It’s easy to be blown away by people’s ability to learn a second language if you’ve never learned one before. From the outside, it can seem downright impossible to master a second language, let alone multiple ones. And yet people do it. Polyglots have been known to be fluent in up to twenty or more languages. How can this be? Are they gifted? Is there a language gene? The truth is that this talent comes from enthusiasm for languages and being an independent learner.
An independent learner is someone who takes on the task of learning without pressure from the outside world. In a traditional setting, students sit in class and often passively “absorb” knowledge. It’s an ineffective way to learn. Simply showing up does not develop your brain nor does it make you better at whatever you’re trying to improve.
Think about it like this: How do you learn to snowboard? Do you rent the equipment, show up on the slopes, and sit down, staring at the fresh powder? You’re there. You have all the materials you need to succeed. But how does success happen? How does talent develop? You have to act. You need to use the materials and develop a pattern of success. This takes time, and in the case of snowboarding, a lot of painful falls.
However, the more you practice, the better you become. Lessons speed up the process at first. They build a foundation that can guide you to the bottom faster and safer, saving you time from making beginner mistakes. But there’s a point where lessons don’t do you any more good, and you need to go it alone. Going it alone is what independent learners do.
Independent learners learn on their own, that much is obvious. Anyone can be an independent learner. Understanding and applying the following characteristics can yield an exponential return on not just the time you put into language learning, but into all aspects of your life. Here is a list of ways you can become an independent learner:
Becoming an independent learner doesn’t happen overnight. The key thing to remember is that skills and habits take time to develop. Start out small by focusing on a few weak points and develop those skills. It’s not that your brain will fight you, but that it needs time to adjust and build different pathways that will help you rapidly build those abilities.
People often fail at making a change in their lives because they don’t give their mind enough time to adapt to the new parameters they want to set for themselves. So take your time, and think baby steps. The more time you spend with it, the easier it becomes.
You’ve already learned the basics of language when when you were a child. And by the time we’re in high school, we can speak with rapid, academic fluency for the most part. The only difference when you learn a second language is that we’ve forgotten what it was like when we first learned a language.
When you sit down with your target language the first time, going over the basics helps. But you don’t need to have a teacher to guarantee success. In fact, many people who sit in a language classroom with teacher guidance still regularly fail to learn the language. This is because it can be too easy to rely on the teacher and jump through the hoops to pass tests rather than learn the language. Independent learners hold themselves accountable and work towards success.
The mindset of an independent learner is one that appreciates that learning has no end. They’re they kind of people who achieve fluency but still pop in a German language tape to keep improving their language. They know there’s no final “ending point.” Independent learners don’t just approach a topic with the goal of learning it, and they approach it knowing that no matter how many times they return to it, there’s always more work to do.
If your goal is fluency in German or any other language, this means constant exposure to the language, learning new vocabulary words, working on your accent, and continuing an appreciation of the culture, not because you hope to reach an end, but because you hope it never ends.