You might have read advertisements claiming to make you a fluent speaker in 30… and some even in (gasp!) 10 days. You might have also come across blogs and videos with similar claims. Beware of such claims. They’re made mainly to lure people who’ve to face an interview in few weeks.
You can learn spoken English fast, but can you become fluent in 30 days.
Yes, if you’re already close to fluency.
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your current level in 30 days. You can, but fluency… no.
I can say this from my observations of people starting from different base levels trying to become fluent speakers, but in this post I won’t impose my opinions. I’ll talk purely from the basic principles of how we pick new skills. But before we get into the two reasons, let’s look at a bottom line – a real-world happening that supports the title of this blog.
You’ll find plenty of organizations recruiting freshers mainly for their ‘right attitude’ and communication skills, and then imparting technical skills through their in-house program, which typically lasts few weeks.
Why don’t these organizations just ignore communication skills too and then train the recruits through yet another program? (Many organizations do have post-recruitment training programs on communication skills, but they’re mainly on advanced topics and they presuppose fluency in English.)
They don’t because communication skills take time to come to an acceptable level and can’t be rushed through in a matter of few weeks. This is common knowledge. Here is a tweet from Rand Fishkin, founder and former CEO of Moz and now founder and CEO of SparkToro, supporting this:
(Well, soft skills are more encompassing, but communication skills form an integral part of it.)
Instructors at Telluride Adult English Classes (TAEC), a U.S. based program that provides instructions in English language to non-native speakers, admit that proficiency in the language takes few years.
These are real-world indicators which are actually playing out.
Here are the two reasons why becoming fluent in 30 days is not possible:
1. Can you learn English for 8-10 hours every day?
Most advice on becoming fluent in 30 days presupposes that you can work extremely hard to the tune of 8-10 hours per day for 30 days.
That’s too big an assumption to make. Let me explain.
1A. People learn in small chunks
What will happen if an entire semester of a subject is rammed down your throat in a mere month? Your brain will fry under the overdose. You need time to process the inputs you’re getting, and you can do that if you receive them in small doses. Not in an avalanche.
To quote John Medina, a leading authority on brain study and founding director of two brain research institutes, from his book Brain Rules:
[What are] the most common communication mistakes? Relating too much information, with not enough time devoted to connecting the dots. Lots of force-feeding, very little digestion. This does nothing for the nourishment of the listeners [in a classroom setting], whose learning is often sacrificed in the name of expediency… Most experts are so familiar with their topic that they forget what it is like to be a novice.
Overdose without the time to digest and connecting the dots lead to poor grasp of the subject, and hence inefficient use of the time you’re devoting. This is commonsense, right? You would have yourself experienced this and don’t need an expert opinion to appreciate it.
The last sentence of Dr. Medina’s quote is important. Experts, many times, provide prescriptions looking from the vantage point of an expert level. They miss putting themselves in the shoes of a novice and understanding her/ his struggles in grasping new things thrown at breakneck speed.
1B. Improvements are inherently discomforting and hence you can push yourself only so much in a day
When you’re learning new things, you’re more often than not working at the edge of your ability (or making improvements) because you’re encountering lot of new stuff. In contrast to effortless practice, that’s discomforting and draining on your brain. Such practice, therefore, is difficult to maintain for long in a day. Daniel Coyle in his book The Talent Code talks of how world-class experts struggle to put in lot of hours in a day because they regularly practice at the edge of their ability, which can be sapping:
What’s more, there seems to be a universal limit for how much deep practice [practice with focus and seeking improvements] human beings can do in a day. Ericsson’s research shows that most world-class experts – including pianists, chess players, novelists, and athletes – practice between three and five hours a day, no matter what skill they pursue.
(Deep practice – also called deliberate practice – is the way best in their fields practice.)
I don’t expect you to practice the way experts do, but you would still be following one of its main tenets – regular improvement – in your own little way to raise your fluency level. And the effort to make these improvements drains you much faster than when you do a repetitive task. (What does your experience say? When do you mentally tire fast – when on something new or when on a repetitive task?) And don’t forget, these world-class experts are one of the most motivated, on-fire persons. For lesser mortals even 3-5 hours of deep practice in a day will be tough.
In short, the essence of point # 1B is that if you’re trying to improve, you would find it extremely challenging to pull off 8-10 hours at decent efficiency because improvements, unlike repetitive work, are inherently discomforting.
If you can’t practice for 8-10 hours a day during those 30 days, then a major assumption of 30-day fluency claim falls off the cliff. I repeat, we’re not talking of repetitive practice alone here, which you can comfortably pull off for even 10+ hours.
2. Building new neural pathways in our brain – the way we learn a new skill – takes time
Human brain contains around 100 billion neurons, each of which is connected to around 1,000 other neurons, creating around a trillion neural connections or pathways.
When we perform an activity for the first time (example: speaking, walking, programming, playing a game, and the like), some of these neurons realign to form a new set of neural pathways that govern this new activity.
You can watch this YouTube video to understand how this rearrangement happens (duration: 2:03 minutes):
If you want to get better at the skill you’re learning, you need to strengthen concerning neural pathways by practicing the skill more and, more importantly, improving (this is key). As you practice, the pathways will start developing a coating of myelin, which, at the most basic level, determines how skillful you become.
(In the image above, a neuron insulated with myelin is shown. The four cross-sectional images of the neuron depict progressive buildup of myelin.)
Learn more on the topic of how we pick skill in this post: Why Are Some People More Intelligent, Smarter?
The realignment of neurons, building of new pathways, and their strengthening through myelination doesn’t happen overnight. It takes months and years. The more complex the skill, the longer it takes.
Spoken English, with all its nuances and multitude of variations, is a complex skill to learn. Similar spellings can be pronounced differently (cut vs. put). Pronunciations can defy logic and patterns. Vocabulary. Intonation. And so on.
Then there are problems such as first thinking in native language and then translating into English.
Spoken English is not about just learning few rules and then speaking comfortably henceforth. Besides learning the rules, the exceptions, the nuances, you also need to give time to your vocal organs – tongue, throat, and lips – to get used to producing sounds in English. That’s the reason why people can read, write, and listen, but not speak.
It’s a complex skill, no doubt, and therefore you’ll take many more than 30 days to myelinate your neural pathways enough for you to become fluent in spoken English.