Why You’re Not Fluent in a Foreign Language Yet

A picture of some language learning materials

I speak several languages to varying degrees of fluency. I say it this way because I want to be clear that even though I speak multiple languages, my proficiency varies in each one.

Put another way, I’m better at some languages than I am at others. I think one of the most difficult battles for anyone (perhaps, “battle” is not the right metaphor)— is coming to acceptance with the idea that learning a new language takes time— no one becomes fluent overnight.

It’s also unlikely (really improbable) you will ever speak Spanish (if you’re a native English speaker for instance) the same way you do English or Chinese the way you speak Korean. The reason for this is simple. You’re unlikely to be exposed to ALL the exact same experiences you have in one language as you have in another.

You cannot carbon copy a language one to another as if by magic. There’s no toggle button or fantastic switch that can be flipped to turn one word into another. Not all the same words have exact counterparts in all languages, so this is just an improbable idea.

If you’ve been struggling to become fluent in a new language, you might have to let go of some these pre-conceived notions you may have had at about learning. You have to know just as much about the kinds of approaches that don’t work as those that don’t to get it you to your goal.

Approaches that don’t work

1. Textbook-only learning:  A textbook can only get you so far. I find that many people who are bad with languages are often obsessive perfectionists and refuse to step outside the world of their books to have real-world interactions with people. These are the kinds of people who need to understand every grammatical rule, every word that anyone ever speaks to them. They want to speak flawlessly from the get-go. While textbooks can help you build some great foundational knowledge, you can’t stay buried in them forever. At some point, you must put them away and go outside.

2. Those who stop trying: Lots of people will learn a certain number of words and progress to a level where they can have proficient conversations in a foreign language but find themselves frustrated in terms of their progress. They often complain that they’ve “plateau’d” (where they have not progressed any more). It may sound obvious, but if we’re not deliberate about challenging ourselves or about our learning we will stop learning. There’s no point where you just start to absorb more vocabulary without trying. You have to try as hard as you did from the start. You can’t stop being productively curious.

3. Failure Mentality: Some people think there’s a special bone in my body which makes me more adept to learning languages, a unique trait embedded in my DNA. I’ll be honest. I sometimes get offended by the suggestion that language comes to me somehow without any effort because it ignores the sheer number of hours and hard work I put in to get to where I am.

If you have any language learning questions you want to ask please reach out to me via the comments below or reach out via my contact page.

Thanks for reading!

Author: Will Schick

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