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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