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When I lived in Istanbul in 2003, I did everything wrong to learn Turkish.

Everything.

  • I took Turkish classes instead of speaking in Turkish with Turkish people.
  • I spoke in English or French with the Turkish friends that I had made, instead of speaking in Turkish.
  • I studied Turkish from a textbook used in my class, instead of reading stuff that Turkish people read.
  • I listened to recordings accompanying the textbook, instead of listening to real conversations and stuff that Turkish people listen to.

I don’t speak Turkish very well today despite all of my hard work. I can have simple conversations, but it’s far from what I’d actually call knowing how to speak Turkish.

If I could do it all over again, here’s what I’d do:

  • Never attend a single Turkish class ever again in my life.
  • Consult a textbook only very occasionally, mostly to resolve a doubt.
  • Speak in Turkish with the Turkish friends that I had made. (Duh!)
  • Perhaps use recordings made for learners, but keep it to a minimum.
  • Listen to insane amounts of real conversations in Turkish and authentic materials (TV, radio).
  • Cultivate my sense of adventure and throw caution to the wind.

In fact, that’s exactly how I learned Spanish.

With Turkish, I took a much more “traditional” approach. By that, I mean that I studied it like a subject. How stupid of me! I was much smarter when the time came for me to learn Spanish.

The truth is that I really didn’t care about learning Spanish at the time. This indifference towards Spanish allowed me to get rid of all my inhibitions.

I spoke when I wanted to, said it any old way I knew how, and just didn’t give a damn what people thought. I listened to anything in Spanish just for the hell of it. I didn’t care if I understood it or not.

I speak fluent Spanish today.

Turkish, on the other hand…

I cared very much about learning Turkish. I might even say too much. I tried to “manage” my learning. I tried to do everything in graded doses so that I wouldn’t scare myself too much by coming up against what I couldn’t understand.

What I should have done was just say to hell with it like I later did with Spanish.

I’m not saying you should stop caring about learning French. That would be silly.

What I’m saying is:

  • Stop worrying about learning French.

What I’m also saying is:

  • Expose yourself to lots of French that you don’t understand. If what you don’t understand exhausts and frustrates you, you’re worrying about learning French. See the bulleted point immediately above.
  • Ditch your inhibitions. They are not your friends. They will only hold you back.
  • Stop trying to manage your learning like at school. You’ll never feel at home in French unless you stop doing that.
  • To hell with what you don’t understand right now. You’ll understand it someday without having to force it.
  • Drop your guard and make mistakes. If you’re not making mistakes, you’re not even trying.

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