I often waited until I was “good enough” to speak, before having my first conversation.
This is an enormously common problem for people who study a foreign language with the intent of "becoming conversationally fluent". Some learners never even get to the 'practicing speaking with native speakers' part of the language learning process. It is truly astonishing how many people out there have utterly wasted their time wanting to be fluent, working on their skills tirelessly only to never actually put them to use in an actual conversation focused class or real-life conversation.
I understand that not everybody is an outgoing, self-confident extrovert, willing to put his or her self out there, attempting to speak a new language only after a few weeks of self-study. Both introverts and extroverts alike, however, tend to make this mistake. In some cases it's the classic scenario: if the learner is extroverted, then he wants to speak often and is excited to do so and if he is an introvert he prefers to collect his thoughts, analyze, and maybe study a good deal before he dares to begin attempting to speak in the target language. Most people fall somewhere in between, however. I know I personally do.
Despite this however, nearly everyone has some sort of anxiety, hesitation, and self-doubt when first speaking a new language. Ideally you squash this fear and hesitation as quickly as possible through exposure and experience so that you can develop the habit of engaging in regular, consistent real language conversation or conversation classes.
Unfortunately, I made this mistake when learning Spanish, and in turn I took entirely too long to become conversationally proficient. However, luckily I learned from this mistake the first time around and I did not repeat this when developing a base of knowledge in Portuguese and later in French. As a result I developed a conversational comfort level for Portuguese and French at a much, much faster rate than I ever did with Spanish.
So, to reiterate, breaking through this barrier early on is super important. Don’t be like me and screw it up! Don’t be afraid to start attempting to communicate as early as you can. There is literally no other way to get conversationally fluent.
I often wasted my time playing it safe, studying too many translation and textbook activities, rather than seeking out more immersive ways to improve.
From my experience, apps like Duolingo.com, Busuu.com, and most typical school classroom language worksheets and activities of that nature can be very useful to use when starting to learn a new language, building a little base of knowledge.
Today, in many cases, it has become popular for teachers and other 'language experts' to oppose translation activities when learning a new language. I totally understand this and maybe in an ideal scenario you would ONLY learn through immersion.
However, I believe that us teenagers and adults should use them for the following reason: using our first language as a crutch to help us gain vocabulary, sentence structure, and understanding of our target language is one of our biggest advantages that we have to quickly acquire a base knowledge to then take with us into an immersive environment.
Use it as a tool, but never fall in love with any one method or form of practice. At times in the past I would spend way too much time focusing on this and not enough with more immersion focused practice. You must find immersion practice via music, movies, video series, reading, and speaking as much as possible with fluent or native speakers. Interestingly, our brains are wired to be able to learn only so much language consciously. It has been proven that our subconscious mind plays a vital role in language acquisitions. In an immersive environment and / or activity, it absorbs substantial amounts of linguistic data and contributes greatly to our level of fluency.
I often tried to practice too much or stressed out when I didn't "do enough" or perhaps even skipped a day.
It can sometimes be detrimental to your progress to over do foreign language study. Your brain, a muscle, needs to rest just like it is necessary to rest your biceps, triceps, and pectorals after a strenuous upper-body weight workout. However, you must make it a habit to make contact with your language, review, and be pushing your brain with new content, concepts, and conversation 5-6 days per week to see real progress.
Consistency is the real key to improvement in language fluency, but it's not necessary to overdo it. When tutoring students and building customized fluency plans for clients I try to really push the concept I use with both in fitness and language learning by setting “daily minimums” and following through with them consistently, on a daily / weekly / monthly basis.
For me, a “daily minimum” is something that appears at first glance as both easy and doable each day within your typical schedule. You’ll find that these little minimums add up each day, bit by bit, and quickly turn into hours upon hours of productivity and growth as months pass by.
With consistency I am able to improve in small increments each and every day while keeping the possibility of burnout at a minimum. Many people who start out wanting to learn a language come at it with a roaring, burning blaze of vigor, excitement, and more often than not, false expectations that fluency will happen in just a few weeks or months of moderately paced work (thank you, Rosetta Stone). Opt instead for a small, consistent maintainable fire. One that can be cultivated over time, long-term.
Language learning, like fitness training, must simply become part of your lifestyle if you want to be successful in your pursuits. Be aware of these common 3 mistakes and you will be lightyears ahead of your average Joe language learner.
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Levi Flint is a language teacher, learner, and traveler frustrated with how languages have been viewed and taught in North America. He hopes to change things with a bit of clarity, perspective, and common sense.