5 Signs You’re Not As Fluent As You Think (And How to Fix It)

Today we have a great guest post from Kerstin Hammes, of Fluent Language Tuition, on some danger signs to look out for on your path to becoming fluent!

Kerstin is a native German speaker and has lived in the UK since 2003. She’s passionate about languages and has studied English, French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Russian. Kerstin offers online courses and books for self-directed language learners. You can say hello to her on Twitter and Facebook.


 

kerstin hammesSelf-directed language learners are really impressive.

You put time and effort into finding perfect learning methods, studying online and finding native language content.

In fact, when I recently asked a lot of self-directed learners what made them choose the Do-It-Yourself approach over a language class, the answers repeatedly mentioned being able to work at your own pace, choosing your favourite activities and staying motivated as a result.

But I also spot a bit of a dark side to self-directed learning.

Many self-directed learners will put their passion and energy into an exciting new learning method like flashcards, software or language exchanges for years, just to feel a sudden confidence crush when they’re asked to perform an unfamiliar task.

Your confidence level can suffer massively from those little challenges – they feel like setbacks, like you’re caught out as a cheat who thought they were at B2 just to find themselves stuck on an A1 task. You need to be aware that even if you’re making massive amounts of progress, it’s pretty normal to be caught out like that.

This is why well-organised language classes and tests take into account so many different skills.

Your language level is a composite of all four core language skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Before proclaiming fluency, make sure you have checked yourself in all four skills.

As a teacher, I find these so important that I wrote a guide about them and in this article, I’ll share a few specific signs that show up in your learning process when your core language skills profile is a little bit askew.

This article is not designed to make you doubt all your language learning methods – instead I will give you easy suggestions to try something new and tweak your current methods to reap more benefits.

Sign #1

I study 30 new words a day BUT could not tell you what any given train announcement says

Wow, first of all well done on such discipline. It’s more than I manage on Memrise, that’s for sure. But with such a strong focus on vocabulary, it’s important to make sure that you also focus on learning in context.

Many language teachers will actually ensure that you role play and study through critical situations by using whole sample sentences. For example, it’s great to learn all the words related to transport and train stations. But the way to take it one step further is to ensure you know common phrases that are repeated day-in-day-out in specific situations.

Suggested Fix: Grab a classic textbook from your local library or ask at the nearest adult/community college for their recommended option. Even when you’re not in a group class, studying the example situations and dialogues in these learning-focused environments will go a long way. It’s best if the book comes with a CD of natural language content, so you can listen to native speaking actors read out the dialogues. If you are more advanced than A1, seek out a TV show you like and watch the foreign language version to work on your listening skills.

Sign #2

My reading level is extremely high BUT I couldn’t say more than 3 sentences

This problem is not uncommon with self-directed learners who work a lot with texts, news articles and software but have got limited access to obvious speaking opportunities. While immersion might be what you crave to build up your speaking confidence, it’s not necessary to wait until your next big trip abroad.

Suggested Fix: You have to start speaking your target language as soon as possible – not because it would necessarily teach you a lot more on the linguistic side, but because the levels of confidence and quick thinking that are a key part of fluency just won’t come otherwise. Speaking is never an entirely comfortable thing when you do it first. But you can go about it a lot more easily by sticking to controlled situations (weather reports, hotel receptions, bookings, appointments..) and practicing those first. Most towns have a few ethnic shops and restaurants – can you find your nearest?

Sign #3

I always listen to audiobooks and radio in my target language BUT I’d struggle to pronounce the words I see on a page

Writing is actually more important than you think. Firstly, because it’s been proven to boost memory and recall in learners (especially when you write on paper). But secondly, there is also an important link between knowing how a word is spelt and how it is pronounced.

Suggested Fix: Start by revising the pronunciation rules in your target language, and learning what they look like in spelling. As a second step, you could then practice either by taking notes on audio recordings and checking your spelling with a dictionary or the original transcript otherwise. It’s a great exercise if you love a lot of music.

Alternatively, read out loud and have your language corrected by a native speaker who is willing to listen to you. This could be anyone – recording a little mp3 of your voice is very easy, for example using Soundcloud.

Sign #4

I do hours of learning every day BUT I forget it all way too quickly

Uh oh!

This is a case of shallow engagement with your material, I’d say. You can spend hours immersing yourself in natural language content, but if you don’t engage with what you want to learn it will not become familiar and comfortable to you.

Suggested Fix: Try taking visual notes, for example in the shape of a Mindmap or drawing. Anything that makes you engage with what you are hearing and seeing around you is good. If you have a study buddy, it’s a great idea to exchange the notes afterwards and get a sense of how they understood the material.

Sign #5

I speak to a language exchange partner regularly BUT we ran out of topics to talk about a long time ago

This last problem is not so skill-related, but perhaps a sign that you need to shake up your routine.

Even though that conversation with a new friend from another country is always going to be fun, the nature of language exchanges also requires that you get serious now and then. So just for an hour a week, my advice to you is to banish the banter and focus on getting better at your two languages.

For fun and friendship (which is so important too!), you can always email each other cat pictures later on.

Suggested Fix: This here requires some discipline. Make sure that you agree on set limits for switching between your languages, and experiment with exploring new topics. These can be easily researched by looking through the table of contents of any language textbook, and you should prepare a few questions before the lesson to help your exchange partner take the conversation where you need it to go.

 

If you want to find out more about language skills profiles and why they matter, check out my forthcoming language learning guide called Discover Core Language Skills.

Another helpful place to assess yourself is to work though a preparation book for a specific language test, for example the Goethe Zertifikat, IELTS and the Instituto Cervantes test. Every language and every country has an official test that this is your language skills, and you will find that the structure of these tests doesn’t really vary, each of them takes into account listening speaking reading and writing.

Core language learning skills are an absolute key to fluency, but it’s not impossible to make small changes and “right the ship”, so to speak.

Wishing you good luck in the self-directed learning adventure, and as one last tip: Don’t think that asking for help when something isn’t crystal clear means you’re not a cool kid anymore.

You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, but you can definitely use them.

Thanks, Kerstin! So, did you recognise any of these signs in your own learning? Leave us a comment below to let us know!

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • Jose Raul

    I can identify myself with the second one. I’ve been learning German for two years now (although not very regularly) and I can say that my level of comprehension of the language is high but when I try to speak I always find myself struggling with fluency, I have to think a lot what I want to say in order to say it right. It is definitely because I don’t have many opportunities to speak the language and I can say for sure that it really hinders our fluency. A tandem partner or at least speaking to yourself is essential. Great thoughts! Thanks!

    • Good example, José! I think the thing to remember for judging yourself “fluent” or not is that fluency is not about perfection – it can just mean no large gaps in the conversation. Then it becomes about versatility and about your own confidence in how you deal with not knowing every word.

  • Edward Chien

    You can actually fix #2 just by listening to material that you’ve already read. LingQ is great for that purpose. You can also hire native speakers to record written material for you, usually at not too expensive a cost. Both with Spanish and German, I reached a B2-ish reading level without ever speaking, but then transitioned almost seamlessly into speaking when the time came because I had done a lot of listening. In Farsi, on the other hand, I have maybe a B1 reading level but have not listened much at all, and my speaking is a mess. A1+, maybe.

    • Hi Edward – interesting perspective. I’ve got several students who struggle with speaking even if their listening level is very high. Do you work on copying and repeating what you hear before speaking to people?

      • Edward Chien

        Not exactly, but I often read the sentences in my study materials aloud. I guess that probably helps. There is a bit of an adjustment in the beginning, but I find that if I don’t overthink what I’m saying and just let it rip, all the input I’ve taken pretty soon becomes available for output.

        • You have an awesome attitude about speaking, keep it up!

        • Reading your comment, I was thinking: “But how does he deal with all the little words, sounds and idiosyncrasies that you get in spoken language?”

          Then I read the bit about “not overthinking it.” Fantastic approach, because if you did overthink it (which so many people do), I think it would be a different story!

          Thanks for sharing!

    • Jonathan Ma

      With regards to Edward’s post; I most certainly agree with his statement that controlled listening is immensely helpful with regards to honing speaking skills. There may be some fine-tuning required, but I love his line of just, ‘let it rip’ and not ‘overthink’ it too much.
      That being said, it has to be CONTROLLED listening, ‘controlled’ being the operative word, here. From personal experience, many Westerners living in Hong Kong are ‘exposed’ to the language on a daily basis, but they can hardly speak or understand a lick.
      That was my situation before I started downloading to my iPOD and ACTIVELY listening to Innovative Language Cantonese 101 podcasts on a daily basis, to and from work, and then printing out all the PDF files, placing them all in files, and studying them. That, and ‘Jyutping’ or Romanization of the Cantonese words, have been livesavers for me in Hong Kong. It took me a few months for me to be solid in using ‘Jyutping’ but it has been a powerful tool.
      This online dictionary, ‘http://www.mdbg.net/chindict/c…, is BOSS.
      On a sidenote, my Mandarin ability is advanced with regards to spoken, and a solid intermediate with regards to reading, as my mother is Taiwanese, and Putonghua was and is the language used by my parents at home. In addition, the Pinyin system has been a mega-tool for honing reading skills and learning advanced vocabulary, especially since my formal education has never been in the Chinese medium. Advanced Podcasts(http://www.slow-chinese.com/ar… with its great selection of cultural, political and social topics and accompanying Chinese character transcript, is excellent for advanced Putonghua learners.
      However, Cantonese is a different creature and language, especially with regards to the spoken language, and I had to put in the spadework in that regard. More power to all of you, best wishes.

  • Kevin Scott

    Kerstin,
    Thank you for this article. I am an AMerican living in Germany. I am opening up an English school of sorts. (I say this in the way of introduction not as a sales….) I noticed that many people in Germany are ashamed of their “school English.” They understand the language but they do not speak it.. I have spent a decade travelling in South America living with host families and perfroming theatre. I did not undderstand the language, but I learned to speak, and evbentually I learned to also understand it. People constantly told me I had the heart of the language even with very shabby grammar.

    Then I amrried a lovely young woman from Brndenburg and I am now in Germany. I do not have the same intensive life style travelling and learning plays. In fact I need to speak English in order to that my children are not alianated fromn the rest of the family.

    Your article hit me between the eyes. I realise I need tzo get a grammar book and drill Der Die Das! I can understand the radio and TV. and People in the street from Ruhrpot and Berlin, and on a good day after a full nights sleep even a bit ofschwäbisch.

    I always thought the problem was confidence. In most people iot it is, but the re is a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and I have been living ont he worng side of that line for a few years. Now I am scacred.. I have developed a program using the basics of theatre to get people to work together and share a success experience so they use what they know, but I feel like a fraud becaue I have gotten by on my own energy and charm for years. When I thought I have arrived at the goal I realise I am still on my way to the starting blocks.

    I am affraid to write in German or Spanish, and I seemed to have unlearned English as well. Thank you for your advice . It has been very helpful. Do you know of any on line language evalutaion to assess one’S ability in a language?

    Kevin Scott

    • Haha, Kevin I LOVE IT – “I’ve been living on the wrong side of confidence and arrogance” is a wonderful quote. You’ve got a way with words!

      It’s really interesting, and I agree with you on the point that it is not unusual to mistake a gap in knowledge for a gap in confidence. Language learning is, at least in my eyes, not something we can ever really “finish” and I often see particularly high-achieving students struggle with that realisation. Writing is a core part of language learning and of using language, and it’s so wonderful as well.

      While I haven’t found a good online evaluation focused on the different skills, can I direct you (a very gentle plug perhaps) to my book Fluency Made Achievable, which is all about the idea of Core Language Skills and how to work out where you are weaker and stronger, and then how to address specific skills through exercises. It’s a quick read and comes with a template plan. Here’s a sample chapter on my blog this week…talking about writing nonetheless!

      http://fluentlanguage.co.uk/blog/mastering-your-writing-the-essentials

      Alternatively, you can try language tests from big course providers, which can give you a guesstimate of your level on the Common European Framework. That’s also useful, and trust me, it will almost certainly catch you out on grammar!

  • Jonathan Ma

    With regards to Edward’s post; I most certainly agree with his statement that controlled listening is immensely helpful with regards to honing speaking skills. There may be some fine-tuning required, but I love his line of just, ‘let it rip’ and not ‘overthink’ it too much.
    That being said, it has to be CONTROLLED listening, ‘controlled’ being the operative word, here. From personal experience, many Westerners living in Hong Kong are ‘exposed’ to the language on a daily basis, but they can hardly speak or understand a lick.
    That was my situation before I started downloading to my iPOD and ACTIVELY listening to Innovative Language Cantonese 101 podcasts on a daily basis, to and from work, and then printing out all the PDF files, placing them all in files, and studying them. That, and ‘Jyutping’ or Romanization of the Cantonese words, have been livesavers for me in Hong Kong.
    On a sidenote, my Mandarin ability is advanced with regards to spoken, and a solid intermediate with regards to reading, as my mother is Taiwanese, and Putonghua was and is the language used by my parents at home. However, Cantonese is a different creature and language, especiall with regards to the spoken language, and I had to put in the spadework in that regard.

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