4 Reasons You're Still Not Fluent In A Foreign Language

I get a lot of comments, emails, tweets, and other communications related to this blog, and perhaps the most common theme among all of them is this: "I've been studying for a long time but I'm still not fluent. What advice can you give?"

I give tons of advice every week that answers that question, in the form of the posts I'm writing here. No doubt that's why you've found me, and why you read this blog, and why you've asked me that question. So today, rather than telling you what you can do to improve, I'm going to talk about what you're already doing that's working against you. These aren't the things you should do, these are the things you need to stop doing.

1. Compartmentalizing

Compartmentalizing happens when you have a specific set of circumstances under which you use the language, whether that's a specific day or time when you use it, a particular place where you use it, or a particular set of people with whom you use it.

Compartmentalization can be a big problem, particularly for those who are enrolled in classes related to a language. When you're only using Spanish at school, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, after lunch, your brain is unprepared for introducing the Spanish you know into a new situation. If you only speak Italian when you're with your Italian friend on Tuesday evenings, you'll have a hard time engaging that part of your brain when you meet an Italian cab driver on Saturday morning.

The solution to this problem is to introduce your target language into other parts of your life, at other times, with other people, etc. Add half an hour of foreign-language reading before you go to sleep. Add some foreign-language contacts to your Twitter or Facebook. Start listening to foreign-language music during your workout or on your lunch break.

2. Unnatural usage

The majority of your language usage involves flashcards, vocabulary lists, quizzes, SRS, Rosetta Stone, grammar exercises, challenge-and-response tests, vocabulary repetition CDs, etc. You're a walking dictionary, capable of quickly answering "what's the word for..." questions, faster than everyone else, but your attention gets lost half-way through a sentence.

You can't hold on long enough to understand a full paragraph, much less to follow along with a speech or a lecture. When someone says "come ti chiama", you excitedly think "Oh, I know what that means!" rather than instinctively answering the question. You live in translation mode.

Languages are meant to be used in organic, information sharing ways. Question-and-answer. Discussion. Conversation. Etc. All of those exercises make you good at doing exercises. SRS makes you good at SRS. Flashcards only make you good at flashcards. And you may think you've got a huge vocabulary, but it's working against you.

It's been said that you must use a word 20 times before it's yours. Think about that. That means that having a bigger vocabulary is actually working against you, because you have all those extra words you need to use before you can really count them in your fluent repertoire. Whether you believe you need 20 uses, or you believe you only need 3, the result is the same: more words requires more work. Flashcards don't count.

The solution is to spend less time in unnatural practice and more time consuming and creating real, organic thought. Talk more. Chat more. Read more. Write more. Listen more. Unless you're appearing on a quiz show, you probably won't encounter many challenge-and-response types of dialogs. You're not 5 years old, nobody's going to ask you what the cow says.

3. Fear of mistakes

You're paralyzed by perfection. You don't speak because you're afraid of making mistakes. When you do speak, everything sounds like a question, because you're more concerned with saying it correctly than you are with effectively saying what's on your mind.

Athletes practice their sport every day, running, jumping, throwing, kicking, shooting, skating, or whatever else they do... they don't just study books about the sport and then go play it. Singers, and dancers, and musicians, and performers practice and repeat their craft for hundreds of hours before they perform. They don't just go out and get it perfect on the first try.

The solution is to get those mistakes over with right away, and correct them. No one ever goes immediately from silence to fluency. You can't wait until your ready, because you'll never be ready. You have to use the language constantly in order to get good at it — even if that means talking to yourself all day every day until you're able to talk to someone else. You have to be slow before you can be fast, so stop delaying and start talking.

4. Quitting

You give up before you've reached your goal. You stop using the language. You stop learning. Maybe you've moved on to a new language before reaching fluency in this one. Or maybe you've just gotten bored with studying the same things over and over, and doing the same exercises, and always passing your time in the same ways.

We humans love novelty. We're attracted to new things. Routine is boring. Many people spend several months on a language, only to completely drop it and start a new language. I see stories from a lot of people who know a little about a lot of languages, but don't have real mastery in any of them. (In fact, I myself was guilty of that for many years.)

Since starting this blog 10 months ago, I've seen dozens of other language bloggers burst onto the scene and fade away shortly later. Just a few hours ago, I read a final update on another site, stating that there would be no more updates.

If you're not fluent, you're not done. Commit to something. The solution to this problem is to change your routine. Find new ways to use the language and make it interesting, so you can stimulate your need for novelty without being swayed away from your goal. Try a new web site. Make a new friend. Read a new book. Watch a new movie. Discover a new musician. Change your routine, but don't give up.

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • I've made the mistake of attaining near-fluency in Esperanto with Flashcards, and you're right, I do live in "translation mode". That fact has left me frustrated with the language, and it's difficult for me to use it any more.For my next "mission" (to sound a bit like Benny :D), I've started learning Swedish. I've noticed already that by listening to radio, watching films, chatting etc in Swedish, the language seems more "welcoming", rather than leaving me feeling like I'm studying the codes of some unatainable culture.I would highly recommend this method to anyone. I sprung out of bed this morning as I was looking forward to reading some Swedish newspapers and chatting with Swedish people online. I've never sprung out of bed looking forward to aimlessly flicking through flashcards. :D

  • Excellent! Good luck with Swedish.

  • Hadn't really thought about the 'compartmentalizing' aspect; it makes an awful lot of sense in the way you put it. It's like a conditional behaviour, or how do you call it - conditioned reflex?

  • Yes, Yes, Yes, and Yes.And of course, the above road blocks (well, at least the last 2) apply to all skill-based endeavors (e.g. weight training, martial arts, public speaking, etc.), and the advice you give is equally relevant in all those domains.

  • Indeed.

  • Interesting. You're actually taking it a step further than I did, toward a sort of psychological condition. What a fascinating idea!Now, instead of conditioning that reflex for only a particular block of time in the day or week, what if it were conditioned at all times? Then you'd really be fluent! So, how do we create a perpetually conditioned reflex with a second language...?

  • ... by going out with a native girl/guy! You'd get conditioned to use the language in all everyday situations - waking up in the morning... asking what she/he wants for breakfast... going to movies together and of course - telling hundreds of thousands of things about each other. What could best such an immersion in the target language? :-)

  • Thanks for another insightful blog entry! Now that I live in Sweden, I realise now that my pace of learning is much faster through avoiding those things you listed. Maybe it is because I am a bit older but making mistakes is no big deal for me. I am also encouraged a lot by very kind Swedes who are always very quick to praise rather than criticise. Speaking over the phone was my biggest anxiety but now I work here it is a must. I have learned various polite ways to ask for information to be repeated more slowly if necessary. Phone numbers are the worst as these tend to be rattled off machine gun speed in pairs of numbers like forty-five, sixty-eight and so on and I think 4,5,6,8.
    Compartmentalising is probably something I did do when in the UK before the move out here. Living in the environment forces me to think "outside the box" (!) and adapt to situations as and when they happen. The curve is rising steeper and going faster daily. This in turn gives me further confidence to get around the next situation.
    I had the very good advice to always try for an alternative word or expression to mean the same thing. Rather than struggle for a specific, try to rephrase using the words I already have...
    Keep up the great blogs!

  • Lycka till, Dean!

  • The paraphrasing thing is crucial, I can totally agree with you! I had a period in my life when I'd struggle for a particular word when speaking English, and I'd get completely tongue-tied. It just didn't occur to me for some reason that no-one will look down on my if I choose simpler words to explain something, or if it takes a bit longer to get the message across.

  • I think I am perhaps somehow lucky in this respect, because I have a tendency to use very simple language when I speak — and only slightly (not much) more compex language when I write — and I think this makes it easier for me to get by in other languages. With a few basic words like "this, that, big, small, thing" etc, I can describe just about anything! :)

  • Thanks!

  • You know - I'm the same, but I still get this feeling sometimes (and I know it's totally wrong, so I'm constantly battling with myself on this!) that I should speak smarter, more professional etc. But it's all b*&^$t - as long as you can get your message across clearly, why bother with academic language?On the sidenote - yes, I've noticed that it's very easy to read stuff on your blog; some articles I come across on the Net/print media have to read 3 times over to filter out the point, and also the whole 5 page article can be broken down to 5 paragraphs, it's nothing more that beating around the bush!

  • Academic language is really useful for self-important people who need to prove their intelligence to each other, like a pack of nerdy dogs trying to discover who is the alpha-nerd.

  • These are all true reasons, particularly "Flashcards only make you good at flashcards." I'm so glad I don't waste my time on it now, but I am still having trouble getting over the hump of reading and listening to Spanish media. You still have to set aside time to dissect the lyrics to the song, otherwise you don't understand it... I know it's a much better method though.

  • I liked this article a lot. I'm actually in a struggle between French and Japanese. I've been learning Japanese for a while, but French feels so new and fresh. Still, I don't want to give up Japanese. It's really hard, because everytime I try learning Japanese, I get sucked back into doing French.

  • I don't spend very much time dissecting anything. Seeing it used in 3 or 4 places will be far more meaningful than anything you can learn from dissecting it. When you have trouble with a particular phrase (such as a strange idiom) look it up on WordReference. Otherwise, just ignore it. Seriously. You don't have to understand every word right away. You'll have a much easier time if you just flood your brain with enough different sources of input that you can start to identify what comes up regularly.

  • Couldn't agree more!

  • Also, finding a native speaker to practice with and then taking the time to do it isn't the easiest thing for some people (I've been looking for a native Spanish speaker to practice with locally--you would think that'd be easy, it's not :/ ). I really wouldn't mind scheduling coffee with someone a few times a week for 30 minutes of conversation or something IF I could just find someone to do that with, it's finding them in the first place that's the issue. I've tried every language exchange site, there are NO members in my town, I searched Facebook for groups and events like Benny said, nada. Short of taking out a classified ad in the local paper, which I really don't think I'm going to do, I really think I'm SOL at this point and I'm just going to have to make do with Skyping with people I meet via language exchange sites. I'd love to find a native speaker locally who I could meet with face-to-face, but it doesn't look like it's going to happen :(Cheers,

  • I was in a similar situation with Italian a few months ago, but I used Craigslist and found someone. We've met almost every week for more than 2 months now, and better than a teacher, I've made a friend.Sometimes Benny's advice is only good for people like Benny. Couchsurfing isn't for me, and local language meetups here are only once per month, and always on days I can't attend due to work or travel. But Craigslist worked out magnificently for me on the first try.

  • I didn't even think of Craigslist, I'll give that a shot! Thanks!

  • I realised recently that compartmentalisation was a major problem. I was using the language as a hobby rather than as a necessity. I need to become French.I translated your article to French with Google Translate before reading it. It took me 25 minutes, but it was incredibly interesting and productive for my French also.Great article.

  • I wouldn't recommend making a habit of learning from the output of Google Translate... but I do agree with you on the need to "become French."

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