I used to think that it was necessary to learn a language completely if you wanted to speak it competently. I thought it was necessary to memorize every word, become familiar with every idiom, and study every rule of grammar, until thoughts leapt from your brain to your tongue without a second thought.
However, I’ve been learning recently how mistaken I was. I spent some time thinking about why my view of fluency was so distorted, and realized that it was because I ignored two important factors, both of which serve to mitigate the apparent difficulty of languages. Those factors are synonyms and context.
Synonyms – Synonyms make speaking seem more difficult than it is, because they artificially inflate the amount of apparently necessary vocabulary. But in order to speak effectively, you don’t need to learn every word in the language; you only need to learn one word for each concept. For example, if you were learning to speak English, it wouldn’t be necessary to learn the words “fast,” “swift,” “rapid,” and “quick,” because you only need to learn one (and you can choose the simplest) in order to communicate the idea.
Context – When reading or listening, it is unnecessary to recognize every word or grammatical form spoken to you, or to differentiate among every syllable. The gestures, intonations, body language, facial expressions, circumstances and other words or sentences surrounding an unknown word often tell you everything you need to know about its meaning.
This probably sounds obvious, and I am sure it isn’t news to anyone who has learned a second language. But when you’ve only studied languages in a classroom (as I had), with textbooks that meticulously detail every rule of grammar, and thousand-page dictionaries, “speaking a language” seems to be much more linear and rational than it actually is.
It helps to pretend you are ‘acting’ while trying to speak a new language. It takes the psychological edge off making mistakes. It also helps to bring a small pocket dictionary (2000 most common words kind of thing) with you everywhere you go. Anytime you sit for a coffee, whip it out and try to memorize a page of words.