One of the biggest differences between successful language learners and those who give up before they get fluent is attitude. We all need to check our fluency mindset now and again, just to make sure we’re not turning into our own worst enemies. Here are seven mindset shifts for language learning success.
1. From “learning a language” to “mastering the next stage”.
Truth is, to get really good at using a language across the four skills and over a wide range of topics is a huge effort and takes a lot of time. The mountain to climb is high. If you expect to reach the summit fast, you’re going to get pretty discouraged.
After the initial novelty of starting a new language has worn off, you may ask yourself whether you can make any progress up the mountain at all.
Yet we can all get a lot further up than we think.
The key is to break up the task.
Think in terms of staging camps on the way up that mountain.
Each “staging camp” is the next realistic, intermediate goal that you can set and then work towards, to make striking, tangible progress with a fixed period of time. That’s great for doing stuff with language and for wider motivation.
For example, as a learner with the fluency mindset you might set out to acquire an active command of a basic core vocabulary and phrases in a couple of months.
You could work with a teacher to get on top of the language you need in ten common situations in your daily work as an electrical engineer.
Perhaps you could aim to read a simplified novel in your target language next month.
You could join a course to help you cover the main vocab and grammar patterns you need to move into intermediate German in nine weeks.
Shift your mindset, then, and see fluency as a good facility with the language of particular situations, some very simple, some very complex. Celebrate “getting fluent” in basic Spanish greetings rather than complaining that you can’t yet discuss your favourite football team in the language.
Get fluent in one thing and then move on to work on your fluency in the next.
2. From “being taught” to “learning yourself”.
A lot of people join a language class expecting that just listening to a teacher explaining the language and then doing a little practice there and then will get them fluent. Or they buy a textbook, online course or app and expect it magically to beam the language in to their head when they haven’t put in the time.
Yes, classes, one-to-one, courses, apps, all can be really useful but they are only tools. You need to put a lot of effort into them and you need to use them as part of your wider language learning.
First, only you can really nail your motivation and make sure you’re doing what’s relevant for you in a way that ensures you’ll stay the course.
Second, classes, courses or apps won’t give you enough input (listening, reading) or output (speaking, writing) practice to get really good.
You need to interact with the language a whole lot more as well.
3. From regretting your circumstances to working with what you have.
It’s easy to feel discouraged when you compare yourself to other language learners. Some may have more talent for languages, have youth on their side, have more time, money or opportunity to travel….
It’s true, you may have some disadvantages.
Most of us do.
The good news, though, is that if you have the fluency mindset you can work round your disadvantages.
You may not be the best when it comes to raw, natural language learning brain power. Nevertheless, you’re likely have other qualities (such as quiet motivation or extrovert enthusiasm) that you can use to help compensate.
You may be an older language learner, but that brings plusses such as more experience and maybe more free time.
You may have extensive family or job pressures. All the same, perhaps you are able to squeeze out some flashcard or listening time on your commute or hope on line for thirty minute conversation practice session on Skype in your lunch hour?
You may not be able to travel to the “home” country of your target language. Still, can you maybe meet migrants who speak the language in your community or find a language meet up or, again, exploit the power of the internet?
You are what you are, you are where you are. If you’ve got the fluency mindset you look to change what you can and work out how to turn what you can’t change to your advantage or how to work round it.
4. From worrying about forgetting to trusting your brain
Most people seem to think they have “a bad memory”.
They’re right…and they’re wrong.
On the one hand, many of us forget words the moment after we’ve looked them up.
Such forgetting happens especially in the early stages where there’s so much that’s new and you’ve few hooks or little supporting context.
Learners with the fluency mindset still find forgetting frustrating, but they accept that forgetting is normal.
There are active things you can do about it, too.
First, you can learn memory techniques to get words into your short term memory.
Second, by using spaced repetition to move them into your long-term memory. Flashcards or the Gold List Method might help you with this.
These systematic approaches aren’t for everyone though.
Instead (or as well) you can also just keep getting more and more exposure to words and patterns in context, through reading and listening engaging stuff at the right level.
We all need that in spades to get fluent anyway.
We all need lots of retrieval practice too: actually trying to recall words active in conversation or when writing is the way to consolidated them in memory.
If we do all this, our brains will start sorting things out for us, even without conscious, strenuous attempts to “remember”.
5. From aiming for perfection to getting comfortable making mistakes.
One of the biggest advantages that children have when learning their first or second language is that they’re ready to dive in and don’t feel self-conscious about their first halting efforts.
As adults, we’re used to a certain level of control and competence.
Making a lot of mistakes can be really discouraging, especially if combined with a nagging belief that “I don’t have a talent for languages”.
Fact is, lot of mistakes are inevitable and sometimes repeatedly getting something wrong is the way you finally take notice of it and start saying it right.
Here, selective, corrective feedback from a teacher can be really useful.
Again, though, your brain will solve a lot on its own if you keep getting input, input, input. That way, you’ll develop a “feel” for how things should be said.
It’s the same with how things should be written: reading is doubly valuable because it feeds into your active speaking and writing.
You’ll need to get that feedback on your written work as well. Remember how hard it was to learn to write well in your first language? It will be easier second time round, a lot easier. But it will still require a lot of writing, a lot of mistakes and a lot of good feedback.
Shift that mindset! Don’t take yourself too seriously!
Here’s the thing: nobody else cares about your language abilities. They care about you and what you have to say much more than whether you make a few mistakes when you say it.
6. From overwhelm at the differences to searching for similarities
I can remember feeling overwhelmed when as an undergrad history student, I needed to get my basic French up to a higher level where I could read a sophisticated, native level text (de Tocqueville’s L’Ancien Régime et la Révolution, I’ll have you know). I felt almost angry that we were expected to learn so many words. It seemed impossible.
Of course, erm, languages are different from each other in a host of ways. The range of meanings encompassed by one individual word won’t always overlap perfectly. Typical sentence structures may diverge. You may need to learn some cultural aspects of how things are said (and whether they are said at all) afresh.
Realising the nature of these differences is itself an important newbie breakthrough.
That said, if your target language is related to your mother tongue (or another language you’ve studied), you’ll find underlying similarities. You’ll find familiar structures and familiar vocab. Sometimes words will be guessable once you see the patterns in how they have diverged over the centuries. I found this in a rough-and-ready way when I drew on my advanced Russian to try to decipher Slovak street and shop signs in Bratislava).
As English speakers we’ve a huge advantage learning Germanic languages because they all evolved form a common ancestor. As a result, many grammatical patterns and many of the words are similar, because they’ve evolved from the same roots.
That’s true of the Latin languages (such as French, Italian, Spanish or Portuguese) too, just much further back up the “family tree” of Indo-European languages. The main advantage when we English speakers learn the languages that developed from Latin is that English has borrowed so many Latin-based words. These came in either direct from Latin or, commonly, from Norman French or later varieties of French. Such words often pop up in very similar forms in the other Latin-based languages, as well.
Even more distant languages will use international words that you’ll recognise from English.
I started learning Japanese last year. Yes, it’s takes longer to get started because it’s so different. One surprise for me has been that Japanese has a huge number of borrowings from English.
A learner with the fluency mindset of course you’ll take the differences between languages seriously. You’ll want to enter the special “spirit” of your target language. You’ll want to learn about its culture of communication. Also, though, you’ll be on the look out for similarities. You’ll work to get good at spotting them.
7. From straining for a breakthrough to enjoying the process.
Yes, you can move forward between staging posts on the climb to a thorough language mastery.
Reaching each camp will help you feel fulfilled on the journey. I felt this the first time I took a cab in Japanese, the first time I spoke to some distant relatives in Welsh or the first time I had a job interview in Russian or German, for example.
Such “fluency wins” are nice when they come but the fluency mindset involves accepting that language learning isn’t about historic “breakthroughs” most of the time.
Getting fluent is about keeping going and enjoying the process until, one day, yes, you’re pretty fluent….but you can’t put your finger on when it happened.
I often find that my mentoring clients are high achievers who are doing great stuff but are beating themselves up or feeling disillusioned because a hoped-for breakthrough hasn’t (yet) happened.
Yes, this could be a sign that your language learning methods and habits need an overhaul.
If you’re habitually doing effective things, though, the key is to keep at it.
It’ll be easier to do that if you enjoy the process. When you’ve got the fluency mindset, you know that the way to ensure that is to use methods and materials that suit you.
You make it a habit.
You find support and encouragement in a wider community of speakers (natives and learners).
Have you already got several aspects of the fluency mindset in place in theory and from experience? Which ones are you working on or do you struggle with? Are there others that you’d add to the post? Let me know in the comments below!
Loved every word of it. Changing the way we think is definitely a game changer. It’s hard, but it pays you back in the long run.
Our attitude matters more than we think, and working with what we have while being patient and kind to ourselves can really make a difference.
Thank you for sharing this.
Alfred McCorrie says
I have gained enormously from your emails, so much so that I keep these emails, and refer to them when I am ‘flagging’. This email is one of my specials. I don’t really need much more to keep me ‘driving’ to my aim.
Thanks for all your emails, but particularly this one.
It’s great to have such positive feedback, Alfred. Many thanks for taking the time to comment. Which language are you learning, by the way?