I don’t know about you, but when I go hiking, the hardest part of the mountain is usually the last 20%. I’m so tired, maybe my water bottle is getting low on water, my legs are aching and I’d rather sit down than keep pushing forwards and upwards. I can see the top (it’s RIGHT there!!), and yet, I’m not there yet.
The key word here is ‘yet’.
Learning how to really speak another language can feel this way too. The top of the fluency mountain can feel so close, yet so, so far away.
Maybe you’ve bought all the grammar books.
You’ve found your favorite podcast and listen to it regularly.
You have your flashcards.
You even have friends or co-workers that you can talk to in the target language.
But you’ve reached a point where it feels like you are just not going to make it to the top of the mountain, to “Level: Fluent.”
First, consider this: the top of your fluency mountain may be higher or lower than someone else’s. Most of my successful English students feel that they haven’t reached the top of their fluency mountains until they are almost native-level. They know they need this high level of fluency for work.
Speaking foreign languages has been important for different jobs I have had too. But I’ve realized that I feel the most satisfied when I can have a good friendship with someone and we never speak in English (my native language). This is when I know I have reached my “Level: Fluent.”
What level of fluency are you looking to reach?
And how exactly can you get to the top of your fluency mountain?
When I was learning Spanish, the last 20% of my fluency mountain felt unreachable. Like I was just never, EVER going to get there. I made a few key changes, and was eventually able to reach the top, though! I want to share these steps with you.
Check out the steps you can take really become fluent (even if you are feeling stuck):
(You can read the rest of the article below or watch the video I made about reaching fluency)
STEP 1: GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING
If you are feeling stuck, maybe it’s time to look over and reassess why you started this journey in the first place.
Take out a notebook or journal. Write for a few minutes about why you started to learn. Write down why you want to learn now. Write down your answers to these questions:
- Why do you want to be fluent?
- What is being fluent going to bring you in your life (that you couldn’t do without being fluent)?
- How are you feeling RIGHT NOW about your fluency journey?
- Why do you want to keep learning?
- When you first decided to learn this new language, why did you want to do it? Do you still have the same reasons for learning?
Really take the time to write out all your answers. Writing always helps me get into a deeper part of my brain. Writing also helps me find more answers to my own questions.
If you find that your big goal for learning has changed, you will need to change your study focus. Even if your goal is still pretty much the same, you can always upgrade your study plan and get even more focused.
STEP 2: FOCUS ON THE SPECIFIC
Once you have assessed your big goal, now you need to look at how you are studying.
One reason a lot of my students feel stuck at an intermediate level is because they haven’t changed the way they study in a loooong time.
It’s time to look over and reassess your little routines. What specific way are you studying? And WHAT are you studying? Remember to take it one step at a time, and not just stare up towards the top of fluency mountain.
Is your grammar book no longer helpful? Maybe it’s time to watch more native-level T.V. shows. Even if you have to keep your dictionary right by your side. Even if you have to watch the same episode 5 times to understand all the jokes.
Do you feel like you just can’t express yourself in certain situations? Think about where you tend to get stuck. Think about the topics that you WISH WISH WISH you could talk about more when your colleagues or friends start to talk about that topic. Focus on reviewing your flashcards on that specific subject (or making new flashcards if you need to).
I know for me, learning how to really tell a story in a foreign language is something I work on when I want to improve my fluency. I focus on learning specific phrases for storytelling. For example, you can focus on memorizing and using phrases like these:
- “The other day I was at the store and…”
- “And then she said,…”
- “And you know what happened next?”
- “I couldn’t believe it but…”
- “Have you heard about the…?”
If you can memorize basic phrases like these, adding in the details becomes easier. You won’t have to think so hard when speaking. This will help you feel more fluent and speak more fluently.
Memorize the specific phrases that YOU need to help you feel more fluent.
STEP 3: FOCUS ON YOUR ENVIRONMENT
Really put yourself in situations where you can practice speaking the language.
Don’t just think about practicing more; actually go out and do it.
Reassess if the current people you talk to in the target language are the best people to help you reach your fluency goal.
If you only have the same 4 line dialogue with your neighbor everyday in the target language (Hi, how are the kids? Great, and yours? Good, we’re all fine. See you later!) you might need to get some more real, deep practice into your schedule.
Here are a few things you can do to set up a successful learning environment:
Find a language exchange partner or language partner
Be picky though: find people who want to talk about what you know you need to work on. If you love talking about your cats and being a veterinarian, then you might want to stay away from someone who has “I hate cats” written on their profile. Obviously this is an extreme example, but I think you get the point.
Do more things in the target language
Let’s stay with the same example: a veterinarian who needs to practice speaking more. She could join a veterinarian’s association and go to international conferences that are held in the target language more often. She could meet other veterinarians online who speak the language she wants to practice and chat with them. Get creative – find a way to combine things you already like to do with the language.
Have your materials handy
Put all your language books next to a big, comfy chair where you love reading anyway. Bring your iPod with you into your car. Make sure you have it charged. Carry your flashcards around again and review them.
REALLY TAKE YOUR LANGUAGE TO THE NEXT LEVEL
Here are the steps again:
- Go back to the beginning (look at WHY you started and see if your reasons have changed)
- Focus on the specific (make sure your daily study routines are taking you in the right direction for you)
- Focus on your environment (talk to the right people about the right things and have your study materials on hand)
If you are looking for more tips on reaching fluency, I’ve also put together a free guide specifically for professionals who need to speak English for work. You can download the guide here.
Fluency – it might seem far, far away, but you CAN do it.
What do you do when you’re feeling stuck at a certain level in your language learning? Share in the comments section below!
Sabrina Fletcher helps ambitious international professionals reach spoken English fluency through coaching and English classes on Skype. Download her free mini-guide on improving your spoken English here.