Learning a language isn’t as straight as taking a high-speed train to a clear destination. Discover how slowing down can actually help you get there better and faster.
Learning a language surely is a beautiful intention.
When we dive into it, we usually feel excited and motivated. We can already imagine ourselves having a full on conversation with natives, on a terrace in Southern France around a nice glass of rosé. What drives us most is the desire to connect with people and express ourselves with confidence and accuracy.
Soon enough, though, we realise that this is going to require more efforts than originally planned. The grammar isn’t so easy, we forget new words as soon as we’ve learned them. We feel nervous and uncomfortable every time we are trying to have a conversation, very much aware of the fact that we sound like 3-year-olds (Find out here how to overcome language anxiety.)
I know, frustrating! So, what to do?
Practice doesn’t make perfect
When language teachers and learners are asked: “What is the best way to speak better French faster?”, the vast majority of them will repeat, almost like a mantra, “practice, practice, practice.”
I mean, it makes total sense. Isn’t that what we’ve heard over and over, that practice makes perfect?
As it turns out, it’s not exactly true. Not beyond a certain level, anyway.
If you’re an intermediate learner, let me ask you this:
Can you honestly say that just “speaking” the language, whether during conversation classes or language exchanges, is actually helping you progress speaking better? Or are you just using the same strategies over and over to communicate? Are you always using the same structures, the same words? Are you repeatedly making the same mistakes, and then continue blaming yourself for it?
It’s not your fault really. And of course, speaking a lot is not completely useless: it helps you speak faster. But mostly, it gives you the impression you’re doing something and that now, the only obstacle between you and language accuracy is perseverance. And that is a misconception. Because in order for a result to change, the action needs to change too.
Same actions, same results
In their book about the plateau effect, Bob Sullivan and Hugh Thompson say our human brains get used to anything at all, which in turn, makes us reach a plateau.
Plateaus are not limited to learning languages. In fact they are relevant to every field of our life.
We get comfortable in habits and we stop progressing. It’s a way for our brains to save energy, and of course it’s the opposite of what we want in a learning process.
What their research shows is that when reaching this plateau, most people will come up with 2 solutions:
2) give up, or have a break which eventually leads to giving up.
The answer however, is found in a 3rd idea: doing something new, changing strategies, changing the method.
Now this is painful for us humans.
Change. We loathe it. We’re afraid of it. It pushes us to re-adapt to something we quite liked, something called the zone of comfort, although, let’s be honest, it’s more like the zone of discomfort. The more we stay in it, the more our self-confidence and self-worth is dented.
Dancing and languages
A simple example of that is when I took salsa classes, a long time ago.
At the beginning I learned tons. I couldn’t dance at all, so every new step I learned was an improvement. I rapidly reached a level that allowed me to have fun, dancing with other partners. Fantastic!
So I started going to a salsa club every Saturday night. I thought “the more I dance, the better I’ll become”. Though honestly, there were so many advanced and talented dancers, I wondered if I could ever dance like them. But I persevered, thinking, “One day, it will all fall into place and I’ll be a confident, talented dancer.”
That did not happen. I could follow the music and through some moves, but my steps were not in good form. I forgot to use my more advanced moves because I was carried away by rush of the moment, and of couse I was way more focused on having an exchange with my partner. After a few months, I became depleted and frustrated. I soon concluded that I just wasn’t able to dance. I quit.
Which is completely understandable, and also 100% the same as when you’re learning French through conversations only.
So, what do you think I should have done instead of persevering and then quitting?
I’ll tell you.
I should have taken the time to slow down and work on the form, in a creative way that would have allowed me to discover my own dancing style and have fun while improving.
Slow down and discover your own dancing style
When we are in the rush of conversation, we can’t pay attention to our form at the same time. We can’t focus on accuracy. Instead, we’re only focusing on communication.
Communication is important of course, and you can stop there if your goal is simply to be broadly understood.
But if you want to go beyond this feeling of just throwing words and structures at the other one, if you want to start using really good dancing moves to express your true self in French, then what you need is to slow down.
Not in a conversation. In journaling.
Journaling is this beautiful activity that makes you connect emotionally to the language and to yourself. You stop your daily rush, create a little bubble of presence for yourself and express what’s inside of you.
What happens when you slow down is that you actually have the time to think and use all the knowledge you’ve acquired over the previous months and years, and slowly bridge the gap between what you understand and what you can say.
The progress that you’re able to make linguistically this way is just amazing. You start using better structures, better vocabulary, you start self-correcting and gently overcome the mistakes you’ve been repeating. You create shortcuts in your mind and it soon becomes a second nature to think in French instead of translating.
This happens naturally when we stop relating to a language only cognitively, and instead we start connecting to it with our heart.
On a personal level, the benefits are incredible too: you start feeling better with yourself as you learn to manage your emotions and your unhelpful patterns of thoughts (See The Healing Power of Learning French). You start listening within and cultivate your relationship to yourself. You develop understanding and compassion for you, and therefore for others.
This ease you acquire by knowing yourself soon shows: your self-confidence shines. Not only when you speak French, but all the time. And you can finally find the courage to open up, be vulnerable and create deeper, more authentic connexions, expressing exactly who you are to the world.
Isn’t that what you were looking for?
So here’s an invitation. For one week, commit to taking 10 to 15 minutes to journal in French every day. Like a date with yourself. And then share your experience with me.
Are you in?
Need more guidance? Download my free “Mindful French Learner’s Guide” and receive weekly letters written from the heart.
Inside, you’ll find a few journaling prompts and invitations to discover yourself through the window of French, to foster this privileged relationship to French, to yourself, and to the world.