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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Brad Stokes says:
20 Jul 2014 06:29

Nice. The more I learn the more I realise that consistency is the key to long term gain. Review is also important and can provide you a specific focus for the periods of the sprints. A review of my spanish a couple of days ago with a teacher showed that my writing is letting me down. So my sprint is 1 good paragraph a day submitted to italki boards. I’ll keep doing my other habits, but that will be a focus in my online lessons. Thanks Ollie, good piece of advice.

Olly Richards says:
20 Jul 2014 08:03

Hey, Brad. That sounds like a really good idea. 1 paragraph a day will get your brain working nicely! Don’t forget to factor in the time to review all the corrections you’ll get back… and what you’ll do with them once you’ve got them!

Marília says:
20 Jul 2014 20:13

Hi Olly. This is Marília from Brazil, living in Munich 🙂
I love your concept and I’m excited to try it out, but I have one question. You mention one possibility would be reading a chapter of a book over and over again. Does that mean that we have to keep repeating whatever we choose to do in those three weeks? Or can I use 15 minutes of my day to read a book in no rush, but not repeating the reading?
Deu pra entender?

Olly Richards says:
20 Jul 2014 21:25

Deu… perfeitamente! Two choices, I think:

1) if you’re just reading for pleasure, and the book’s not too hard, then just read the book normally, like you would in your own language

2) if you’re reading something that’s quite far above your level, then you won’t benefit much from normal reading, because there’s too much you don’t understand. In that case, it’s better to choose one chapter and read it over and over, maybe looking up a few new words each time.

You might find that 2) gets a bit boring, though. If possible, find a book that’s not too hard, that you can enjoy reading. Then read one chapter a day, or 15 minutes, or whatever, and just read for pleasure!

Cindy Bellota says:
20 Jul 2014 21:34

Hi Olly. I think that your method is very interesting and I’ll try it out. I have that problem now, I set an schedule and I can’t follow it 🙁 . I feel that time is running and I don’t advance… but I feel that your method will work for me. Thanks for your advices.

Brad Stokes says:
21 Jul 2014 05:21

That is the question of the moment.

Well last night I went and reviewed the corrections. For the most part they were silly mistakes on my behalf that I would make in English (I dropped the odd word when when writing). A couple of errors with the accent placements were good catches, that I didn’t even realize.

So do I add copying out the corrected revision by hand into a physical book to cement the changes to memory or do I just focus on the words and phrases that I got genuinely wrong?

I’m not sure atm. I’m kind of leaning towards the longform writing so I have a book of nicely edited thoughts at the end of the sprint. Maybe with a log of number of errors made and date beside it so I can track progress and see if the complexity/completeness of my structure deepens.

Any suggestions welcome.


Yadda Rivera says:
21 Jul 2014 06:32

Hola!! Once again. I like reading Speak Up Magazine. I think is a good way to improve my reading skill. Speak Up has a variety of interesting topics that you can choose according to your own level and they are easy to understanding. Mostly each section consists of two or three pages. My question is can I read more than one topic in three weeks and focusing on them. Considering that each of them only have two or three pages. thanks for ur advices in advance. 🙂 🙂

Olly Richards says:
21 Jul 2014 11:13

Hi Cindy, thanks for the comment. Give it a try! I’m really bad at sticking to routines, too, and I’ve learnt that the more complex it is, the less likely I will success.

The solution…simplify! 🙂

Olly Richards says:
21 Jul 2014 11:15

Hi Yadda, thanks for leaving your question! I think the magazine is perfect, because it’s something you enjoy. Many people spend time on textbooks, which is fine too, but using something you enjoy is the fastest way to improve in a language.

In your case, I wouldn’t worry about topics at all. I’d just commit to reading 2-3 pages a day, everyday. Have fun!

Marília says:
21 Jul 2014 12:36

Great, Olly. I read a little of a book I bought some days ago and it doesn’t look to be too difficult, just difficult enough so I can learn something. I’m going to set a goal to read for at least 10 minutes each night, and I’ll be back in three weeks to let you know the results.
Thanks a lot for your answer!

Olly Richards says:
21 Jul 2014 21:37

That sounds perfect! I’ll be waiting for your update! 🙂

Olly Richards says:
22 Jul 2014 13:12

I would focus on whatever makes you feel like you’re doing justice to yourself and your own learning – making sure that it’s achievable and not too much to be able to do every day.

Done is better than perfect!

Vagando Un Ingeniero X says:
23 Jul 2014 18:16

Hello! What you said is really true. I found this in my learning process. I rather see movies instead of doing a lot of boring grammar drills. My skills are enhanced when I use this way. Better done than perfect 🙂

Olly Richards says:
24 Jul 2014 15:31

Good to hear! I don’t think only watching movies is a good idea, but you can really benefit from it if you do it intensively and in the right way: https://www.iwillteachyoualanguage.com/watching-movies-for-language-learning/

F A says:
28 Jul 2014 21:03

Haha I have a mug with these exact words (http://www.startupvitamins.com/products/startup-mug-aaron-levie-get-shit-done) – I wanted to get the poster for my office but HR had some “concerns”. Party poopers.

Anyway, great advice – especially about the sprints. I’ve struggled with Arabic for years mostly of my own doing. I only managed to see improvement when I started to make consistent daily effort, however small.

What I’m really struggling with is accountability towards myself and my own goals. I’m going to give that Lift app you mentioned a bash. Thanks for all the tips! I like that you write in such a concise and clear way.

Olly Richards says:
29 Jul 2014 13:07

Thanks F A, I really appreciate it! I’m starting to learn Arabic this week, and I’ll be writing a lot about basic progress, accountability, all these things. So hope you derive some benefit from it!

Peter Bayes says:
7 Aug 2014 01:48


“Break a leg!” (product)

Kick this metal grating for 5 minutes! (process)

Olly Richards says:
10 Sep 2016 10:27

You got it! 🙂

Rana says:
29 Dec 2016 06:49

Thanks very much Olly.that’s a great advice

Olly Richards says:
30 Dec 2016 08:37

Glad it was useful, Rana!

Luke Truman says:
13 Jan 2017 11:11

This is really quite helpful. My routine right now I get 6 lessons from cantoneseclass101.com and cover them over a 2 week period. Going over them twice each week. THen after 2 weeks I move on to another 6 lessons. I have skype with my tutor twice a week and stole your idea for monthly flashcards decks so combined a month has 12 lessons of vocab that I choose plus some from my tutor. I think focusing on studying time over progress is a really good tip because it alleviates the stress and lets you get on with things and learn naturally. Thanks for the blog olly!

Olly Richards says:
15 Jan 2017 14:53

Great to hear that it’s been helpful. It also relieves the pressure of thinking to yourself “I need to know this inside out before I move on”, which lowers stress levels significantly! Good luck with the Canto!

jkay15 says:
21 Jan 2017 07:42

Brilliant! I’m seeing results, which is amazing. I’ve been at it for a year and learned more in these past few days than I did all year.

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