How Talking To Yourself In a Foreign Language Can Land You a Job and Ruin Your Private Life

Picture credit: Camil Tulcan

It’s funny, isn’t it?
All your life we’ve been told that the only place where talking to yourself can get you is a padded cell.
And yet, somehow it landed me a job in one of top corporations at this side of Milky Way.

You might ask – so what’s so special about this story?
Well, I learned Swedish in order to get the job in less than 4 months without talking to anyone in Swedish. And while working 50+ hours per week.

I also managed to break up with my fiancée and started drinking after 1,5 year break of abstinence.
So if you’re expecting only rainbows and unicorns go somewhere else.
I’m pretty sure there is a lesson somewhere in this story but I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Here is how it happened more or less and how you can duplicate the results.
Hopefully without crippling your private life.

Beginnings

“It is such a beautiful-sounding language”, I said to myself.
I was standing in the middle of a bookshop in my hometown. My then-girlfriend who recently had moved to Sweden was pointing at some sentence in a textbook and asking me to read it.

I tried but my effort was mediocre at best.
Why do you pronounce these f***ing letters so randomly?!

Here is some foretaste:

It was about 8 years ago.
Shortly thereafter we went our separate ways and I was left with just a few words.
Quickly I lost interest in this language and moved on with my life.

Rekindling Of Interest

About 2 years ago I started feeling this unbearable itch to switch a job.
At that time I had been working close to 3 years in Industrial Automation industry while teaching English, German and Statistics and I really started feeling bored.

After browsing some job offers it hit me that there is a considerable amount of positions for Swedish speaking people and almost no competition since this language is considered a pretty exotic in Poland.

And there was my solution – learn Swedish and go into corporate.
With my skills and languages how could I not make a career?!
I wish I could bitch-slap myself then and get back 11 months of my life. But that’s another story.

Preparation

Word of warning

It’s necessary to give you some background before I go into details.
Back then I already spoke 5 foreign languages including German and English.

Since they belong to the same language family as Swedish it gave me the upper hand
I was also obsessed with mnemonics – that makes remembering much easier.

Approach

Picture by: Alexandre Duret-Lutz

Picture by: Alexandre Duret-Lutz

I’ve never been a big fan of language textbooks.
Not only are they pricey but also (usually) structured in a pretty moronic way.

I mean – who really needs to know names of 30 professions when you can’t even ask “where is the nearest toilet?”.

That’s why I bought just a simple grammar book and dictionary. Total cost? About 25$.
Not bad for the skill which has brought me hundreds time more since then.

Limitations

Always know your limitations. I knew mine.

One of the main problems which I had to face was lack of time.
I had a full-time job after all. And fiancée.

That’s why I had to define my priorities.
I knew that an interview would be conducted in Swedish and I had to be classified on (at least) B2 level to get the job.

That’s why I decided to focus my efforts on speaking and listening.
Throughout the preparation period I read only about 4-5 articles.

What Real Learning Is All About

Have you heard about the Flow?

Flow, also known as Zone, is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does.

Enjoyment? What a load of crap.
If you want to get results quickly, learning won’t be pleasant.
You can’t have it both ways.

If you don’t feel exhausted after learning session it simply means that you haven’t pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone.

Deep work leaves you drained (Cal Newport is the unquestionable authority in this field) . That’s why top performers don’t do it for more than a few hours. And this is exactly all the time which I had during the day.

One of my favorite mathematicians of all time Henri Poincaré had the following routine:

He undertook mathematical research for four hours a day, between 10 a.m. and noon then again from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m.. He would read articles in journals later in the evening.

And I do understand why.
After every learning session I felt like a shred of a man.
Maybe I cried. I don’t really remember.

I wanted everybody to leave me alone – and they did eventually.
Now I remember! The lesson is: there is a price to pay for everything.

My Chamber Of Madness

Picture by: Petri Damstén

Picture by: Petri Damstén

This is how I called my room at that point in time.
What’s other name there is for the room where you spend most of your time by talking to yourself?

But coming back to the story – after buying a dictionary and a grammar book I got home and for the first few days I started outlining the grammar. That was an easy part.

I knew that the biggest challenge lies in pronouncing things correctly.
Back then I didn’t have any consistent method for learning pronunciation.

I also started learning tons of vocabulary. And that’s why my learning style is so different from others.
You might frequently hear that you don’t need a big vocabulary to talk with someone in your target language.

And that’s true. But the problem is that you need a lot of words to UNDERSTAND somebody.
It’s natural that your passive vocabulary will always be bigger than your active one.

Even in your native tongue. But you need to know them in order to understand because the context won’t always save you.

That’s why after learning about 2k words I started listening to Sveriges Radio and conducting my proper learning sessions.

Remember Rocky training? It was exactly like this but absolutely different – I was sitting at the desk and talking to myself. For hours. I covered about 4k in Anki and created thousands of sentences.

Interview

Learn By Talking To Yourself

Picture by: Ludovic Bertron

On my way to company’s seat I still was coming up with excuses why I should call them and tell them that I found another job. Or that I got sick. Or that the homework which ate my dog got sick.
Anything. Maybe the car will run me over.

She entered the room.
I held my breath. I was scared sh*tless.

Then I heard a first question:
– “Can you tell me something about yourself?”.
I did. In details. Who wouldn’t expect such a question?

– “How did you learn Swedish?”, she asked.
“On my own. At home. I talked to myself a lot.”

Awkward silence.

– “But I’m asking seriously”, she gazed at me in disbelief.
– “That’s the truth”, I mumbled

20 minutes, 2 questions and one grammar test later the interview was over.
I don’t think she believed me. I don’t blame her.

Results
Two days later I got results of my language evaluation.
I was on B2 level. The job is mine if I want it. I do. I want to work there.

It turned out that I didn’t want a relationship with my fiancée half as bad.
I broke up with her. I couldn’t stand constant arguments.

Conclusion

I’m not even sure. I guess it’s better if you draw your own conclusions.



16 comments

  • Good read. I’m learning Japanese in order to get a role there a year from now. I’m taking that long as I’m also changing direction in my career a little bit. And that’s down from the four years I had planned. I had spent a couple years already trying to learn the main writing system, which I restarted a few times. As I’m already single and live alone, I may just try your method.

    • Thank you! 🙂 Definitely, go for it. Although if you have a chance always try to get some private lessons. The feedback loop is much more effective then 🙂

  • Great info. Thanks. Pronunciation is my big problem, My tongue will not go where I want it to, especially to form the French ‘R’, or any other sound that requires a vibrating tongue. Mine just relaxes and says “ya gotta be kidding”, and it goes back to sleep.

    • Thank you ! The trick is to keep on trying till you get this sound right, at least once. Then try to remember the position of your tongue and its movement. And then keep on repeating the same movement. Well, talk is cheap, right? 🙂 Good luck!

  • Wonderful post!
    If you don’t feel exhausted after learning session it simply means that you haven’t pushed yourself beyond your comfort zone. >> I agree with you, 100%. If you stay in your comfort zone, you will never learn, you will never grow, and you will stay only in the “My name is ____” level.

  • Wow you’re an inspiration ,talking to yourself in other language,

  • Hi Bartosz! I am kind of in a rut with my language learning but I needed a big push. My first step was to print this out and read every day. Thank you for the inspiration!

  • Hello Bartosz, How far can you go with talking to yourself? because I tend to think that the human component is necessary and might sabotage the results in the end. If it is possible to go very far with talking to oneself, that is an amazing news, because one of the languages I learn is Faroese, with only 49000 speakers, and till this day I havent happened to know any of them. And one last question, if the grammar is difficult, and there are no sources, how would you make sure that you are not telling load of crap to yourself?

    • Hello Rasmus! I’d dare say that you can go extremely far with talking to yourself. But you have to be aware that it involves a lot of different methods. One of them being – feedback loops.
      You have to have some kind of system in place which can tell you whether the sentences you are creating are right or wrong.
      My typical approach can be partially summarized by these two articles. If you master these techniques you might be sure that after some time, your sentences will be at least decently constructed.
      http://www.universeofmemory.com/master-the-grammar-of-any-language/
      http://www.universeofmemory.com/how-to-sound-natural-in-foreign-languages/

      One more friendly advice, always question your assumptions. i.e. “human component is necessary”. It might sound like a strange question since we learn languages to communicate with others but why would this component be necessary? What part of learning how to speak makes it necessary to include a human factor?

      Hope that helped!

Share your thoughts. Don't be a stranger!