5 Ways You Are Slowing Your Progress To Fluency

Snail's PaceThe past few weeks I have been studying Spanish pretty hard.

It really feels like working out. I literally feel tired after an hour of intensive study.

My method has mainly been the Pimsleur audio program and LiveMocha courses in Spanish, and occasionally I have a Skype conversation with a native Spanish speaker.

I am somewhat pleased with my progress, and I am learning to recognize more and more of the speech of native speakers. I’ve been at it for 6+ months, though. It seems like the process is draaaaaaagging its way along.

Introducing: Ineffective Language Acquisition.

I have come up with a list of things which do not move fluency along at an appreciable pace. I have done most of these at one time or another, but have really discovered that they simply not work well. I list them here so that you won’t waste your time with them as well.

1. Flash cards with one word on them.

No one learns the structure and grammar of a language one word at a time.

You learn language in strings of phrases. If you really want use flashcards, make them with full sentences that you want to say, like “Thank you, I really appreciate that” or “Hello, you look like an interesting, person. Can I ask you a question?”

On top of this, I have found one word flashcards utterly boring… I mean, think about it: they really are only one step above memorizing a dictionary.

2. Language courses which don’t require you to produce something.

There is a big difference in the mental work required to produce the appropriate expression versus selecting the appropriate expression among a list of 4 or 5 possibilities.

In the production process, you are actually requiring your mind to do that you really want to do– write or speak your thoughts in the target language. In the selection process, you are only required to recognize a few unique features of a set of phrases, and are not required to write or speak your thoughts in the language. Massive difference.

Think back to your school days… Multiple choice tests always gave you a shot because the answer is right there. Fill in the blank tests were all-or-none; either you could produce the answer or you couldn’t. While the former perhaps enabled you to get a higher score, the latter requires more of you, is harder, but is therefore more effective.

3. No native speaker friends in target language.

If your goal is to read and converse in the target language, what better way to do this than practice chatting with native speakers?

Find friends online and setup a Skype meeting with them. It is really fun, and you can help them with English or another language you know. If you feel a little nervous, learn a little bit of the target language before you Skype… or just do a text-chat. With time, your abilities grow, and chances are the other person will be having as much fun as you.

I have found this to be one of the best ways of language acquisition. After your conversation is over, write down the phrases that your native speaker friend helped you with and review them.

4. Inconsistent practice.

Language unfortunately does not permit the “slam and cram” approach.

It is a long process which requires a consistent, daily approach– much like fitness. You simply cannot do it any other way. Practice each day. If you miss a day, forget about it and pick up where you left off. Build the castle brick by brick. Eat the elephant bite by bite. You know the sayings.

5. No external goal.

Your progress will be enlivened if you have some sort of deadline you are working toward.

In January, I am going to Colombia. Already bought the plane ticket. I really want to know Spanish as well as I can by then. I have been to countries and not known the language, but this time, I want to speak with the natives, perhaps ask a girl out in Español. :)

I also had the new year’s resolution of finishing the entire Pimsleur Spanish program. With that goal in mind, I have a clear indication of whether I was successful or not… A generic goal like “learn Spanish” is not measurable.

If you are doing any of these things, you are almost certainly slowing your progress to fluency.

If you have learned or are currently learning a language, what have you found to slow you down?




Published October 31, 2010

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  • http://www.1yearsabbatical.com Matt

    I can certainly relate to everything in this post as I struggle to learn Indonesian before our big move. I’m embarrassed to admit that after 9 years of marriage to a native Indonesian speaker I am not even close to being able to speak it. I have no one to blame but myself mainly due to your Point #4. You will most certainly fail at any language if you don’t dedicate the time to learning and practicing it.

    My wife and I tried to speak nothing but Indonesian at home but we both got really frustrated with that so it never really took off. Of course I am not going to have much choice once we relocate to Indonesia.

    I’ve tried Pimsleur and a few other programs, lost count of the number of books I’ve purchased. Finally I stumbled upon a website run by an American and his Indonesian wife called LearningIndonesian.com. They put together a fantastic program of podcasts. They start out easy and then progress to the point where all of the lessons are entirely in Indonesian. I think being able to listen to actual speakers on your iPod etc. is a real benefit and it’s the one thing that has advanced my speaking ability. The problem is I just haven’t dedicated the time to advancing to the next level.

    Congrats to you for sticking it out and making progress. It will definitely be of benefit to you when you head south.

    • Ryan

      Hey Matt-

      Yea, I’ve found that anything audio that you can put on your iPod or mobile is great. I actually don’t have a smart phone, so I bought a little $10 Coby mp3 player from Amazon… I put all the Pimsleur lessons on there, and then when I go to the gym, I end up having a solid 45 mins to 1 hour of working out and Spanish learning simultaneously. And this is flexible… You could wear it when you are mowing the lawn, doing housework, or driving in the car.

      Even though I’ve put a lot of work into Spanish thus far, I really need to ramp it up the next two months. There’s nothing like a deadline to get me moving!

  • http://www.mytravelinglens.com my.

    Hey Ryan,
    Just stumbled upon your blog. Nice job! As a language enthusiast myself (not a good one), I can relate to your struggles with learning. One thing that I’ve found to be really helpful is to start following people on Twitter that tweet in the languages you want to learn. In my other account, I follow Spanish and Italian speakers. It really helps to read snippets here and there.

    Podemos practicar en juntos! :)

    • Ryan

      Hey Michelle- Thanks for stopping by… I’d be interested to hear which Spanish tweets you are following. I follow one right now, but I only understand it about 30% of the time… Y por supuesto que si podemos practicar juntos! ¿ Cuanto tiempo ha estudiado español?

  • http://agirlwalksintoablog.blogspot.com Cynthia

    This is a great list! I wholeheartedly agree with these. Once I started practicing with native or fluent speakers, I started getting better, *and* gaining more confidence as well.

    Buena suerte con tu viaje. Quiero leer más, y voy a visitar tu bitácora.

    • Ryan

      Gracias, Cynthia! Mi viaje comienza en cincuenta dies! Estoy muy excitado.

  • http://www.yearlyglot.com/ Randy

    People become good at the things they do, so doing flashcards will only make you good at one thing: doing flashcards. You can’t learn to ride a bicycle by reading a book about balance, or looking at pictures of Lance Armstrong. If you want to learn to speak, you have to speak.

    Use social networks to find Spanish speakers and spend as much time as possible chatting with them and talking to them over Skype. You’ll learn much more from one day of that than you will in a month of study.

    • Ryan

      Hey Randy, glad to see you here!

      I really like that quote “People become good at the things they do.” It’s totally true and applicable to everything… I am realizing that I only learn what I do, and that completing the Pimsleur series should not be (and now is not) my only modus operandi. I do like it, though, because many times I want to study while I’m driving in the car or while I’m working out. I can’t talk on Skype when I’m doing these, and Pimsleur definitely enables me to practice proper pronunciation… It’s true in any case that you have to speak, speak, speak.

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