Back in 2010, I was staying in Korea for 2 months and made quite a few Korean friends. I arrived in Seoul at a low-intermediate level but surrounded myself by Koreans as soon as I could.
A month later, speaking Korean was not a struggle anymore. Sure, I needed to use English for long conversations. Apart from that though? I could do pretty much do whatever I wanted with relying on it.
I went to Gwangju for a 2-week voluntary program, living with 4 Koreans and 10 other foreigners. The Korean people were all from the same University and were members of a club practicing English every morning during the school year.
During that program, I got really close to them and so I decided to stay around longer. For the next 2–3 weeks, I joined them in the morning to talk in English and we’d often go in the evening to have drinks.
My last weekend around, we decided to go to a nearby mountain and have fun for 2 days in a cabin. The goal? Practicing English with absolutely no Korean input. Each Korean word would cost you 100 Wons. Back then, 1 dollar was worth 1200 Wons. They said I didn’t have to follow this rule but this sounded fun so I took part anyway.
But then, something unexpected happened: by the end of the weekend, I was the one who had the most to pay. 4700 Wons to be precise. Almost 4 dollars. Of course, I didn’t mind and quickly obliged.
What had happened? It turns out I had made certain Korean words a habit.
I often called older girls 누나 and older guys 형 as is the rule in the Korean language. I’d say 아이씨 whenever something bothering would happen. I’d automatically use 응 or 아니 to say “yes” or “no”. And I often started sentences in Korean before realizing midway I should switch.
Does that demonstrate a very high level of Korean? Of course not. Those are easy words, learned at the beginning of a language-learning journey.
But I wasn’t going through English or French in my head before saying them out loud. They had become part of me. It even took me a few years to stop saying 아이씨 on my own.
For one weekend, I was less able than Korean native speakers to stop myself from speaking Korean. What a crazy thing to experience!
Making a language automatic
While, in retrospect, I had already experienced this for English years before, I didn’t notice it back then. These $4 were a clear indication this time.
It was the beginning of a new journey for me. If I ever wanted to become truly fluent in a language, I’d need to make it so natural I couldn’t refrain myself from speaking it.
Since then, I have striven to transfer simple words from one language to another. After Korean, the same words became more natural in Japanese, then in Mandarin, then again in Japanese. Now, I’m trying to make it so Burmese words pop up first.
Sure, this isn’t much, but it teaches your brain that this language is not “foreign” anymore. It’s part of you.
On the side, I push myself to have more complicated structures and words in Korean and Japanese replace English in my head. Living in Japan obviously helps. Nowadays, the only situation in which my self-talk turns back to English or French is when I am angry.
How to automatize a language
This is both easy and complicated. It just consists of forcing yourself to talk to yourself in the language. But in the midst of your busy life, you’re bound to forget to do so quite often. Here are a few techniques I’ve found to work well:
- Watch a ton load of videos and listen to a lot of audio in the language. Especially when you’re busy with something else. It’ll help your brain associate the language with many types of situations. This is the base of everything.
- When you can, every time you think of simple words in English, remind yourself what they are in the language.
- Have a list of these easy words hung on a wall you see often. The one in the bathroom is my favorite by far.
- Spend 5 minutes a day forcing you to think in the language. It’ll be hard. Many words won’t come to mind each time but you can skip them. The goal is to make your brain accept the language as a part of you.
But above all, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It’s fine if you fail sometimes. It’s even fine if you can’t come up with the words most of the time. It’s bound to happen.
Even after some words in the language become automatic, you certainly won’t notice it for weeks if not months. This process has a subtle impact on your daily life and thoughts. So small that most will fly off the radar. But the progress will be there.
So have fun and good luck! Or as I’d often say that fateful weekend: “화이팅!”
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Mathias Barra is a French polyglot living in Japan and who has learned 6 languages and dabbled in numerous others. Being a curious child full of wonders is how he keeps on learning and can’t stop sharing about every tiny idea, even non-language-related.