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How to Get Fluent: 9 Reasons You’re Not Fluent…YET! [& What To Do Instead]

by Michele
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How to Get Fluent: 9 Reasons You're Not Fluent - Yet!
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Want to get fluent in your target language? Get a leg up on your progress by avoiding 9 common mistakes with these effective language tips.

Have you been learning a foreign language for years and still aren’t fluent? Don’t worry, you’re not alone This is quite common in the language learning community. There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you, nor are you flawed. But for some reason, reaching fluency keeps evading you no matter how long you have been learning your target language. Why does that happen?

The truth is, you’re probably making one key type of mistake. Not grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation mistakes – language learning mistakes. The way you approach learning a foreign language is not necessarily bad, but it is not very effective either and this prevents you from achieving fluency. 

Are you struggling with achieving fluency in your target language? If so, you are in the right place! In this guide, we will take a brief look at what fluency is and then discuss some of the most common issues that are preventing you from achieving it – and how to fix it!

What is fluency?

What is fluency? This is the million-dollar question and an on-going debate in the language community.  Fluency is hard to define, and if you ask 10 people about it you will very likely get 10 different opinions. Many equate fluency to native-speaker level proficiency. Oxford Dictionaries defines fluency as ‘the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately’, which is quite a vague definition.

Some experts equate fluency with speaking a foreign language ‘smoothly’ and ‘efficiently’ on ‘a range of topics in real time’. This does not necessarily imply complete accuracy or a wide range of grammar.

The definitions of fluency can vary quite a lot, but one thing unites them all: fluency implies quite a high level of proficiency, ease of speech, and confidence. 

Fluency is also what you define it to mean. For you, fluency could mean reaching what the FSI (Foreign Service Institute) consider as minimum professional proficiency where you reach ILR 3, or CEFR C1. Fluency can also mean knowing enough in the language to hold a basic conversation and make friends. Then, how long it takes to get fluent will depend on your time and effort.

If fluency is your goal, what is preventing you from achieving it? Here are 9 reasons you’re not fluent… yet and actionable steps you can take today to start to speak more fluidly.

1. You have a fear of speaking 

This is an issue that plagues many learners, beginners and advanced learners alike. They are afraid of sounding primitive, of being misunderstood, of their accent being too strong, and of many other things. 

This fear is not easily overcome, especially if you are naturally shy, but it is important to fight it – by starting speaking right now, no matter at what level you are. Are you a beginner who can say hello, introduce yourself, and say a few basic phrases? Perfect, do that! 

It is important to find as many opportunities for speaking as you can and make the most of them. If you can’t find a speaking partner at the moment, pay yourself a compliment or tell your cat how fat and fluffy it is. If you feel too nervous to talk to native speakers, start by talking to other people learning this language. 

The important thing is to start speaking, even if you are a little bit afraid. The more you do it, the easier it gets – and also more fun. Remember, focus on progress, not perfection.

2. You worry about making mistakes

Many learners, before they say anything in their target language, think something along the lines of ‘I hope I don’t make a mistake here’ or ‘I am not sure if that’s correct so I’d better not say it’. This makes their speech extremely slow, and some learners even prefer not to say anything to avoid making mistakes. 

And it kind of works: if you don’t say anything you don’t make any mistakes. However, you don’t do anything else either – you don’t practice your target language, you don’t learn anything new, you don’t improve…. 

There is a great expression in Italian: Sbagliando s’impara (by making mistakes, you learn), which is 100% true. It’s by making mistakes that we learn. By correcting these mistakes you learn and improve. You may even get a funny anecdote from the experience that you’ll be telling for years. It’s these standout moments that help you to remember.  So, by avoiding making mistakes you fail to make any progress.

Try to turn off your ‘inner critic’ and aim to say what you’re thinking. Putting your message across and communicating is much more important than having perfect grammar (which not even all native speakers have!).

How to get fluent tips - Inspirational Quote - Do you know what a foreign accent is? It’s a sign of bravery - Amy Chua

3. You haven’t set clear goals

It’s hard to get anywhere if you don’t know where you are going. The same is true for language learning: to make progress, you need to set clear goals, including larger long-term ones, as well as more short-term objectives. c 

Firstly, it is important to understand why you are learning the language and what level you are aiming for. Learning a language for traveling and for studying abroad, for instance, will require different time and effort and will cover different topics. 

Secondly, more short-term goals are quite important for staying motivated and on track. These goals can be different, for example, reach the next proficiency level in 3/6/9/12 months; read a chapter of your favorite book every week; practice 5 minutes every day, and so on. 

Combining short- and long-term goals will allow you ‘to see where you are going’ and to move efficiently step by step to get to your destination. 

4. Your goals are unrealistic

For your goals to be effective, though, they also need to be realistic. As a beginner in weight-lifting, you wouldn’t attempt to lift 200 kg on your very first day, would you? Unrealistic language learning goals may not be as life-threatening, but they can definitely hurt your progress, motivation and morale. 

For instance, if you attempt to read an unabridged novel in your target language as a beginner, you will most likely find it too hard and probably get discouraged and give up. Not achieving your goals can be very demotivating. 

Here are 4 tips to help you set more realistic, practical goals: 

  1. Remember, achieving fluency (however you define it) takes time. Achieving native-speaker proficiency in a few months is impossible, but you can go up a level or even two, depending on where you are at and how much time and effort you put in. 
  2. Think about your main reason for learning the language. Are you learning it for work, studying, travel, or something else? It will help you define the topics you need to cover (e.g. business, travel, social…) and the ones you can skip – at least for the time being. 
  3. Think about real-life language functions. For instance, if you know that you will use the language in a restaurant, ‘learning 50 food-related terms’ may be more practical and actionable than just ‘learning 50 random words’. 
  4. Set both long- and short-term goals. This helps to break up your goal into bitesize manageable chunks so you don’t get overwhelmed. It also allows you to track your progress easily.

How to get fluent tips - Inspirational Quote - Study without desire spoils the memory, and it retains nothing that it takes in - Leonardo da Vinci5. You don’t have a language learning routine

Creating a language learning routine and sticking to it will help you progress and achieve fluency much faster.  One of the main reasons for that is that our brains need regular repetition to transfer information from short-term into long-term memory. If you learn ten new words during a lesson and don’t revise them in any way, by the next lesson, you may forget them all. That is why teachers give us homework: not to torture us, but to provide some repetition of the material so that we remember it better.

Creating a routine makes regular learning easier. It is much easier to stick to your plan if you know that you have language practice right after breakfast or before going to bed than if you rely on finding some time at some point during your busy day. And eventually, this routine will become a habit, and sticking to it will require hardly any effort. For tips on how to create a routine, check out my full guide on how to learn languages like crazy, even if you have a crazy busy life.

6. You don’t track your progress 

We have already established that to get somewhere in language learning you need to know where you are going (aka, set clear goals). But, how do you know you are going in the right direction? To continue the metaphor, not tracking your progress is like wandering in the wilderness without a map or a compass: you may be going the right way, but you can never be sure, and it makes the journey much longer.

Tracking your progress in language learning helps you stay motivated. It lets you see how far you have come, and what to focus on next.

If you are working with a teacher, they will help you track your progress, but there are also different ways you can do it by yourself for example, by writing, recording yourself speaking, taking online tests, trying language learning materials aimed at a higher level.

Tracking your progress is one of the top activities that all high performing language learners do. I discovered this after I interviewed 11 polyglots who shared their top language learning tips.

How to get fluent tips - Inspirational Quote - Somewhere on your journey, don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the view

Somewhere on your journey, don’t forget to turn around and enjoy the view”.

7. Negative thoughts are holding you back

Mindset is everything. Our thoughts can be very powerful and have a significant influence on not just our language learning, but our entire outlook on life. Here are some of the negative ideas about language learning people tend to have: ‘my target language is hard’, ‘language learning is not for me’, ‘I am too old to learn a language’, ‘I will never be able to speak my target language fluently’, ‘I don’t have enough time’. The list goes on.

Such negative thoughts often prevent people from ever trying to learn a language or achieving a higher level of proficiency which is really unfortunate. If you notice such thoughts cropping up, do your best to fight them. Keep learning, achieving your goals, celebrating your achievements, and don’t give in to negative thinking!

As Henry Ford said:

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t – you’re right,” 

This powerful quote emphasizes just how much attitude determines your success. We all have our good days and bad, the aim is to never give up on your passion and ultimate goal. As the Italians say: ‘Forza!’ (Literally, ‘Strength!’, meaning You got this!)

How to get fluent tips - Inspirational Quote - Whether you think you can, or you think you can't – you're right - Henry Ford

8. Your learning is imbalanced

Many learners tend to focus almost exclusively on one part of their learning, a particular learning resource, type of exercise, or language aspect. This is often detrimental to their progress: language aspects shouldn’t be learned in isolation, and no one resource or type of exercise can provide you with everything you need to achieve fluency. 

It may be tempting to, for instance, find a language learning podcast you like and listen to it exclusively, or find a fun vocabulary app and devote all your learning time to it. Your time won’t be completely wasted: listening to podcasts is a great way to improve your listening skills, a good app can help you expand your vocabulary quite a lot. But, if you only concentrate on one such part of your learning, you won’t be able to achieve fluency in all aspects of your target language.

To avoid this imbalance, add variety to your learning: if you tend to focus on one aspect or skill, shift your attention to others; add more learning resources and ways of language practice to your daily routine. For a list of resources, check out my guide to my top language learning resources

9. You don’t practice enough

You can cram grammar rules and learn new vocabulary for hours on end, read texts from your textbook and listen to language learning podcasts every day, but you will never truly learn to use your target language until you start – well, using it! 

This is a rather simple idea, and yet many learners still neglect it. You can only learn to use your target language in real-life situations by actually using it. You learn by doing, so to speak.

You can be quite well-prepared and have a relatively high-level understanding of the language, but your first time talking to a native-speaker or watching a movie in the foreign language can turn out to be quite stressful. This is because you’ve not practised the mind to mouth connection. The pathway between all that knowledge in your brain to your tongue hasn’t been paved. That only comes with speaking.

To avoid this pitfall, don’t wait for the right opportunity to speak – start creating or seeking them out now. The Internet can be of great help: you can watch news, movies, and TV shows, chat with people on forums and social media or book a lesson or conversation session on italki. The important thing is to find language practice outside of the classroom, go beyond exercises, and actually use your target language.  

To supplement my own language learning I personally use italki multiple times every week. This is where I get 1-to-1 support and speaking practice with a qualified teacher or community tutor. You can read my full italki review here and book your first italki lesson here.

How to get fluent tips - Inspirational Quote - If you are persistent, you’ll improve. If you are consistent, you'll be fluent - The Intrepid Guide

Final Thoughts

The good news is that the only thing holding you back from achieving fluency in a foreign language is time and effort – both of which are manageable. By following the tips in this guide and beginning to implement small adjustments to your current language learning routine, these will compound over time and you will be able to achieve fluency faster – and have a bit more fun doing it.

If you are persistent, you’ll improve. If you are consistent, you’ll be fluent. – Michele, The Intrepid Guide

Over to you!

Which language are you learning? Which of these common mistakes do you make? Let me know using the comments section below or join me on social media to start a conversation.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.

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How to Get Fluent: 9 Reasons You're Not Fluent - Yet! [& What do to instead]

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