Most of you know I’m Dutch, but I’ve been on-line posing as an English writer for years now. But I wasn’t raised by bilingual parents. I didn’t come into contact with the English language until I was four years old: I didn’t even meet my (distant) Canadian family until I was eight.
But put me in an English speaking country and I am able to get by as easily as the next American, Brit, Aussie or Englishman. Except that I have a hint of a Dutch accent and a few rarities in my spoken English that I picked up during my time in Canada. It all happened kind of naturally, but I became a native speaker. And my English is the result of a pure autodidacticism. So how does that happen?
My first tip to you would be to be passionately curious. In this case, you have got to want to know everything about a language. In my case it helped that I was a really dorky child. I would actually read the English-Dutch dictionary (to answer your question ‘no, I didn’t have any friends’). I wrote down the words I really liked and tried to make sentences with them. I translated English video-game walkthroughs of games I liked into Dutch so I could play them. I watched English television shows and tried to put the spoken words with the subtitles. I started reading English books from my parents’ library as I became better at it. Over time, English became very easy.
(And sure, English in Middle School and High School helped. A little. But if that is all I had done in terms of homework you’d probably wouldn’t be reading this and I wouldn’t be a bilingual. At least not in this language.)
When I was 18, I started writing in English. I wrote every day. About everything. That daily, all-including practice might have made the real difference. It made me even more curious. My thesaurus and synonym-guides became my favorite possessions. I made friends on-line and learnt from them.
At 19, I enrolled in the Cambridge English Advanced class to get my CAE certificate, which states you’re a near-native speaker. My dad stimulated me to do this with the comment: “Make it official. It’s good you’re great in English; it is better to have evidence of this.” So I enrolled, did the exams and passed all of them royally. I was now a near-native speaker. You’d be surprised how much this helps in job interviews and opportunities. Everyone says they’re fluent in a language, but few can actually prove it.
Next thing you do is you hold onto that unsatiable need for knowledge, practice and expertise, and you put it to good use. Because if you want to keep up and keep getting better, you never stop learning. So I’m not done. I still write in English, every single day. Not just for the blog, but also grocery list, journal entries, texts and e-mails. I only read English books and I will talk in English if you give me an opening (or an American). When I read an English book, especially a well-written one, I have a pencil in one hand and a dictionary nearby. I still look up words in dictionaries. I make conversation with the adorable expats who wait with me in line for coffee, I talk to exchange students. Learning is still a part of my routine.
You can apply this to English, to another language, But this also goes for any other skill you’d like to pick up over your life. It takes practice, perseverance and you’ve got to be devoted to your topic. Trust me. You’ve gotta love your subject so much you never want to stop learning, that it doesn’t feel like an obligation or a chore to do it. It has to fill you with love and enthusiasm. That’s the key to auto didacticism.