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9 Reasons You’re Hitting Language Learning Walls (& How to Break Through Them to Finally Become Fluent)

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wallHello Language Hackers! I was very happy to see this great guest post submission from Cher.

Cher Hale is an instigator of adventure and romance on her blog The Iceberg Project, where she teaches people how to charm Italians with their own language and finally become fluent in Italian. Here she talks about brick walls that may be holding you back from your own language learning projects. Over to you Cher!

It’s the feeling of stagnation, like sitting around and waiting for something to happen because you know you’ve been putting in the work.

It’s what happens when you feel a huge rush of demotivation because you’re really tired of studying this language every single day and not seeing much of a return for it. Benny Lewis has definitely hit them before and so have thousands of other language learners.

BRICK WALLS. At the end of the day, some get through them and some don’t.

So what makes the difference?

What separates the language learner who breaks through these walls and becomes fluent in their target language from the person who just keeps plugging along, hoping to make progress “someday soon”?

I had the same question as I was learning Italian and Chinese Mandarin, and all of my questions were clearly answered the minute I finished reading the most incredible study from Cambridge University. But not everyone wants to sift through a 27-page academic paper, so I'll give you the short version of what Jack C. Richards lays down in this piece, answering the question, what keeps intermediate learners from ever becoming fluent? It turns out that there isn’t just one wall, but several.

This is something we feel instinctively, but often don’t realize because we’re always hearing about that ONE proverbial wall that’s holding us back. How could we ever become fluent if we expect ourselves to get through one wall and then reach success…when there are really seven or more walls that separate us from our goal?

That, my friend, sets us up for serious expectation problems.

So here are the 9 ways that you are hitting walls in your language project (whether you realize it or not), and more importantly, how you can break through each one of them to become fluent.

1) My vocabulary is too basic to hold a conversation

The problem: Your vocabulary is made up of surface language.

What do I mean by “surface language?”
I mean that you're stocked up with basic language, like “That is a chair,” without being able to make deeper distinctions, such as “That is a dining room table chair,” or “That is a rocking chair,” or “That is a recliner.” You know the words for basic things, but you can’t distinguish between finer shades of meaning.

An example that I remember learning in Italian was the difference between bells.
• La campanella – School bell
• La campana – Church bell
• Il campanello – Doorbell
• Il campanellino – Small bell you might find on a dog collar

Your Fix
Play a game in your everyday life where you get in the habit of describing what’s around in your target language in exact detail.

Don’t just say, “I’m looking at a park.”

Say, “I’m looking at a park, and I see weeping willow trees. There are six ornately decorated, white benches that seem to be antique. There are red rose beds in a hexagon, and a fountain that has a dolphin carved in marble.” Go into serious detail, and look up words that you don’t know. Keep note of these new words as flashcards (in a good system like Anki), in a notebook, or any way that you can continuously revisit them.

2) When I learn a new vocabulary word, I still don't understand it when a native uses it

The problem: You can't distinguish between the multiple meanings of one word.

There’s a fancy word called polysemy, and that’s the difference between multiple meanings of one word. In the Cambridge paper, Richards references the word “head” and describes how in English it can mean many things–from the head of a person to the head of a pin to the head of an organization.

Your Fix
Learn words in chunks so you have a better idea of how a vocabulary word is functioning in context.
Going further, you may want to consider switching from a dictionary that translates your native language to your target language to one entirely in your target language. This will give you insight into how the natives themselves would describe the multiple uses of the word.

You can find many of these online for free. For example, WordReference offers definitions in Italian, Spanish and English. You can also simply search “{target language} dictionary” in the foreign language you’re learning.

3) I can't speak fluently, even though I understand the language when I hear it

The problem: You might understand more complex grammar tenses, but you’re not using them.

You might be conversational and able to hold your own, but you’re not fully aware of how to use the more complex grammar tenses that are necessary for more in-depth expression.

This doesn’t apply to all foreign languages, as there are languages like Chinese Mandarin with a simple enough verb tense structure, but then there are languages like Italian, which have and use their complicated subjunctive mood often.

The subjunctive mood is one that isn’t taught to students until they reach an intermediate level, and by then the present indicative tense has been mainly used. This makes it tough for students to restructure the knowledge they already have and make space for this new complex and common grammar mood.

Your Fix
Make mastering more complex grammar tenses your focus by being conscious of them in your target language’s clips, movies, songs, and articles.

Write compositions for native speakers to correct, and post them on sites like Italki or Lang-8.

Have “shower conversations” (a term coined by Sid Efromovich) with yourself with an intention to use those tenses.

In these personal conversations, you can realize what you don’t know how to use and then go to your teacher or to the drawing board to help remedy those problems. This is all a part of the process of restructuring the way you to accommodate these new tenses/moods. Let your neurons fire away, and make new connections.

4) I don't know how to stop making the same mistake over and over again

The problem: You are continuing to make errors that you learned as a beginner but that were never corrected.

When you start learning a new language, especially as an autodidact, or someone who learns on their own, there is SO MUCH new information to digest.

This marathon of learning that often happens at the start of a language journey can result in many mistakes that become “fossilized” over time.

If you do work with a tutor or a teacher, it’s likely they’ll focus on your bigger mistakes and let the small ones fall through the cracks. That’s great in the moment, but it's one of the reasons you will hit a language wall and not know why automatically.

Your Fix
Start taking one-on-one or one-on-two lessons with a native teacher.

Be very clear with him/her that you would like to be corrected as soon as you make the mistake or as soon as you finish a sentence. Then ask for time to write down your mistake if you learn by writing.
If you learn best by listening and repetition, ask your teacher if it’s okay if you can record the lesson. Then you can listen to it while you’re in your car, jogging, or cooking.

If you’re on a Mac, you can easily do this by opening up the free program Quicktime Player and recording audio. If you’re on a PC, you can use a free program Sound Recorder and recording audio.

As you take care of your bigger mistakes, you can ask the teacher to focus on the small errors, too.
While this might sound expensive, it doesn’t have to be. Italki (which also offers free exchanges) offer affordables, customized lessons. It’s also possible that you can use Craigslist to find native teachers in your area if you like being in person. However, this does tend to be a little pricier.

5) I can understand the language, but I just can't speak it

The problem: You've spent your time practicing reading and listening to the target language, but you’re not confident in speaking.

As Benny says, you gotta speak from day one.

If you avoid speaking, you’re avoiding the entire point of learning the language (unless you’re learning Greek just to read the literature or something similar), but since you’re here, I’m guessing that isn’t the case.

Your Fix
If you want to get your speaking skills up to par with how much you understand, you can’t just be in the environment passively listening, but you must actively notice and pay attention to what’s going on around you.

When you’re conscious of what you’re hearing and reading, then you can make real progress.

So the first step is be more conscious of how specific vocabulary is used when you’re listening and speaking and then actually reproducing that language in situations where you’re forced to speak. This can be as extreme as moving to the country of your target language or as relaxed as meeting with a language group once a week via Meetup.com wherever you live.

If your target language is a little more obscure, you might have more luck finding online forums for that specific language. Consider creating a weekly Meetup group on your own via Google Hangouts or in person.

6) The language I'm learning has too many words that all mean the same thing

The problem: You can’t tell the difference between verbs that have seemingly identical meanings.

Similar to knowing differences in vocabulary, not knowing distinctions between verbs can make your target language sound elementary.

For example, in English we have the verb “to tell.”
We can:
• Tell a story
• Tell something to someone
• Tell two things a part
• Tell a lie
• Tell your name

Other similar verbs for tell might be:
• Chronicle
• Describe
• Explain
• Narrate
• Recite
• Recount
• Report
• Reveal

But since English is a first language for many of us, we know that we wouldn’t use all of the verbs above interchangeably with “tell” in every situation. Some sound outdated, and some are a bad fit. It’s the same thing in your target language.

Let’s take the verb meaning “to tell” in Italian: Dire.
We can:
• Dire la verità – say the truth
• Dire addio a qualcuno – to say goodbye to someone
• Dire bugie – to tell lies
• Dire di no – to say no
• Dire di sì – to say yes
• Dire parolacce – to curse
• Dire stupidaggine – to say stupid things
• Non dire niente – to not say anything

Verbs similar to “dire” might be:
• Comunicare – to communicate
• Esprimere – to express
• Dichiarare – to declare, proclaim
• Manifestare – to demonstrate
• Narrare – to narrate
• Raccontare – to tell
• Parlare – to speak

Specifically if we’re talking about how someone told us a story in Italian, we would want to use the verb “raccontare – to tell” instead of “dire – to say.”

Your Fix
Go on a synonym adventure. When reading books, note verbs that are similar but different in context. Make note of these and make it a goal of yours to use them in conversation.

If possible, get some native advice on which verbs are used often, sound odd, or are antiquated. You can do this through sites like Italki, the WordReference forums, or Lang-8.

7) I want to sound smoother, more native and more eloquent

The problem: You don’t have an arsenal of proverbs, idioms or phrases at your disposal.

It’s likely that in your native language you have a lot of proverbs, idioms and phrases that you use each day to make your conversation more colorful and easier to understand. Your target language will probably have these too, and it’s in your best interest to learn them so you can sound more like a native and continue progressing.

Your Fix
Learn a few idioms, phrases or proverbs every day. Pepper them into your “shower conversations” and check in with native speakers to determine their relevance and in what context you should use them.

For example, there’s a Chinese expression about relationships that goes like this:
Xin1 you3 ling2 xi1 yi4 dian1 tong1

This is a phrase that expresses how people who are close can understand each other just with a look. You could use it with friends, family, and lovers.

Or this one:
bai3 wen2 bu4 ru2 yi1 jian4

This is a phrase to express that a certain place is amazing according to many people, as in “I heard Taiwan was GORGEOUS from 100 different people so now I have to go see it for myself.”

8) I learned a new language in school, and I just don't sound like a native speaker

The problem: You always sound like you’re addressing the Queen of England in your target language.

A common problem most students from university face is that they have learned an academic version of their target language. So when they open their mouths in that country or with any native speaker, they might sound … cold.

It may all be grammatically correct, but you're missing the warmth that comes with a common, everyday language spoken between people of a common country.

Your Fix
Learning the everyday idioms, phrases, and proverbs will definitely help.

If it’s appropriate in your target language, try to be less formal in situations among peers.
Watch more shows and movies (not ones just dubbed to your native language, but actually based on a story from your target language’s culture), try to pick up on the slang and to see how people of certain relationships interact with each other.

• How do they speak to each other at work?
• What do they say to their family members who are older than them?
• What do they say to people who are older than them, but are friends?
• What do they say on holidays, birthdays, or during festivals?
• How do they speak to children?
• How do they write letters/emails?

Become a detective of social situations.

9) I've been learning a language for years, but I'm not getting anywhere

The problem: You’re not comparing yourself to native speakers to see where you stack up.

Usually I’m not a fan of playing the comparison game, but when it comes to language learning, studies have shown that it’s a great tool, which rapidly shortens your learning curve.

Your Fix
Find a native speaker that you can practice with (again, sites like Italki or Lang-8 are great for this). Then play a game where you say a sentence in the target language to them and they say it back to you with how they would express it in their target language.

Then do it backwards. Have them say a sentence to you in your native language and you’ll translate that sentence to the target language.

Richards Simcott refers to this kind of practice as “carefully structured and managed output,” which is “essential if learners are to acquire new language.”

So there you have it. 9 brick walls… and 9 language-learning jackhammers.

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