Translator: Phuong CaoReviewer: Leonardo Silva My story starts in Moscow.
I was 15 years old.
My best friend and I, we were partof a group of Westerners, visiting the Soviet Union.
This was in 1987, a few years before the fallof the communist regime.
We were given an official tour guidewho was assigned to us.
And the tour would start in the morning, and we were checked into our hotel rooms for the night.
My friend said to me, ''Let's go outside and look at the city.
'' I thought it was a great idea.
So we grabbed our coats, and we snuck outpast security and into the street.
We found the entrance to the metro.
The Moscow underground transportationsystem is the deepest one in the world.
The ride down the escalatortook a full minute.
Once we were down there, my friend headed right to an open train, and I pulled him back and said, “Wait! Let's write down the name of the stationso we can find our way back.
” So I had a notepad, and I took a notepad, and I wrote downthe letters of the station, and we hopped down the trainand went on train hopping.
And that was fun because – Well, actually, it was weird.
There were a lot of people, probably all coming home from work.
They were all dressedin brown and gray clothes, and it looked very, very differentfrom what we were used to at home.
But the stations were lovely.
There were stations with statues, with paintings on the wall, and glass displays.
It was really like museums.
We would never have expected that.
And everything was perfectly clean.
Well, what was weird though is that the people -nobody seemed to speak, and everyone seemed to be looking at usand it kind of weirded us out.
So after about 20-30 minutes, we'd had enoughand we wanted to go home.
I showed my note to someoneand they directed me over there.
Then over there, I showed my noteto another person, and they directed us to the other way.
And then a third persondirected us sideways.
That was a little confusing.
Aw, then I saw it.
Over the stairs, the sign.
It turned out I had written downthe Russian word for “Exit.
” (Laughter) So we headed upstairs and we found a taxi.
That was great.
And we told the driver, you know, “Intourist Hotel, ” and then he was willing to take us.
And I remember sittingnext to the driver, handing him 50 rubles.
And he looked at me and he said, (Russian) No, dollar! (Laughter) Fifty dollars? That was like I don't know20 times that amount or something.
That was not an option for us.
So we had to get out of the taxi, and he drove away, leaving us standing there.
It was a cold night, and you know everythingwas strange for us, and we were teenagers, and we were pretty nervous, didn't know what to do.
Well, we started walking.
We walked to the end of the block.
We turned the corner.
And 200 yards in front of us, the Intourist Hotel.
(Laughter) Well, this experienceaffected me in two ways.
The first is that anytime after this tripthat I would hear anyone speak Russian, I was just cringe.
(Laughter) And the second one is thatit taught me the importance of understanding the local languagewhen you're traveling.
And it actually led to me learninganother four languages fluently over the following years.
Now, before I go on, I'd like to know in the audience – Can we have a little bit of lightmaybe in the audience? I'd just like to know who's – By a show of hands, who is not a native English speaker? It must be 99%.
(Laughter) Anyone who doesn't speakEnglish, stand up! (Laughter) Alright, so I can assume all of you have, you know, gone throughthe process of learning a language.
Anybody who speaksthree or more languages? Wow, that's maybe 70%.
Four or more languages, anyone? That's still quite a bit.
Anyone speak five or more languages? Wow, come see me during the break.
(Laughter) To me, learning a language is.
For me, it's like a deck of playing cardslying faced down on the table.
As you start learning and understanding, the cards start opening up for you.
Now there's no standard wayof classifying this.
But as you learn, you reach certain milestones.
And the first one would bewhen about 25% of the cards are turned up, you reach like a basic level.
At this level, you have a basevocabulary, some grammar, and you're able to havemaybe very simple conversations and communicate a little bit.
And your study goes on until you reachthis magical point of fluency, what we call being fluent in the language.
Now what does it mean, being fluent in a language? It means that you've turned upmore than 50% of the cards in the deck, and that is the point where you have – where the languagebecomes part of your subconscious so that even if you don't use it anymorefor 10 years or longer, you will not forget it.
You can get back into itwithin a very, very short time.
So this is a level where you'recomfortable thinking in a language, and comfortablecommunicating in a language.
Now, some people go onand, you know, reach like a mastery level.
By that time, you know classic literaturein the other language and have maybe in-depth knowledgeof specialized fields.
That's often the point taken in academia.
For me, when I learnedmy first foreign language, I had a head start because I was born to a German-speakingmother and an American father.
Now, when I was a baby, I didn't really understand that what my parents were speaking to mewere two separate languages.
But by the time I was two years old, I had figured it all out.
Women speak only German.
(Laughter) Men only speak English.
(Laughter) Imagine the fun my parents hadwhen they introduced me to couples.
(Laughter) Being a bilingual was actually prettyhelpful in learning my first language.
It definitely helped.
If you're – But it also gave me something else.
It gave me two identities and the abilityto switch between them.
When you're a native speakerof more than one language, then your personality, your humor, your value system, they change as you switch languages.
This can have huge advantages.
I mean, some studies have shownan increased problem-solving ability or even a higher resistanceto Alzheimer's disease.
But what I'm almost interested in is that it's actually given mea lot of social benefits.
When you're a native speaker, then you feel at homeamong native speakers or in a culture, and also native speakersaccept you as one of theirs.
Now is this only relevantto native speakers? And that's the big question.
But wouldn't it be cool if a person learning a foreign languagecould actually develop another identity and actually enjoy the social benefitsof a native speaker that go beyond communication skills? Well, that's what happened to me.
I was able to do that, and I want to show you from my experiencehow I think this can be achieved.
So if we say this green area hereis the level of the native speaker, the first thing to note isthat on your way to reaching fluency, there is not really any shortcut.
There are some methods that you can usesuch as the Burrito Principle where you identify 20%of the most effective materials to study.
There are some apps, like stuff for time-spaced learning, that increase vocabulary retention.
They save a little time, but in the end, there's no way aroundworking with the material, practicing it, until you reach the fluency level.
But the second thing to note is that going from fluency to masteryis a much slower process, and it requiresproportionally more effort.
That's why most people -they just stop at fluency.
They know how to speakEnglish, good enough, and they don't even attempt to venture on, and I can understand it.
But the good news is, to get the benefits of a native speaker, at a native-speaker level, you don't have to go through masteryin the academic sense.
In fact, you can skipthis step altogether.
So if you think about it, there are many native speakersdo not have an in-depth knowledge of specialized fieldsor sophisticated vocabulary.
So, that's not really what is required.
So how do you do it? What is required? Well, I want to give you three areas to focus on when you're learningand interacting with native speakers.
The first is: workon eliminating your accent.
I'm aware I said eliminating.
It should be at least minimizing it.
This is, in my opinion, the most overlooked aspect of language learning today, but it's also the most important one to reach what I call a native-speakerlevel or a speaker-like level.
If you communicate without an accentor almost without an accent, this changes how natives behavetowards you unconsciously, and it also gives you an abilityto adapt to a new self-image.
The best way that I've found – the best exercise I've foundto improve your pronunciation is what I call theperfect-sentence technique.
What you do is you finda native speaker to help you, and you take a bookin the foreign language, you open it at a random page, and you read the first sentence.
Then, you ask a native speaker to rate you on obvious accent, slight accent, no accent.
Then the native speakerwill read this sentence back to you.
You have to listen carefullyand then you repeat.
And you repeat this process over and overuntil the native speaker tells you that he can no longer hear an accentwhen you read the sentence.
Now, I realize it can takea very long time even just to get one sentence right.
But I promise you if you are persistent, and if you patiently work on this, you'll be amazedby what happens to your accent.
The second area to focus on is using verbsand expressions that locals use.
Now, we all know the situationthat vocabulary can be region-specific.
Like, in the US, you use “stand in line.
” In the UK, you “queue.
” That's all good.
But sometimes, the spoken word is so different, the speech is so differentfrom what you get in textbooks, that the books are almost uselessif you want to converse with natives.
I want to give you an example.
In the French language, there are words like “le travail, ” which is “my work.
” A French person talking to his friendwould probably say “mon boulot, ” which is a completely different word.
The same for “the clothes, “”le vestments, ” but you'll hear “le fringues.
” Or money is “l'argent, ” but people say “le fric, ” “le sou, “or many other expressions for this.
So, obviously I'm only scratchingthe surface here.
But here you actually have to learn allof these words and expressions one by one.
And of course, you have to interactwith natives to do that.
But after you reach a critical massthat you're comfortable with, it'll actually be easierwhen you encounter something new.
You'll just pick it up in one go, like native speakers would, who hear words or expressionsthat they didn't know before.
The third area to work onis adopting cultural traits.
What do I mean by that? So let me ask you: what does this gesture mean to you? Any Italians here? (Laughter) OK, now, dependingon what culture you're from, this could mean something rude, or it could just meanit's something incredulous, like, “Why did you do that?” Or, “How could you?” Or it could just besignaling food, “Give me food!” Interesting! In the Middle East, this is just a standard wayof signaling “Please, wait!” So these kind of traitsyou have to internalize, and sometimes, they're hard to spot, and it takes a lot of active listening.
I want to give you a few more examples.
So imagine I am with three of my friends:an American, a German, and a Frenchman.
And, like, we're walking and maybethe American bumps his head, and his initial reaction might be, “Ouch!” That's how you say it in English.
But the German that, you know, gets, I don't know, elbowed in the crowd, he would say, “Ow-ah!” (Laughter) And the French personmight step on the nail and say, “Ay!” (Laughter) So this, of course, in your target language, this is something youhave to observe and also internalize, and it has to become part of you.
Again I'm with these three friends, and I sit with them, and let's say I serve them tea, and I ask the American, “Would you like a biscuit with your tea?” And if he answers in the affirmative, he might say, “Uh-huh!” And I can ask the German, “Do you know what tea this is?” He'll say, ''Mm- hmm!'' And then I ask the Frenchman, “Do you like this?” He'll say, “Hmm!” (Laughter) So these difference, they really require active listening.
So all of these three thingsthat I told you which is pronunciation, and colloquial speechand adopting cultural traits, they all require that you interactwith natives as much as possible.
Ideally, you shouldfully immerse yourself in the culture.
Now if you have the chance to live abroadfor a while, that will be great.
Or maybe live among nativesin your hometown.
Perhaps just have a romantic relationship, or even just spend time, you know, with co-workers.
So, romantic relationships, I could do a whole talk about that.
(Laughter) That works really well for these things.
But yeah – So this will be differentfor everybody, of course.
But even when you're not around natives, your learning must not stop.
Because what you can dois you can watch TV shows and films, you can mimic the characters, you can write down anythingthat you haven't heard of before, and practice that.
I also want to encourage youto learn the lyrics of songs.
Songs are really greatbecause they tell stories.
And they not only help yourpronunciation when you sing them, but if they're emotional, they can anchor these expressionsinto your active vocabulary.
And it's like speaking all day and reallyusing the expressions unconsciously.
It's a great way.
So music, definitely.
The other thing you needto move towards native-speaker status is the right mindset, and a belief thatif you sound like a native, express yourself like a native, talk like a native and act like a native, you'll actually achievea native-like level.
So if I could only leave youwith one thing today, it would be: work on your pronunciation.
Because pronunciation helps any stage of the learning process, even in the very beginning.
It'll speed up everything.
And it also is the keyto reaching a native-speaker level, or almost-native-speaker status.
So before I go, I'd like to tell you how I was able toovercome my fear of the Russian language.
It was a very, very elegant solution.
I married a Russian girl.
(Laughter) And I now have little kids in my homethat speak Russian to me every day.
(Laughter) So I want to thank you.
(Applause) And before I go, I just want to wish you (Spanish) A lot of successwith your language studies.
(French) It was a pleasureto present for you today.
(Hebrew) I wish you lots of successwith your studies.
(Yiddish) Thank you for listening.
Good luck to you all and.
(Russian) Thank you.