Over the past year of learning Mandarin Chinese, I’ve maintained a solid A2 level. Spanish is a bit more complicated. Although I studied it for two years in college, I took a five-year break from it. Two months ago, I resumed my studies on a whim. As a rough guess, I’d say I’m at a B2 level in reading, writing, and listening; and an A2 level in speaking.

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