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.
You can learn spoken English fast, but can you become fluent in 30 days.
Yes, if you’re already close to fluency.
Otherwise, almost impossible, which more or less means ‘no’.
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.)
This is a real-world indicator which is 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 # B 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 grind for even 10+ hours.
2. Building new neural pathways in our brain – the way we learn a new skill – takes time
2A. When we learn a new skill, our neurons rearrange to build neural 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):
2B. Strength of these pathways determine how skillful you’re in that activity
How do you take any action in the physical world?
If you’ve to walk, your brain fires electric signals through neural pathways that govern walking. If you’ve to perform a more complex activity such as playing tennis, your brain fires electric signals through neural pathways that control myriad of movements required to play tennis.
The time lag between firing of these signals and you taking the concerning action is so small that it looks a smooth, simultaneous process.
Some of the mundane habits such as walking have become so automated in us over the years that we may find it hard to imagine that these automated habits too are governed in a way – firing of electric signals – similar to a new skill. Remember, as a toddler, you once struggled to even stand, let alone walk, because your concerning neural pathways hadn’t developed enough then.
If you want to get better at the skill you’re learning, you need to strengthen concerning neural pathways so that electric signals passing through them are strong.
2C. How do you make neural pathways strong?
By practicing the skill more and, more importantly, improving (this is key).
A crude way to understand this is to look at how you gain muscles through lifting weights. If you gradually increase weights (this is akin to improvement) you’re lifting, your muscles will grow in size. But if you stop at, say, 30 kg, your muscles too will stop growing. However, it’s important to keep lifting 30 kg (this is akin to keep practicing at a certain level) thereafter, otherwise your muscles will start shrinking. Right?
If you’re a newbie in, say, spoken English, your neural pathways will be weak in the beginning. As you improve, the pathways will start developing a coating of myelin, which acts as an insulation on the pathways and prevents the electrical signals from leaking. (You can understand myelin as equivalent to the plastic insulation on electric wires that prevents current from leaking.)
(In the image above, a neuron insulated with myelin is shown. The four cross-sectional images of the neuron depict progressive buildup of myelin.)
The less the leakage, the stronger the signals. The stronger the signals, the stronger you perform in your skill.
The more you improve, the more myelin you deposit on your neural pathways. (Have you wondered why so many people stay at an average level despite working years on that skill and some become world class in the same period? The former go through the motions, repeat what they’ve been doing without improvements, and therefore they don’t myelinate their neural pathways enough. The latter, in contrast, take pains to improve.)
After this little 101 lesson on how we develop skills, let’s come to the topic at hand: why it’s extremely hard to become fluent in English in 30 days.
2D. It takes time to build these neural pathways
The realignment of neurons, building of new pathways, and their strengthening through myelination doesn’t happen overnight. It takes months and years depending on the skill and expertise level you want to achieve. For example, learning driving would take less time than learning tennis. And, commonsensically, learning driving on highways would take less time than learning driving on chaotic lanes of a city.
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.
Completely trash what I’ve ranted in this post and try becoming a fluent speaker in 30 days. During this period, religiously perform all the prescribed drills to the stretch of your limit.
At the end of 30 days, judge for yourself.