Still a beginner?
Fluency is often perceived as the holy grail for language learners.
The final destination towards which we are all progressing, whether at a sustainable pace or as an incredible race.
No matter the approach, however, frustration often invites past the beginners’ levels, when the amount of time and effort we put in doesn’t always translate into an equivalent amount of results.
All of a sudden, the amount of time and effort we put in doesn’t translate into an equivalent amount of results.
And they are not always consistent!
One day we are almost surprised with what we are capable of understanding or saying… And the next day we stumble on every word and wonder why we are even putting ourselves through so much trouble!
For example, have you ever had the impression of sounding like an educated grown-up when you speak to yourself in the language you’re learning, and then when you engage in an actual conversation with a native, all of a sudden, you’re a 3-year old? Me too!
It’s like our brain completely freezes. Sometimes we even forget the words we’re trying to use in our own language, or in any language we know. How frustrating!
Here we are, after months of methodical studying: we’ve learned most of the grammar rules, we’ve memorized lots of vocabulary, we’ve watched tons of videos, we’ve done dictations and “shadowing,” we’ve joined many challenges and yet, all this work doesn’t seem to pay off. We keep translating in our head, we keep looking for the same words our teacher has patiently repeated to us at least a dozen times, we keep making the same mistakes and we keep feeling like we’re beginners. This is when self-judgment usually comes in and we start blaming ourselves and drawing conclusions. “I should know this by now.” “I keep making basic mistakes.” Or “I don’t have a talent for languages.”
So I couldn’t help but wonder: Why is it that the knowledge we acquire through our lessons and resources doesn’t translate to better outcomes in terms of speaking skills?
Why the knowledge we acquire doesn’t translate to better speaking skills?
The first thing that I invite you to look into is our expectations.
Most of the students I’ve taught over the years tend to be extremely hard on themselves. They put so much pressure on the results that they are supposed to reach in a limited amount of time.
How many times have I heard: “I’ve been studying French for 3 years and I don’t sound like a native yet, what’s wrong with me?”
Nothing! Absolutely nothing is wrong with you. You will reach fluency. You will reach excellency at your own pace. There’s no need to compare yourself to others. How long we take to learn a new skill depends on so many factors that are different for every single human being: our learning preferences, our personality type, our lifestyle, the way our brain is wired, our sleep patterns, etc.
Behind that common question often lies a fear that is pretty universal: Am I good enough? Am I worthy? Am I capable? Let me reassure you right away. You are good enough. You are worthy. You are capable. That is not even a question.
A real question to consider might be this one instead: Why is it that I put such unrealistic inhumane expectations on myself? And how can I change that?
By adopting more reasonable expectations, we allow ourselves to change our relationship with learning. We focus on what we’ve already learned to do, rather than what we can’t do yet. We permit ourselves to enjoy the process of internalizing a language at a sustainable pace, free from the pressure of having to prove something.
It takes little to become aware of something new. It takes longer to make it our own.
Accept the gap
The second thing that I invite you to consider is to accept the gap.
There will always be a discrepancy between knowing about the language and owning that language, in the same way that we always become able to understand complex structures before we are capable of producing them.
This is because the first steps of acquiring any skills is first to observe so that we can internalize the complexities of the mechanisms that we encounter.
And it takes time to make those internalizations permanent!
How many lessons of history and literature have we studied in very short amounts of time to be able to pass an exam at school? And even though we have aced those exams, how much time did it take us to forget it all?
“But we do want to be able to speak that language before we’re 90!”
Of course we do! And so we must find a way to help the process along and become fluent speakers. But how? When we revert to the language experts, such as teachers, coaches, tutors, bilinguals, polyglots, hyperglots, etc. about how to reach oral fluency, their typical answer is: “To speak better, you must practice all the time. Speak, speak, speak and speak again. And DON’T be afraid of making mistakes.”
We accept this answer because of its undeniable logic. In a way, isn’t that how children learn? They speak first, they don’t care about the mistakes they make, and by being immersed long enough in the language they are acquiring, they later develop other linguistic skills such as reading and writing.
Is it true with adults?
Yes and no. It is irrefutable that having to speak a foreign language 24/7 will improve your communication skills up to a functioning level. But is “a functioning level” what we would call “fluency”? That is indeed debatable.
I would personally define fluency as being able to express myself about most subjects in a natural and effortless manner, with a very limited amount of mistakes, which in any case wouldn’t impair how natives understand me.
What do adult learners need in order to use more complex words and structures?
To have the time and confidence to leave their comfort zone, which they will be encouraged to do in a safe and meaningful environment.
I don’t know about you but “speaking with native strangers” isn’t exactly safe or meaningful to me.
But you know what is? Journaling.
Journaling is the answer
If you want to steadily grow your self-confidence, develop an inner-voice in your target language? Consistently activate your passive knowledge in a way that is memorable and respectful of your own learning pace? Then journaling proves to be one of the most powerful tools.
1. Journaling happens first and foremost with ourselves.
This means that we have the time to think about what it is we want to say and how we can say it in the best way that we can. We don’t need to worry about making our conversation partner wait in awkward silence.
In such safe conditions, we are naturally prone to push it a little and look up the words and structures we may have known but haven’t used before.
The more we do this, the more we activate the mental process required for effective communication. Until our brain is able to take shortcuts and find the words and phrases more easily. Little by little, what used to be uncomfortable becomes easy, so that we are able to take more risks and ultimately, unfailingly progress.
2. Emotions enhance memory
The second factor that makes journaling effective for fluency is that it is based on the expression of our emotions.
It’s been proven time and again: situations that spark emotions create everlasting memories. This is why writing about meaningful topics that are directly linked to what matters to us will be more effective than a simple enumeration of the activities we have been doing during the day. Expressing your emotions, your worries, your gratitude, your pain and your desires in the language you are learning is a process that will progressively transform this “foreign language” into a language you will feel and call your own.
More than just translating from one language to another, you will start to develop confidence to think in that language.
And when you can think fluently, you can speak fluently.
So grab your favorite notebook and your favorite pen, make yourself comfortable, light a few candles and start this journaling journey inwards — and towards fluency.
It isn’t a high-speed train, but the ride is authentic and delightful.
Bulle de Français
A monthly self-paced program to explore yourself in French
The membership program Bulle de Français provides you with inspiring, homemade, curated materials and resources to dive into French with mindfulness and to support your self-discovery and growth.
Join the waiting list to be the first one to know when enrollments open (a few times per year).