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Language Learners! Why Your Comfort Zone = the Danger Zone


Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

A few years ago, I started out learning languages through self study. It’s an adventure! I’ve enjoyed the process, but things haven’t always gone as well as I’d hoped.

So, I’d like to share one of most important things I’ve learned. My hope is that you can avoid the mistakes I made.

How I Hit “the Wall” in Language Learning

I speak seven languages to a high level these days (plus I’m learning two more). A few years ago, with each new language I started, I’d keep hitting a wall.

I’d start out well. I’d look up new resources that worked for me, which is one of my favourite parts of learning a language. I’d create a schedule/system that worked for me.

Then I’d rev the engine, and I’d be off!

It always started out well. I’d be picking up new words, getting my head around the grammar, and even having real conversations with native speakers.

I’d found something that worked for me, so I stuck with it.

I’d make progress every day (feeling great about it), until…

…one day I didn’t.

The system I’d put into place stopped working. I wasn’t learning anything new. And worse, I lost my mojo. The thing I loved to do just left me cold.

What Happened?

Let me share a story with you, to give a specific example.

When I first studied Mandarin, I had an ambitious goal. I wanted to pass the HSK 4 (upper intermediate) exam only a year after starting the language. I studied each day, prepared for the exam, and took regular lessons. And I passed! The system I’d set up had worked.

But here’s what happened next…

After passing the exam, I settled down into a too-comfortable routine. I did daily flashcard study, some reading aimed at language learners, and kept meeting my tutor for a weekly session. For about a year, this pattern continued. The result?

My Chinese didn’t get any worse, but it also didn’t get much better.

That’s when I realised:

My Comfort Zone is the Danger Zone

It was one of those “aha!” moments. I only wished I’d spotted it sooner.

When I realised what was happening, I began to look for new ways to stretch myself. I wanted to push outside my comfort zone, because I knew that was the only way I’d get better.

I pondered on how I could do that, and then — in another stroke of luck — I realized the way forward was staring me in the face.

Here’s How I Found the Next Step

To work out what I should do next, I asked myself: “What’s the most important thing to me right now, when it comes to Mandarin?”

At the time, the most important thing for me was to share the language with my infant son. So I turned to his reading material. I bought books that were slightly outside of my comfort zone and matched his interests. I found a collection of Disney bedtime stories, bought other books that featured his favourite characters, and scoured the local Chinese bookstores for new material.

I also asked my teacher to tweak our lessons to focus more on grammar and less on conversation.

The result? My Chinese was given the kickstart it needed. Boom!

I’m Guessing You’ve Read Between the Lines and Figured What was Happened to Me

By getting comfortable, I stopped trying new things. I stopped looking at the material from different angles. And when I get comfortable, I can only get so far.

And I’m not the only one. Take this post from one of the members of the Add1Challenge (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge) for instance:

This Add1 student had found a system that really worked for her at the beginning. One that helped her to build her understanding of Spanish.

But as she began to approach more difficult aspects of the language like forming sentences, she struggled. Her system failed her.

Thankfully, the Add1Challenge gave her the chance to switch things up, and nudged her outside her comfort zone and back into the realm of learning.

Only by stepping outside her comfort zone could she have a breakthrough and see the results she’d been anticipating.

How can you apply this to your own learning?

My 5 Power Moves to Climb Mt. Fluency

Here are the Power Moves that I use to get through a plateau and start making that upward climb towards improvement. They’re power moves because they will give you the boost you need to step outside your comfort zone and tackle the climb up Mt. Fluency.

Power Move #1 – SMASH Your Routine!

Sometimes our plateaus occur because we keep trying to do the same thing over and over again, expecting different results.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Routine is incredibly powerful, so this Power Move is only for you if your established routine, is starting to get stale.

If you ever feel as though your progress has slowed, one of the easiest ways to get going again is by making a change.

Normally work with a course book? Try switching to a podcast. Normally study vocabulary with flashcards? Try memory palaces or the Goldlist method.

As you saw in my example from when I hit a plateau with Chinese, I only made two small changes.

Sometimes, you only need to make one small change to see a big difference.

Power Move #2 – Aim a Camera at Yourself and Hit the “Record” Button

I actually learned this Power Move before I got into languages.

When I was a music student, one of my teachers told me that I should record every performance. These recordings would be great practice tool for me. I could go back and listen to them to see what I did well, but more importantly to see what I needed to work on.

I took the advice, though it felt super awkward to set up the recording equipment, and even worse when I first listened to myself.

I quickly saw the results, though.

Even though I was there performing and experiencing that concert in real time, my view of the concert from a performer’s perspective was quite different from my view as a spectator, watching myself on the recording.

Sometimes when I thought I did poorly, listening back proved otherwise. And, of course, other times when I thought I did well, the recording showed that it was actually just okay. Either way, it gave me a lot of material to work on. Listening to my recordings with some distance between my practice sessions and the recorded performances allowed me to be more objective and honest about where I was at with my playing and it gave me very specific things I could work on.

But that wasn’t the only thing those recordings gave me. They also gave me reference points. I can now go back to any point in my performance career and hear just how far I’ve come. So whenever I feel like I’m not making any progress, I can grab a recording, hit play and hear hard evidence of whether or not I had improved since that time.

And of course I brought this Power Move with me into language learning.

I record my language learning in two ways. The first is with a language journal.

This “journal” is where I keep all of my notes for the language that I’m studying. As I come across something that I don’t understand, I write those questions down in my notes. That way, I know what I need to go over with my teacher in my next lesson. It also means I’ve got a record of the things that have held me back in the past.

When I go over those notes at a later date, they show me just how far I’ve come. By the time I finish a notebook and go back through my notes to copy whatever I still need to work on into my new notebook, I can see just how few of those questions remain. The majority of the doubts or struggles I had are no longer challenges for me.

The second way I document my progress is with video!

When I first starting making videos of myself speaking new languages, I kept them to myself. I was too afraid to put them out in the world.

But then I did Benny’s Conversation Countdown course, and he convinced me. I decided to make the leap.

This was my first ever video in Mandarin Chinese:

https://youtu.be/Lgx2fd4DeKk

My pronunciation is not great in this video, but that’s missing the point. And regardless of what anyone might think of my skill level at that stage, it got me speaking for the first time. Today, it’s one of my strongest languages.

When I look back at that video, how far I’ve come is immediately apparent. But when I’m in the middle of it, it doesn’t feel like I’m making any progress at all.

Documenting your progress, whether it’s with a language journal or with videos (or both!), is the best way to truly see the improvement you’ve made.

So, aim a camera at yourself and hit record!

(If you need an extra push with this, check out the Add1Challenge — it’s a 90 day program where you’ll track your progress with Day 0, Day 30, Day 60 and Day 90 videos).

Power Move #3 – Do the Thing! That’s Right, the Thing You’ve Been Putting Off

This is the approach that Benny uses whenever he faces a plateau. He adjusts his language studies to approach his biggest problem.

Doing the same will get you through your plateau 100% of the time. It directly targets a huge hurdle you need to get over to keep moving forward.

No matter what level you’re at, there’s always one part of the language that you avoid and it’s often your biggest problem. Not sure what this might be?

Think for a moment. What do you do in the language that could be better? It’ll be the thing that you tell yourself is “good enough” for now and that you “have time to look at it later”. For a lot of learners, these are things like:

  • Noun genders: Is that word masculine, feminine or neuter? Who knows?
  • Cases: All those word endings make my head hurt.
  • Particles: Close enough!
  • Tenses: I’ll just add when it happened and that’ll be good enough. Forget learning the different forms.
  • Honorifics: I’m only learning the language, so I can get away with this being wrong.
  • Sentence structure: good enough.
  • Prepositions: Meh, people will get what I mean

Note: There are times when “good enough” is good enough, but it’s also important to recognize that at a certain point, “good enough” is no longer good enough. It’s time to do better.

By taking an honest look at where you’re at, you’ll find the Thing you need to do next.

Power Move #4 – Trust the Process

This one might sound a little woo-woo, so let me explain what I mean. I should also say that you only need to try this Power Move after you’ve worked through the previous three.

Sometimes, when things get a little stale, you just need to stick with it and keep doing the work on a regular basis.

Just do the work. Today. One day at a time. And trust that it will be enough.

Yes, if you’re anything like me, you’ll have to fit it around a busy life with work, family, friends and other hobbies. The important thing is that you do the work, and you do it every day.

If you consistently study your language, you’re going to make progress. It might not always feel like you are, but if you trust in the process and keep doing the work, you’ll come out at the other side of it more skilled in your language. Hundreds of language learners have seen this in the community I lead, the Add1Challenge.

Power Ascender #5 – Turn the Volume to SUPERLOUD

If none of the above works for you, you can always set the volume to 11. Really challenge yourself and step outside of your comfort zone. This could mean studying:

  • More often (e.g. daily instead of twice per week)
  • With greater focus (e.g. first thing in the morning when your mind is most fresh)
  • More intensely (e.g. one hour study sessions instead of 10 minutes)

If you’re unsure of how to do this on your own, you can take on a language challenge. My personal favourite is the community I lead — the Add1Challenge.

The Add1Challenge is a 90-day language learning challenge that really pushes you to step outside your comfort zone. It’s designed so that whenever those lulls or plateaus hit, you’re given a new assignment or challenge. It’s intense, but a lot of fun!

And you’ll be there with a community of passionate, inspired language learners, who’ll go with you shoulder-to-shoulder on every challenge you face.

At the end of the Add1Challenge you’ll have a 15 minute conversation in your target language — we guarantee it.

When you know exactly what you’re aiming for, it becomes easier to adjust what you do on a weekly or daily basis to get there.

Step Outside the Danger Zone with a Power Move

We all want a certain degree of comfort in our language learning. We want to know that we have systems and resources that we can rely on because we want to be confident that we’re doing the right things to make progress in our learning.

But sometimes, that comfort can be dangerous.

When you start to feel as though your progress has stagnated, rest assured that there are steps you can take to revitalize your learning. You don’t need to worry about whether or not your system is too comfortable. Anytime you feel that it’s holding you back, follow the steps above to get back on track.

Have you ever hit a plateau from being stuck in your comfort zone? What did you do to break through it?

author headshot

Shannon Kennedy

Language Encourager, Fluent in Months

Shannon is Head Coach for the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge. She is currently based in Southern California where she performs as a professional musician. Her passions are cooking, reading, traveling and sharing her adventures in language learning.

Speaks: English, French, Mandarin, Russian, Croatian, Japanese

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