English is the language of negotiation, recreation and travel, so of course, everyone is scrambling to learn it. Whether you are learning English or another language, many of us do the same things. We set our ambitions high and aim to be fluent in 5 years or less. We set aside time to study with a teacher or a language exchange partner every week, we buy several grammar books, we even make a list of TV shows to watch, so why aren't we fluent yet? Most learners ask me this question. Lack of fluency could be the result of several factors.
1. You haven't defined what "fluent" means
What does fluent mean? Are you able to quantify it? If you aren't able to define and quantify what fluency is, then you will have a difficult time reaching your goal because you don't actually know what your goal is. I think that when most people say they want to be "fluent," they mean that they want to speak their new language at the same level as their first language. For others, they want their new language to be at the same level as their first and they want to sound like a native speaker. Well, the optimistic in me says that anything is possible. The realist in me says that you probably don't have the time required to accomplish either one. The good news is that it doesn't matter if you have an accent when you speak because you will get paid the same amount either way. The honest truth is that your job will pay you to speak English, but they will not give you a bonus for sounding like a native; they just need you to communicate.
2. You have not been studying the nitty gritty parts
Have you been spending enough time on the things you don't know? If you need to spend three weeks studying the same grammatical structure everyday for 15 minutes, then you need to do that. If you don't understand the difference between "fun" and "funny," or when to use the prepositions "on" and "in," take some time to master them. It is a small part of the language and tedious to study, but it will majorly improve the quality of your language output.
3. You are not using your target language enough
Almost everyone can relate to this. If you work a full-time job, have children, attend school, or have other responsibilities, you are most likely using your native language all day. This is very common. Unfortunately, it does not help you reach your goals. Think about your day for a moment. Is there any time available for you think or speak in your target language? Most of you are using your lunch breaks once or twice a week. That is excellent! You are utilizing your "free" time to reach your goal. I challenge you to find at least 30 minutes every day, including weekends, to study. Even if it means that you have to study for 15 minutes before work and 15 minutes in the evening. The ideal situation is to think or speak more hours in your target language, than your native one, but it's not always possible, however, there are things we can do. Try writing your notes from your meetings in your target language. If you have a colleague who is learning the same language as you, only speak to him or her in that new language. We have more opportunities to use our second language than we believe.
4. You are not speaking with NON-native speakers Most of us want to practice with native speakers because our goal is to sound like a native, but we limit ourselves when we do this. In your communities there are probably more NON-native speakers than than native. Some of them will speak the language at a higher level than you and others will speak at a lower level. What's great is that you can actually learn from BOTH. Think about this, if you speak with a person who has a higher level you may feel embarrassed, but you can ask him or her questions about grammar, phrasal verbs and idioms. If their level is lower than yours, you will need to explain the grammar, phrasal verbs and idioms to him or her. This will reinforce what you know and when your language partner asks "Why," you will have to go home and study that "nitty gritty" aspect in order to explain it to them next time.
5. You have not experienced cultural immersion
Don't worry! This does NOT mean you need to pay for an expensive vacation or live in a foreign country. Make your current environment more immersive. Label everything in your house in the language. If your partner is learning English, practice speaking with him or her. Play games with your colleagues in the new language. Start a language club that meets once or twice a month. It doesn't require a lot of effort. You can meet at a restaurant for dessert. Restaurants are always glad to have regular customers!
6. You have not made monolingual friends
Nowadays, it's not difficult to make a friend in another country. There are a lot of language communities in an app format. You can make friends while sitting on your sofa and watching a TV series. You do not have to be completely honest about who you are or what you like, and you definitely do not have to meet them in person. The point is to speak. When you make friends with people who don't speak your language, it forces you to make a big effort and use new vocabulary. If you don't know how to say "alien spaceship," then you will need to use a lot of vocabulary to describe it to your monolingual friend.
7. You have not been embarrassed enough
Quite frankly, this is one of the hardest things to deal with, but also the best thing you can experience. Many of you are afraid to ask for directions, or ask what is in a dish because you are afraid of sounding dumb. I have heard some people say that they don't want the other person to "suffer" while they listen to you speak. You are SO kind, but stop it. Really. It is hurting you. I can tell you from experience, that making people "suffer" for three minutes will help you get over those fears. Don't worry, your waiter will not suffer and die if you ask, "Can I get the kitchen?" when you intended to say, "Can I get the chicken". You won't die either. One time, I asked a waiter for a "tendero" (shopkeeper) for my salad. He smiled and when he returned, he said, "Un tenedor para usted" (A fork for you.) I was completely embarrassed, but I have never forgotten how to say tenedor.
Another thing you can consider is planning your embarrassment. For example, let's imagine that you want to go to a museum and you already know where it is and how to get there. Let's also imagine that you have studied the vocabulary words for directions before leaving your hotel room. Perfect! Now, find someone and ask him or her for directions to that location. This will force you to feel uncomfortable and listen to what they say. Be sure to repeat the things they say. If you make a mistake or if you get embarrassed, just remember that you will never have to talk to that person ever again. Just find a new person and keep trying.
8. Proficiency exams are not perfect and neither are you
These exams are designed to determine how proficient you are in a language, but everything has a predetermined time limit to complete the work. These tests are expensive and they are designed to trick you. A native speaker of English would need to study for this kind of test. That is because it is a test of grammar, speed, endurance and pressure. Did you know that these exams have expiry dates? It's because many people pass the exams, but then they stop practicing and forget everything they knew. Every time you stop studying, you have to waste time relearning it, instead of learning something new.
To sum up, if you can define what "fluency" is and are able to quantify it, it will be easier to reach your goals. It will take a lot of hard work, but whether or not you decide to take a proficiency exam, you will still need to keep studying. You will not remain "fluent" if you do not continue to practice. I know it is difficult to hear, but learning a language is a LIFELONG CHALLENGE and you will need to keep using it so that you do not forget it. However, do not let this deter you from learning. "Fluency" has many meanings and the good thing is that you have the power to determine what that means for you. Don't worry if your language skills are not perfect. Some of our favorite celebrities have accents and/ or don't speak perfect English and we still enjoy hearing them speak! We have colleagues from foreign countries and we love hearing them talk about their cultures. At this point in your learning experience, do not worry about what you cannot do. Start focusing on what you CAN DO and build on that.
*Updated on May 30th, 2019.
What does fluency mean to you?