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What stands between you and fluency? (Part 2)

A while back, we published an article about people who will never learn a language because they never actually learn it – they just like talking about it, but they never really get down to it. In this article, we’ll have a look at the second group of people we mentioned then; those who do actually learn but despite their effort, they rarely see any results. This is usually due to them doing something wrong.

These unfortunate folks can be split into five categories and we’re going to look at them one-by-one right now.

The first category are so-called “Bite-sized learners”.

Bite-sized learners are those who want to study, but they are only willing to do the absolute minimum for it. They sign up for a language course or schedule one lesson a week with a native speaker and think how much they’ve achieved. It’s a somewhat dangerous strategy. It gives us a false sense of productivity – “I’m doing something, so that should count, right?” Unfortunately, that’s far from enough. Nobody has ever learnt a language by having one lesson a week.

I’m a Bite-sized learner, what should I do?

You’ve taken the right first step, you just need to move forward with your learning. Language schools are not Las Vegas, so whatever happens in a language school should not stay in the language school. 🙂 While attending a language course, you can do a lot more activities which don’t even have to feel like learning. For instance, you can watch TV series, listen to podcasts while gardening. Or, you can have a 20-minute conversation in a foreign language with your children/partner at the dinner table, or even talk to yourself!

Learn languages while doing chores
Listening practice in the garden, foreign-language conversations with friends and family, Goldlisting in a café and watching TV series at home.

The second category consists of “Rushers”

Many of us have this problem – if we don’t see immediate results, we quit learning. When a Rusher decides they want to learn a language, they download Duolingo and play with it for 10 minutes a day. The little green owl always praises them for their hard work and they’re all over the moon about it. But when a foreign colleague approaches them at work and they can’t produce a single sentence, their world collapses. Right away, they uninstall Duolingo, thinking it just doesn’t work. And their journey to fluency is over.

I’m also a Rusher, what can I do?

My advice for Rushers is very simple – don’t expect to see mind-blowing results overnight. Learning a language requires time. And all those miracle methods which promise to get you to fluency in two weeks of “learning” during your sleep are just a scam. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear introduced a fantastic chart known as the learning curve. When we start learning something new, we expect our progress to look something like the green line. However, what usually happens tends to resemble the red curve.

Learning curve according to James Clear

As you can see, the progress is slow at the beginning. Only after some time does it start speeding up. This means you need to be patient and not give up on your learning. I actually prefer it this way because the journey to fluency can be very enjoyable if only you make the right plan and stick with it. And for that, you need to build strong language-learning habits. Not sure how to do that? Read our article on effective habit building – it may help you not only in your language learning but also in many other areas of life!

Next, there’s the “Old schooler.”

Old schoolers are those who keep learning, but use the same methods they remember from their school years. We all remember those high-school textbooks with boring texts, tons of new vocabulary arranged in neat columns together with the translation, and grammar drills, right?

I have a friend who really wanted to learn Spanish and she spent long years trying to do it. Her problem was that she was constantly learning and revising grammar and after all those years, she wasn’t even sure if she could actually speak the language because she’d never tried it. She kept buying grammar books and doing all the exercises again and again. I tried to get her to watch TV series, listen to podcasts and read books. Yet, she was stubbornly focused on studying grammar because “that’s how you learn a language!”

Later, she went on holiday to Argentina and couldn’t communicate at all for the first few days. It took her about a week or so to get used to Spanish and actually produce any language whatsoever. And only once she started using it in real life did she make a breakthrough and Spanish became a real hobby for her.

Don’t take me wrong – I’m not saying there’s zero chance of learning a language at school or with traditional methods. If it works for you, keep going! However, you’re probably among the lucky few who find the school system of teaching languages effective. For the rest of us, there are plenty of much more interesting and natural methods, which we’re trying to spread among learners through Language mentoring.

I’m also not keen on traditional school methods! What should I do?

Do you happen to belong to the group of people who have a B1 or B2 certificate from high-school but can’t actually speak the language? Then remember what Tony Robbins once said:

So, if traditional methods have got you nowhere, try changing them for different ones, which are more effective and more fun! You’ll find lots of inspiration on our blog and Facebook, where we regularly post articles about great methods and sources for language learners.

“Chaotic learners” are also not going to get anywhere.

Chaotic learners bring chaos to their learning. They simply decide that they’re going to learn a language and proceed head-first with no plan, because they’re sooo excited! This excitement lasts for a few days or weeks, but then, the initial motivation fades. And their learning gradually slows down until it stops completely.

Help! I think I might be a Chaotic learner!

Learning a foreign language is a long-term project and every long-term project requires a solid plan. At the beginning, we need to create a system of learning, which is as detailed as possible. For instance, every day, I’ll listen to a 15-minute podcast, read 2 pages of a book, and once a week, I’ll have an hour-long conversation with my teacher. Motivation can be pretty capricious – one time it’s here, next time it’s gone. Believe it or not, even seasoned polyglots can’t learn non-stop. It is physically impossible to be 100% motivated 100% of the time.

That’s why we need to use the initial excitement to the fullest and start learning in a systematic way from the very beginning. Because then, as your motivation starts to fade, it will be the system that keeps you going and doesn’t allow you to stop. I highly recommend keeping a score of your learning in a sheet or diary. That way, you’ll be able to see very clearly what you’ve done, which is really motivating!

Finally, we introduce “Fighters”

“Fighters” have it very tough. They consider language learning hard work and don’t look for ways to make it fun. In fact, they don’t even know that learning can be fun! They think you simply have to suffer through it and fight your way to results. They go to a language school and perhaps they don’t even like their teacher, but they feel bad about skipping lessons. So they continue attending the course despite not enjoying it at all. However, they’re not making any progress. They just attend a language course, but that’s very different from actual learning. This is because one of the most important things about learning is fun.

This sounds like me! I’m a Fighter and I’ve had enough…

We have several examples of what fun in learning can look like.

Meet up with friends over a glass of wine (you can also do it online through Zoom or Whereby, to name a few of the many platforms) and have a chat in your foreign language, just like you would normally do in your mother tongue.

Learn with a friend

Create your own materials which will make you happy each time you use them.

Create your own learning materials

Take some “you time” and use it for learning. Just like Veronika, who likes to relax with an English book while her children are playing in the garden.

Learn while relaxing in the garden

Now that I understand why I haven’t been successful with my learning, what can I do to change it?

Have you just found out you’re a Bite-sized learner, Rusher, Old schooler, Chaotic learner or Fighter? Don’t worry, there is hope! You’ve started right and all you need to do now is change your approach to learning. If you want to learn a language, it is necessary to stick to a few rules. In the previous article, when discussing people who like talking about learning but never actually start, I recommended they take the first step. But even the first step has to be in the right direction. A good and universal rule to go with are these four pillars of learning:

  1. Fun – language learning has to be fun. This is particularly important for Fighters. If you feel like you have to force yourself to learn and then just suffer through it, you’re doing something wrong.
  2. Time – you need to spend quite a lot of time concentrating on learning a language to truly master one. Don’t wait for miracles, dear Bite-sized learners and Rushers. Give it time and you’ll see that the reward is worth the effort.
  3. Methods – you won’t make it very far with inefficient methods. So, if you’re an Old schooler, think about whether the results you’ve been getting with traditional methods are the ones you want. If you’ve been using them for years and you’re still where you started, the problem is most likely in the methods you’re using. Try experimenting a bit more. Find methods that move you forward at a steady pace and match your preferences as well.
  4. System – the approach of Chaotic learners might look exciting: start doing something and don’t waste too much time thinking about it. However, it is not sustainable and once the initial motivation is gone, you’ll have nothing to keep you going. And that’s just a step away from giving up.

I believe that those of you who found yourselves in one of these categories now know where the problem is and what you need to change in your learning approach in order to see progress in your language skills. Just stick to the four pillars of learning and success is guaranteed. Good luck! 🙂

Language Mentoring is celebrating its 5th birthday in a big way! Get our video courses with a 60% discount and learn the language of your dreams once and for all – in a fun and effective way!

Are you starting from scratch? Or have you learned your language before, but never achieved true fluency? Go to THIS PAGE and find out which of our courses is the right pick for you. Once you’ve decided, just use our special discount code – BIRTHDAY – and get your 60% discount!

Lýdia Machová

Language mentor
I have learned 7 languages by myself, and I usually add a new one every two years. As a language mentor I've helped thousands of people to learn languages by themselves, in ways different from traditional classroom methods, and with much better and faster results. I'm a TED and TEDx speaker and a former organizer of the Polyglot Gathering, one of the biggest world events for polyglots.
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