You Don’t Have To Be Fluent In Your Languages | TROLL 015

Now, I want you to imagine that we drew a graph of the time it takes to become fluent in a foreign language.

So on one axis we've got time, and on the other axis we have fluency

Got that?

Now, leaving aside for a minute the fact that it’s really hard to define exactly what “fluency” actually is

(Let's just say for now that “fluency” means to be really, really damn good at the language…)

I have a suspicion that if most people knew what this graph actually looked like, they would think very carefully about all the time they’re spending on their language learning!

Well, of course, the answer is none of the above!

You're all wrong 🙂

It actually looks like this…


Image courtesy of Lingholic

So as you can see, you learn lots at the beginning, and make the most progress in the early stages.

And then once you get to an intermediate stage, where you can actually speak the language, and you’re feeling good, actually, all the hard work hasn’t even begun yet, and you’re in for one really long hard slog to reach the really high stages of fluency!

The Brutal Truth About Language Learning

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the brutal reality of language learning.

I wish it wasn’t, but it is.

It's a bit like going to the gym, or eating healthily… it's pretty much bad news all the way.

My friend Anthony Lauder recently wrote a really good analogy in my Facebook community…

(And I'd like you to join the Facebook community by the way – its full of very smart people giving great advice about language learning, just search “Olly Richards Fluency Mastermind” on Facebook and come and join us!)…


Anthony gave me the following analogy, which I think is really good.

If you take the CEFR levels, which are a way to describe the stages of language learning…

So, we've got A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2…

Where A1 is super-basic, and C2 is super-advanced…

What Anthony said is:

“Each proficiency level takes twice as long as the one before.”

So, for example, if it takes you 3 months to finish A1, it'll take 6 months to reach A2, 1 year to finish B1, and so on.

That’s quite a sobering thought!

Now, I think Anthony's description of the time it takes to get better at a language is pretty accurate, and it underscores the point that reaching the very high stages of a language is very, very hard.

It's a huge amount of work.

And the truth is that, for most people, reaching true fluency probably isn’t feasible, because to do so would require you to radically change your life circumstances in order to get the necessary amount of exposure and practice.

So what does all this mean?

Am I telling you to just give up and not bother?

Well no, not at all.

The reality is actually much kinder than that!

In fact, I'm about to save you a lot of time… maybe even years!

You see, there is always more to learn in a language, and you will never escape occasional feelings of inadequacy, however advanced you get — when you get stuck with a new word, or mess up something you were trying to say.


There’s always more to learn.

And so it's really easy to beat yourself up about not being good enough!

In fact, you could quite easily beat yourself up about not being good enough in your target language for the rest of your days!

But if you always hold yourself to the standards of complete perfection, then yes, you’re always going to be rather disappointed.

But you know what?

When I think about the satisfaction I’ve personally had from language learning, it’s mostly not from the languages that I speak best.

My Most Rewarding Language Learning Experiences

One of my most rewarding language memories I have, and I refer to this often, is when I lived in Egypt, a place with a big cultural divide where the locals are not used to blonde-haired blue-eyed foreigners like me speaking Arabic.

Now, my Arabic was never particularly good, quite the opposite really, but I have to say that I found it so, so rewarding…

In Cairo, you see, when they would see me going to such effort to learn and speak to them in Arabic, they would react with such warmth and friendliness…

And found that so much more rewarding than anything else I can think of in any of the 10 or so languages that I’ve learnt.

I know that’s a fairly simple example, and you might find yourself saying: “Yes Olly, but me, you see, I’ve lived in Spain for 10 years now and I still struggle, so I would quite like to be able to do more than just say hi and smile to someone!”

And that’s perfectly understandable!

But of course, managing your relationship with your languages works on a sliding continuum…

At the very bottom end, you will never meet a happier language learner than the one who has been learning a new language for just a couple of weeks, and has just experienced the buzz of speaking with a real person in the language…

That is a huge buzz and it really doesn’t ever get any better than that!

Likewise, at the higher end of the spectrum…


At this point in my life, some of the most rewarding experiences I have are here in London, where I live, when I meet someone from Japan or from Hong Kong. And these people would never think in a million years that someone looking like me walking down the street in central London would be able to speak Cantonese or Japanese…

And yet from time to time I do stop and speak to people in these languages (which I speak quite well), and these people are blown away most of the time…

Not because I’m highly fluent and completely perfect…

(Because I can assure you that I’m not)

But because, for that person, at that time, being in a foreign country, maybe feeling a bit out of place themselves…

To come across someone who can speak their language, there really are not many feelings as special as that.

And above all – the quality of this kind of experience has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with your level of perfection in the language…

Whether you've got your conjugations together, or your verbs in the right place…

The Point Of Learning Languages


Because like we covered in a previous Rule of Language Learning…

At the end of the day, no one really cares about your language skills!

Indeed, the whole point of learning languages is not to know the language but to know the person.

So, before I continue this sermon any longer, let me wrap this up and say that the point of this rambling here today is to say that yes, it’s very very hard to reach perfection in a language…

And it takes a very very long time.

But perfection also doesn’t matter…

Because the thing that will bring you joy in your languages, and bring joy into the lives of the people who you touch with your languages, is much more about you, and the extent to which you can convey your personality when you speak, than whether you’ve memorised every single word in the dictionary.

Learn to look beyond your mistakes, and look for the ways in which you can bond with others with the things that you do get right.

And, whatever you do, just remember…

You don’t have to be fluent in your languages!

Over to you. Leave me a comment below to let me know if, like me, you've struggled in the past with delusions of linguistic grandeur! 

Related Articles