Why You’re Not Fluent Yet…And What To Do About It

Olly Richards polyglot why am i not fluent yet

All those hours and weeks spent trying to remember new words and grammar rules are fine… until one day you’re confronted with a native speaker and don’t understand a word they say.

Making the kind of meaningful progress in a language that will actually help you use it effectively out in the real world requires you to balance your “heads-down” study with a different kind of activity.

You might not feel so much progress.

You might even think you’re wasting your time at first.

But if fluency is where you actually want to end up, then a shift towards whole language in your study is one of the things that will get you there quickest.

Whole Language

Jan Smuts described the term holism as follows:

The tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.

In other words, some things cannot be fully understood from their parts alone.

Carbon cycleWhole entities have unique behaviours of their own and can often be unexpected or unpredictable. Think of an ecosystem for example. Anything that you try to single out within it is hitched to everything else in the universe.1

And, of course, a language is a great example of this.

A language has its own ecosystem that comprises language, culture, society and so on. It can’t be understood from its parts alone.

When native speakers communicate with each other, the things they say have a significance far beyond the semantic meaning of the actual words they use.

Words and phrases are intimately linked to the culture and society that they are used in, and in order to truly communicate effectively with another person you need to have experience of a shared cultural background.

Only then will the words and phrases used have true meaning.2

Have you ever:

  • Tried to say something you’re sure is correct in a foreign language, only to be told: “Yeah, but we just don’t say it like that.”?
  • Listened to someone speaking in another language, felt like you understood every word, but failed to grasp the meaning?
  • Learnt a whole load of stuff, but not been able to use any of it out in the real world?

These are stages of how to learn a new language that we all go through, and they can be incredibly frustrating.

They feel non-sensical, and can leave us tearing our hair out in frustration.

But the cause is simple.

This is the result of ignoring the whole, and of not taking a sufficiently holistic approach to language learning.

How Do You Study?

For many people, a typical study session involves some of these things:

  • going through lessons in my textbook
  • learning lists of words
  • analysing bit of grammar
  • doing gap-fill exercises
  • memorising Chinese characters (one at a time)

These activities are all the very opposite of holistic learning – they focus on the part rather than the whole.

They prepare you for everything but the life and character that a language takes on in the real world.

They focus you on breaking-down the language into parts that are easy to understand… in isolation. That’s why people like this kind of study – you can feel a sense of progress.

But the problem is, of course, that while these are broken down for your convenience (the part), they actually end up robbing you of the experience of the what the language looks like when it’s used by native speakers, for real reasons, in their daily lives (the whole).

A Huge Imbalance

Ying yangMany people focus almost exclusively on the part in their learning.

And it’s easy to understand why.

In the early stages of learning a language you do have to learn a lot of bitty things – new words, essential grammar… and that’s fairly easy to do in isolation. As a result, it’s easy to have a sense of progress.

This kind of learning gets you off to a good start, but it only gets you so far.

As early as possible you need to redress the balance and transition to using whole language – language for a real purpose, just the way a native speaker would.

Even if you don’t understand everything.

Even if it’s difficult.

Even if you feel like you’re wasting you’re time.

Because that’s the best way to learn a language if you’re going to move towards fluency, interact naturally with people, live a life with the language, and eventually overcome the common complaints that I listed at the top of the article.

What Does Holistic Language Learning Look Like?

So if holistic learning involves using the target language for real purposes, rather than breaking it down for study, what would it actually involve?

Here goes:

  • reading a text, or even a whole book, in order to enjoy it (rather than to learn the words it contains)
  • chatting about things that interest you with a language partner on Skype (rather than being “taught”)
  • going out and spending time with native speakers (rather than studying)
  • imitating the sound of a whole sentence (rather than individual words)
  • taking a class (salsa, life drawing, judo) conducted in your target language (without worrying about understanding everything)
  • contributing to a discussion on a Facebook/Google+ group (without worrying that you won’t be accepted as a non-native speaker)
  • listening to the radio or watching movies (and not worrying about understanding every single thing)
  • reading the news in your target language (rather than on the BBC)
  • Googling that thing you need to know in the target language (rather than in English)
why am i not fluent yet
Real language at work at a New Year gathering, Brazil 2004

Think of it as using the language for the same reasons as you would use your mother tongue. This, after all, is the ultimate goal in the language you’re learning.

This is powerful, because as you are using the target language to perform real tasks, you’re addressing your other “human” needs at the same time.

By speaking, you’re developing an awareness of your social self in the target language. By reading for a real purpose, you’re addressing your cognitive needs to find information or pleasure.

In essence, you’re developing your own psyche in the target language.

And this is why language learning methods as diverse as those of Benny Lewis (i.e. speak from day 1), Steve Kaufmann (i.e. take an active interest in the culture) and Luca Lampariello (i.e. spend time surrounded by people you genuinely like) can all be effective.

They all focus on holistic learning.

It’s not necessarily easy… your textbook will feel much more comfortable by comparison. But the right mindset can get you started much quicker than you thought.

In the words of Leo van Lier:

A [holistic] approach sees the learner as a whole person, not a grammar production unit. It involves having meaningful things to do and say, being taken seriously, being given responsibility, and being encouraged to tackle challenging projects, to think critically, and to take control of one’s own learning. (2004: 223-224) 3

So take a step back.

Don’t throw out your textbooks (you’ll be needing them).

But consider how you’re spending your time. Are you focusing on the part or on the whole?

And do you need to readjust the balance on your path to fluency?


1. See John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and preservationist

2. For more on this, see W. V. O. Quine and Donald Davidson on semantic holism.

3. van Lier, L. (2004) The Ecology and Semiotics of Language Learning: A Sociocultural perspective, Norwell MA: Kluwer.

Image 1: annanimus; Image 2: doscaras

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  • Show Comments (10)

  • Margaret Nahmias

    Really my focus is using it and then study whatever I may have problems. For example when I saw I did not know the subjunctive in Spanish I went back and studied. To me grammar is important for putting together understandable sentence. As a learner, you really don’t have to understand native level grammar unless you need to use it.

    • Hi Margaret. I have the same approach – use the language for real reasons and then fix any problems that come up! 🙂

  • Emily Osborne

    Ah, this is so encouraging. I have been using italki to post “notebook entries” in my target language and communicate with native speakers. I have also been reading one of my favorite books in Spanish. It is all so difficult though, so I loved reading this, getting more ideas for getting into the language, and being told that it will be difficult, but that it’s okay.

    I love to read, write, and talk to people, and have been trying to do that all in the chosen language, but it has been rough. I use a dictionary and a verb conjugator for pretty much every word. Is that okay? I just started out. How much should we be relying on dictionaries and things when we read and talk?

    • Francisco Huerta

      Hola Emily, pienso que estas en la dirección correcta para dominar el lenguaje Español. Desde un punto de vista personal, pienso que el enfoque holístico es excelente para aprender cualquier idioma ya que se concentra en el todo y no solo una o varias partes. Por ejemplo, tu usas tu diccionario para saber el significado de las palabras, pero vas mas allá, ya que usas el significado de las palabras para entender el mensaje completo de los libros que lees o entender a las personas con quien hablas. Sigue así y dominaras el español al 100%… I like to study English, but I feel sometimes I need to do an extra effort in order to understand the entire “messages.” That is my principal aim… Suerte

    • Emily, I think you’re way ahead of the game! 🙂 Most people don’t do all the things you’re doing until much later on… and in some cases never. You highlighted the “it will be difficult” part, and I think that’s key to bear in mind, as it’s all too easy to give up if you let the difficulty get the better of you.

      Providing you keep following your passions, which it sounds like you’re doing, you will keep improving faster than it probably feels.

      I would suggest not using the dictionary for everything, because it’s a little like wearing blinkers! Here are a couple of things that might help:

      When speaking, try to focus on getting your message across, whether you know the correct words or not. Make communication your goal, not accuracy. However, you can keep a pen and paper nearby and jot down words that you really want to look up later!

      When reading, try graded readers or parallel texts so that you can reduce your dependency on the dictionary. I only generally read books where I already understand 80%+ of the words. It’s too hard otherwise. In the case of the book that you’re reading at the moment, try to use the dictionary only for words that you see being repeated again and again. Here’s the logic: why interrupt your flow to look up a word that you’ll probably never see again? On the other hand, it’s definitely worth looking up those small number of words which are key to the storyline and your understanding of the text.

      Hope that helps, and keep it up!

  • Scott

    Good article Olly!

    It’s nice to see someone grounding some of their ideas in the SLA literature. There is a wealth of information on the internet in terms of personal language learning experience, but it would be nice if every day language learners could access academic research in an accessible way. I think it is great to see the divide between the two fields being slowly eroded away. Both personal language blogs and SLA research will be richer for it.

    I agree that putting everything together in an integrated way is important when learning a language. The bulk of my language learning was done in an immersion environment, so I have never had the experience of studying grammar and vocabulary in class and being unable to apply it. Although I’m strongly against the kind of disconnected study you speak of, I find personally my tendency is to become too ‘holistic.’ I can chat with native speakers, read a novel, or watch a movie and I think these things have helped me a lot, but I also tend to do them because they are easy and don’t feel like studying. Sometimes the only way I really feel myself improving is through focused practice on vocabulary or by repetitive practice of a dialogue.

    What do you think? Can we be too holistic sometimes?

    • Hi Scott,

      Thanks for the kind words. I think we absolutely can be too holistic (if efficiency is the goal), and in many ways what you describe is the perfect complement to what I wrote.

      In the case of this article, the “huge imbalance” referred to people with their heads buried in books. The opposite, I suppose, would be people who avoid them altogether and so miss out on getting a focus on form, which as we know has been shown to improve learning.

      Great point!

  • Sergio

    My problem in English is how to improve my listening skills, one of my main weakesses. In order to overcome it I have subscribed a lot of podcasts ranging from differents levels of difficulty. Some people say we should listen to only we can understand, say 90 to 95% of what is said. Otherwise would be a waste of time.
    Others, however, claim we should listen to virtually everything, as long as the subject are interesting, even not understanding much, but to get acquainted with the intonation and rythm of the language.
    What’s your take on that? How to choose something not so easy that gets me bored, but not si hard that makes me feel frustrated and demotivated?

    • Hi Sergio. I’ve found that it’s useful to distinguish between “study time” and “down time”. It’s true that you won’t learn much from listening to advanced material, so it might not be worth you focusing your “study time” on that. However, you probably have lots of “down time” during the day (when you’re cooking or driving, for example) when you can’t really study, but you can be listening passively.

      So I’d say use your study time for something comprehensible (that 90-95% as you say), and the rest of the time for immersion with a variety of materials. It’s what I’ve found to work the best for me over time.

  • Hannah Moren

    I have been studying from N2 JLPT books and have come across sentences where I technically know all the words and grammar structures, but still do not know what is really being said. It is extremely frustrating and exasperating, so it’s at least reassuring to find that I am not crazy. But it is very difficult for me to speak with strangers, in English let alone a foreign language, so I fear I will continue in my less-constructive language learning ways. I do wonder how people who can read dead languages learn them, it seems like it must be much harder without interaction and audio – how do they get the holistic meaning? (or is that part of the problem when translating?)

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