New expats face a number of daunting hurdles in those first months, not the least of which is learning the local language. (Assuming, of course, that you don’t already speak it.) Yes, you can often get by without it, but do you want to?
It’s true that I never really learned Czech while living in Prague, and I will admit that I was short on motivation both due to the difficulty of the language and the fact that I knew many people who had lived there for years without learning it. If they could get by okay, I could too, right?
Fast forward to Oslo. Although almost everyone here speaks English well, I know relatively few people who don’t speak Norwegian. There are many reasons for this, including the fact that the language is quite easy for English speakers (at least once you figure out all the vowel sounds), the foreign/expat population is much less transient than in Prague, and it’s somewhat unusual for someone not to work. Add to this the fact that I would need to interact (at least a little) with the teachers and kids at Luca’s barnehage, and I was determined to learn Norwegian, and to try to do so quickly.
But how to do it? I could (and eventually did) sign up for a language class. But I worried that learning in that environment would be painfully slow. Unnecessarily slow, too, since I was (theoretically) surrounded by it daily.
I remembered a rather cheesily named website that I’d read about a few years earlier: www.fluentinthreemonths.com. I had scoffed at it the first time I’d read about it, but found myself visiting it now out of curiosity. Between that website and a perusal of books that made similar claims I wondered: Is it possible to become fluent in three months?
First, how do we define fluent?
I’ve always been very cautious to use the term “fluent” for anything short of “almost native.” But obviously that’s not possible in three months. Rather “fluent” in this context means reasonably comfortable talking in simple/common circumstances and able to use a monolingual dictionary. (Some also say it means “thinks in the language,” but I find that misleading. Perhaps someone at the level described can think a bit in the target language. But I strongly suspect that they are often translating and that their internal dialogue is almost exclusively in their first language.)
Given that I’d already been living in Norway for six months when I started, I thought I could (should) do a little bit better than that. After reviewing the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR), I deciding that arriving at level B1 should be reasonable. In other words, I wanted to be able to understand statements about everyday life (family, work, school, and leisure); handle “travel situations” (ordering at a restaurant, shopping, etc); create simple texts relevant to my life; and (briefly) describe experiences, events, dreams, ambitions, opinions, and plans. Oh, and have simple interactions with 2-3 year olds.
How to Become “Fluent” in Three Months: A Quick Overview
When I first decided to get serious about learning Norwegian (and doing so quickly) I found two books whose methods promised to help me meet my language learning dreams: Fluent in Three Months and Fluent Forever. They are very similar in their methods, although Fluent in Three Months was even more focused on speaking than Fluent Forever, and the former seemed both a bit more time-consuming and less rigorous. (A counterintuitive combination, no?)
Personally, I found the Fluent Forever approach more appealing. Part of this was because the author has legit language learning credentials thanks to his time spent at Middlebury. And he’s an opera singer, and opera singers are cool (usually with the ability to sing in multiple languages). Plus, the other dude was endorsed by Tim Ferriss, which made me feel a little douchy reading his book. But although it was appealing, that didn’t mean it worked for me…
My Experience Trying to Become Fluent in Three Months
As is often the case, I started out with the best of intentions. Before reading the books, I signed up for a Norwegian language class that featured very small classes (five or few students) since experience told me that small classes would be the best environment to learn in. And while I agree with the books that a course isn’t necessary or sufficient to learning a language, taking a class (from a linguist no less) definitely appealed to my school-loving, nerdy side.
But as much as I knew that signing up for a class was right for me, I also knew that it wasn’t going to get me to my goal.
So, in addition to the class, which I was largely hoping would provide me with the pronunciation piece, I tried really hard to build and use a spaced repetition system in Anki. (This is the cornerstone of the Fluent Forever method and is also discussed in Fluent in Three Months.)
It was, in a word, a disaster. It took me hours to figure out how to make cards. (Although the book tries to walk you through this, I didn’t really get it until I started following these step-by-step instructions on the blog/vlog.) And then when I finally did, they didn’t save. As a result, after a dozen hours, I found myself with about fifty cards to review that first week (including many that weren’t done “correctly” and therefore didn’t seem to be very useful). Which was fine for one day, but not nearly enough for six. And then my next card-making marathon arrived, and despite making a hundred or so more cards, at the end of the day my deck still only had 50.
I was very hopeful that if I invested a few (okay, five) hours each weekend, I would be able to do most of my studying on the bus to pick Luca up from barnehage each day. But when Anki didn’t work, I couldn’t. I tried to make the flashcards while Luca was at barnehage, but even when they saved, I didn’t get enough done. And so, the next day when I tried to review the cards, I quickly found myself back at the beginning of my deck.
After a couple weeks, I completely gave up. I kept going to class and doing the homework, but nothing else. As a result, at the end of my 11 weeks, I could only speak a tiny bit more than I could when I started.
How I’m Going to Approach This Next Time
By the time summer rolls around I will have been in Norway for an entire year. And the lack of Norwegian that I’ve learned in that time is embarrassing. So I’m determined to do better. Here’s how I’m going to try:
Train my ears.
At the end of my Norwegian course, one of my classmates asked our instructor (who was going out on maternity leave) for her best tip to keep learning until the next round of classes started up. Her recommendation? Listen to as much Norwegian as possible. Specifically, she recommended having the radio on in the background while cooking, doing housework, etc. (Can you tell that most of her students are moms?) So in addition to binge-watching Skam, I’m looking for Norwegian podcasts to listen to.
Goal: Listen to an average of 30 minutes of genuine Norwegian programming (i.e., not geared towards foreigners) per day.
Read magazines/newspapers in Norwegian.
Or their online equivalent. I understand why resources such as Fluent in Three Months deemphasize reading, but as a visual learner, I think it is an important part of my journey. Plus, when I read I can notice little things (particularly grammar) that are harder to catch in speech, when I’m just struggling to keep up most of the time. So in order to really understand the Norwegian language and not just understand what people are saying (does that distinction make sense?) I’m adding reading to my routine.
Goal: Read an average of 15 minutes per day.
Write out some basic scripts.
This is by far the most useful thing that I got from reading Fluent in Three Months. The idea is that when you are first starting out, you have the same interactions (and need to say the same things) over and over again. This definitely has been my experience, which involves having to ask people to move out of the stroller area on the bus and help me lift up my stroller almost daily. So make it easy on yourself and memorize them.
Goal: Write out and memorize 3-5 “scripts” for the most common interactions that I have had and/or anticipate having over the next three months.
More Anki Flashcards.
Despite the technical difficulties I had the first time around, I am determined to try these again. I’ll start by making cards for the 1,000(!) most common words in the Norwegian language plus other words that are particularly relevant to toddlers/preschoolers.
Goal: Make flashcards for 3-4 hours per week; review them for an average of 1 hour per day.
Buy a Norwegian Grammar Textbook.
Or two, now that I’ve stumbled across this cool looking story-based textbook.
Goal: Once complete making vocabulary flashcards, start making and reviewing grammar ones.
So…Can you become fluent in three months?
My brief answer is “probably not, at least if you have a toddler.” Or any other interests. Because although ~10 hours per week (the amount of time needed according to Fluent Forever—once you’ve figured out Anki) isn’t much, it can be really hard to find that much time.
That said, I can’t fairly say since I didn’t come close to 10 hours per week. Even if you count my Norwegian class, which you probably shouldn’t. So I’m going to try again with this slightly bulked up plan (which still shouldn’t take much more than 10 hours per week) and check in again in three months.