Step By Step

We were in Quebec and I ordered water in French. You should have seen the shock on my daughters’ faces! They had no idea their father spoke the language. I first learned French in grammar school and then again in high school. I retained enough basic vocabulary to get by in limited situations. But having a rough understanding of French has always gnawed at me because, while I could understand parts of conversations, it wasn’t enough to make me even close to fluent. I was stuck in a sort of “no man’s land” of comprehension. But with the advent of some great apps and programs I knew I could get over that hump.

A few years ago I decided to become a bit more serious about re-acquiring my skills in French. I began practicing five minutes a day on an app called Duolingo. Then, I added an app called  lingvist .  By doing both daily, I have became confident that I can and will master the language. I study 40 words a day and, slowly but surely, I have noticed that I am becoming much more adept at it.


Generally speaking, it takes about 500 hours to become fluent in a language.  Since I have a head start because I studied it earlier in life, I know I can cut down that time in order to master French.  Oddly enough, most people who take language in high school never become fluent. Most high schools treat it as a basic requirement but don’t really demand the students learn the language. I can  guarantee you that if high schools required that you had to actually learn a second language sufficient to speak and write it in order to graduate, it would be taken much more seriously.

The reality is that just knowing one other language in my life, Spanish, has helped me immensely. I can’t tell you how many times people have told me their stories of regret for not having learned another language when they hear me speaking Spanish, at which I am fluent. In fact, here in Texas, there are many second and third generation Mexicans who don’t speak Spanish because their parents never taught them! Many of them feel a sense of embarrassment for not having learned their native tongue…especially when it comes to the family gatherings.

What many of those more recent generations of Mexicans don’t realize is how much closer they are to learning the language compared to others. They have been around it for years. They have heard their parents and other family members speak it. Their ears, not to mention their brains, have been trained to what the language should sound like. All that is required now is a formal plan and the discipline to put in the study hours. Nothing more.

When I was in my twenties and hadn’t spoken Spanish in years, I bought some language CD’s and studied them for about a year. It was not a huge time commitment by any stretch; but, I faithfully studied the material for thirty minutes a day. At year’s end, I had become fluent once more! I was again confident in my ability to converse in the language. That skill was a major reason I was successful at being offered a very good job. All from daily practicing Spanish.

Once I saw my success at learning a language, I created daily rituals in other areas of my life for things I wanted to master. Today, I do these things every day without fail. Most of them only take a few minutes. What I love about them is that these daily disciplines tend to “compound” exponentially over time. For example, since I know Spanish, French is actually easier to learn. There are many words in the two languages that share commonality in origin; thus, it is easier to figure out certain words…one from the other.  Just by knowing Spanish, my learning curve for French is less.

Another one of my daily habits is reading. I have Kindle installed in my iPhone.  I literally have a book with me at all times. When waiting at the checkout counter or a Doctor’s office, I use those five or ten minutes (or longer!) to read.  As a result, I read much more quickly now and so acquire knowledge at an ever increasing rate. On average, I read about five books a month. There was no magic secret to my getting to this place…just establishing a daily ritual.  An added bonus: my ever-increasing and deepening  understanding has made me a better husband, father and businessman.

Perhaps you will let this post provide you with the bit of inspiration you need to accomplish some of the things in life you’d like to master.  In case you get hung up and start thinking any one of them is just too big to tackle remember the saying, ” How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”