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CHAPTER 7: From Fluency to Mastery
Strive toward fluency and beyond by coming back to the academic aspects better suited to this part of the language learning process.
In chapters 5 and 6, I described how to get off to a great start in another language. Once you have momentum, you’re off and running. It’s not necessarily about having a “perfect” approach, but continuing with a learning strategy that encourages you to improve and helps you make those improvements.
Your own approach may differ from my suggestions, and people, of course, learn in very different ways. In my experience, though, applying the methods of chapter 5 have helped me and many others get into languages and achieve a basic conversational level in a language much more quickly than through almost any other approach.
The first step is the most important one. There’s no point discussing perfecting your language skills before you have definitely started using them. So many language learning approaches are so hung up on perfection that they simply overlook those first steps, and it’s why so many people ultimately get nowhere.
But the truth is it’s very hard to reach fluency or beyond in a second language through exposure and usage alone, which I have focused on up to now. It’s possible and it does happen that people simply live the language and are later almost as good as a native speaker. The problem is that this is a very slow method.
Using the tactics we’ve learned so far, for instance, the person I’m speaking to will need to adjust to my level, speak slowly and clearly, and limit the kinds of things he or she can talk to me about. I will naturally misspeak, but I can indeed talk spontaneously with the person even within these limitations.
But don’t let this hold you back, because it’s time to move on! We can now strive toward B2 fluency and onward to C2 mastery, including improving our writing and reading skills.
Always Look for Ways to Improve
We have already seen how plateaus can hold us back and how mini-missions can help us overcome them. But it’s easy to forget these when we finally reach a stage where we can communicate in a language.
After working so hard to get here, it’s almost too easy to get lazy and decide that what we have now is good enough. This is why so many people reach a certain level and stay there indefinitely; they’ve already put so much hard work in and they feel they deserve to reap the benefits of all that work.
It can be so tempting to stop learning and just use the language as you can now, because it’s “good enough,” especially if you can perform most of your essential social and other basic interactions in that language. But if you are still conducting your most complex discussions in your native language, it’s important to remind yourself that your work is not done; in fact, the most fun part of all lies ahead!
Having reached that C2 (mastery) level myself, I can confirm that the extra work is so worth it! Being able to do anything that you could possibly want in the target language, including working in it, having very complex discussions in it, and so much more, is a whole world apart from being able to have conversations with a patient speaker.
To reach these upper levels, you have to continue to eliminate plateaus, seriously examine what your biggest problems are right now, and solve them.
When I was starting to get comfortable with my A2 Mandarin, for instance, and started to set my sights on B1 and beyond, I found that I could meet up with someone in person and chat about basic things pretty well. But I was relying a bit too much on context and, especially, visual cues. When I realized this, my next step—trying to have more conversations on Skype with the video turned off—seemed the best way to force me to focus on the words themselves. When I did this for the first time, even though I had already been learning Mandarin intensively for a couple of months, I felt like I was starting over from scratch again due to how challenging it was, and my head actually hurt from having to think so much during the session.
It wasn’t fun (at first), but thanks to focusing on a problem that I knew I had, I pushed my level up. And now my conversations are better both in person and via Skype. I’ve pushed my understanding level up several notches and forced myself to recognize many more words than I could with my temporary fix of extrapolating what they were likely to mean, which is what I did to help me get through earlier stages.
Traditional Learning Suddenly Becomes Useful
It’s very hard to give a precise road map of what to fix, because we each run into different problems due to our varied focuses, learning strategies, passions, language choices, and personal challenges. Some of these are like the one I suggested previously with my Mandarin, which required some lateral thinking to see the best way to solve it.
But at the end of the day, many of these problems can be what I’d call content problems—problems with how the language itself operates (how to conjugate verbs, structure sentences, acquire vocabulary, and so on), as opposed to confidence issues or a lack of familiarity, which are actually much bigger problems most of the time for beginners.
The good news with content issues is that the majority of language learning material out there focuses specifically just on content problems. Almost every single language learning course is all about how a language works, with technical explanations of why grammar works the way it does, how words are formed, the rules of how a letter is pronounced differently in different words, and so on.
I think it’s a mistake to focus just on pure content issues for the start of your language learning project, especially the way they are presented in most courses; they’re simply too boring, and they’re not immediately relevant, because there are so many rules to cover that you feel like it will take years to get through them.
But if you first focus on communication, by patching words and sentences together as best as you can, then you get a true sense of how a language works and the start of an intuition for how to use it.
That’s why, for me, saying something is my priority until I reach the basic conversation level, even if I am speaking Tarzanesque in that language. To hell with speaking perfectly—mistakes help communication flow! But once you have that basic flow, it’s time to go to those book courses to start to get some solid footing in communicating formally in the language.
Dealing with Grammar
One of my favorite aphorisms is that grammar is like a really powerful pharmaceutical: it’s helpful in small doses but fatal when overprescribed.
And indeed, the most intimidating aspects of learning languages for so many people is all that grammar. I was trying to get my head around German in school, and to this day I only remember the language as consisting of nothing more than mind-boggling der, die, das tables; accusative, dative, and nominative adjective-ending lists; and many other things that seemed way too robotic to inspire me to communicate with people.
Many years later, I rebooted my project to learn German using the strategies in chapter 5 and progressed much more quickly to make wonderful friends through German. But when I reached a certain level, where pure practice couldn’t carry me further very fast, it was time to turn back to those grammar books, and something very curious happened.
I found it incredibly interesting.
The problem with learning grammar at the start of our language projects, or when we are not used to truly communicating in the language at some level, is that we have nothing to attach all these boring rules to. It’s an inhuman list of rules that can put us off a language before we get started. But after we have learned some of this language, heard it used in real life, tried to communicate in it, and been exposed to lots of real material and genuinely tried to understand it, then we have some meat to attach to this supportive skeleton.
When you already know a little of that language and then come across a grammar rule, rather than see some dull explanation you’ll quickly forget, your reaction may actually be “So that’s why they say it that way!” It’s almost like putting in the missing piece of a huge puzzle or focusing a camera. That missing piece is meaningless without the other pieces around it, and that focus isn’t worth improving if you aren’t looking at something specific with your camera.
This is why I suggest only learning grammar in small chunks for the absolute basics, or going through courses that are much more conversation focused and sprinkle a little grammar into it in interesting ways. For most language learners, going for pure grammar or taking grammar-focused courses at the start is a mistake.
But when you do speak the language fairly well, then you can actually turn grammar lessons into your mini-mission.
This approach to studying grammar—applying it to what I know, making sure that I can start to form correct sentences, using it to help me understand replies in the context of what each part of a sentence is—ultimately allows me to bring my level up a notch. Thanks to this, I have been able to bring my conversational B1 level up to a fluent B2 many times, because I can express myself much better and understand what is being said to me in ways that purely learning words and phrases can’t help with.
With continued studying, and of course plenty of practice—especially focused on the grammar points you have studied—you will soon absorb what you need. There will always be something left to learn, but I find that with most (European) languages, the bulk of the grammar is something that brings you up to a good fluent level. This is why I study as much grammar and do as many book-assigned exercises as I need to until I am sure I understand what I learned (with teachers or by running some of my exercises in traditional courses past native speakers, if possible), since this is a major part of my strategy to improve from my basic conversational level.
More Complex Discussions
While your ability to express yourself and understand others will definitely improve when you move from level B1 to B2, I find that the actual content of the conversations can be somewhat similar, depending on how you use the language, of course.
In my case, in both levels I am able to participate in social situations; but in the first one, I require people to speak to me slowly and adjust the way they speak for my benefit. At this level, I won’t understand if they speak naturally to their friends, so I can’t participate in group discussions.
When I reach B2, people can relax around me and talk faster, and they don’t have to “dumb down” the conversation for my benefit. But despite this, I’m still getting to know them better through asking what they do for a living, asking for their backstory and giving mine, making plans, and talking about something topical but lighthearted that people might discuss in a social situation. Certainly a much more varied set than what I was doing in level B1, but it’s still friendly chatting.
Once again, I’m tempted to stop here, because ultimately this will be what I’d do the majority of the time in my language: use it to get to know people and have straightforward chats socially, especially as I travel and get to know new people. With a level B2, you can effectively participate in the majority of conversations you may end up having.
But if anyone asks me for my political or philosophical opinions or asks me to defend a point of view or something more complex, I’m stumped, unable to offer my thoughts in a complex way.
That’s why, when it’s time to push on to the next level, I force myself to have these conversations, so I have no choice but to learn how to express myself when they happen. Whether I’m getting spoken lessons or doing an exchange or simply hanging out with friends, I try to move away from superficial chats about how things are in general and steer the conversation toward very complex discussions.
I defend my philosophical arguments for being an atheist, talk about the vast differences in wealth and poverty I’ve seen in my travels, try to provide a scientific or technical explanation for how something works based on my engineering and online media experience, ponder the true meaning of happiness from a purely psychological point of view—things that I happen to be passionate about and enjoy discussing.
It can be as frustrating to have these conversations when you are still stuck at level B2 as it is to try to have a simple conversation when you are just beginning to learn, but as with everything else on this path, you need practice to drag yourself up a level or two!
If I have a good teacher or language-exchange partner, we decide on a topic and try to argue points of view. In my best languages, I’ve tried to go a step further and even argue against something I actually believe in so that I’m forced to use different arguments and try to expand on my ability to express a point of view. This would, of course, be during a formal learning session, rather than something I’d do in a casual discussion.
These conversations pressure me to use more complex terminology and vocabulary related to the argument itself or related turns of phrase, such as “that may be true, however . . .” or “I think you’re dancing around the real issue,” which you might use in such complex discussions. This in turn sends me back to my vocabulary studies and even to my grammar book for certain trickier sentence forms. Once again, studying is used in between sessions of genuinely speaking the language.
If you are in the country itself, you can, of course, join debate or discussion groups or go to events that would push you up a level. Otherwise, you can find online forums to participate in that focus on complex topics or get a private teacher to help you with such specific topics of discussion.
Input: Working Toward Mastery Through Movies and Books
In this book, you will notice that I have prioritized interacting with those who speak the target language; studying is almost an afterthought. This is different from many other approaches, which tend to be more input focused; that is to say, the work is to absorb the language in less interactive ways, such as reading, watching TV and movies, and listening to the radio.
The reason for this is because my priority is to communicate live in the language, so I need to practice that interactive communication first, much more than I need to be able to read or understand movies well. Being able to understand a TV show or read a newspaper simply doesn’t help me as effectively when traveling in a country or socializing with people as much as spoken practice does.
But there is a point when I tend to shift my focus toward more of these input methods, using material that isn’t interactive. I usually turn to input methods when I’m trying to jump from fluency to mastery. Before I have learned enough words in interactive conversations, materials I tend to enjoy in English would be too complex for me in the target language to enjoy on a similar level. For instance, I can’t enjoy comedy shows (except for slapstick or very simple jokes) in a language as a beginner, so I generally avoid them until I reach fluency. Then I dive into everything I would tend to enjoy in English, but in my target language.
I remember trying to watch a comedy TV show in Spain as a beginning learner: Aquí No Hay Quien Viva, about the antics apartment-block neighbors get up to. The jokes and level of speech was just too far beyond me. I tried to watch it for “practice,” but I really felt that I had learned nothing after the hour. Since it wasn’t interactive, the speakers weren’t slowing down a little for my benefit, as those I’d speak to directly would.
Then again, after reaching C2 (mastery) level in Spanish, I started watching the same show (technically rebranded and now called La Que se Avecina), and there are many moments when I am almost crying in laughter. It’s one of my favorite shows, and I can appreciate it now that I brought my level up enough to be able to truly enjoy it. What I could have done, though, was use this or a similar show when I was at level B2 and study it intentionally to try to bring my level up.
I also read newspapers, listen to radio debates, and enjoy novels in my stronger languages to bring my levels toward mastery. Doing these at first is quite challenging at a B2 level of fluency, where I still need to refer to a dictionary, stop and think for a moment to understand what I heard, or look up complex sentences. It definitely pushes me to my limits, and after a complex session of listening or reading, I can feel exhausted if I have tried very hard to keep up, but I’ll be that much better for it next time!
Find as much of this as you can to bring your level up toward mastery. I wouldn’t recommend jumping into complex themes as a beginner, though. It’s just too complicated for you to even appreciate on a small level. This kind of frustration is a major contributor to why so many learners give up; they try to process native material just after starting, see that it’s too hard, and give up entirely. When you instead try to speak to people, it’s a lot easier to get eased into it and control the direction the conversation goes, so you can feel some sense of achievement even as a beginner.
If your focus is much more reading- and listening-based than spoken, though, you can—and will—find great ways to get into appreciating input, even as a beginner. Simpler content, or that which you are familiar with in some way, can be a huge boost.
I sometimes watched The Simpsons while trying to learn Spanish. Because I had already seen every episode in English and pretty much knew what each character was saying, I could learn new Spanish words and understand them as they were being said, which gave me a tremendous boost of confidence. Others have read comic books or manga in their target language, and the images certainly provide tons of context to fill in the gaps.
Input can be a huge help when you know that it’s appropriate to your level or just above it. But hearing a constant stream of noise or needing to look up every single word in a dictionary can be terribly frustrating. It’s also an inefficient learning experience. Then again, as I’ve said elsewhere in the book, there is no one way to learn a language, and many have told me that they have successfully brought their level up through lots of pure input. The catch is that it definitely takes much more time to interact with a language when you delay speaking with a pure-input approach. This is ultimately why it takes years for so many people to reach a conversational level, when others do it in a few months. The former are simply not practicing conversations enough for that aspect of their language skills to improve.
Efficient input works only when you give it your full attention. I thought that simply having the radio on in German for many hours every day would help me learn the language through some kind of osmosis, that it would naturally seep in. But language doesn’t work that way. Expecting to learn a language while doing something else is lazy and counterproductive. Focus is the key.
If you are listening to audio, don’t do something else at the same time; instead, take notes to make sure you are following what you’re hearing, or try to repeat it over to yourself, making sure you understand each word. The less attention you give to it, the less efficiently you will learn. You could spend ten hours listening to audio while you are jogging and thinking about something else, but you would learn as much as if you had simply listened to a single hour while pausing and thinking about what was being said with your full focus. Don’t multitask language learning!
When I’m jogging or driving, I review past audio I have already focused on while sitting down and in study mode, or alternatively, I listen to audio I am going to go back over later, now that I’ve heard it all through a single time without pauses. I use the multitasking period as prep time rather than counting it as study time.
Taking an Exam to Force Your Level up a Notch
In my opinion, the fastest path to reaching mastery in a language is the opposite of what many of us typically do. We tend to have structured academic lessons at the start, followed by lots of exposure later on when we feel “ready” to naturally progress toward perfection.
If you follow the advice in the previous chapters, you will of course be getting all that exposure and practice in your early stages and you won’t make it about exams and completing chapters of language learning books.
But this kind of structure can be precisely what we need in later stages. That’s why I recommend you consider aiming to take an officially accredited examination for your language that is one level higher than where you feel you are now, which will force you to work up to that level. Find an exam appropriate to your language and see if the exam date set for the level above your current one is within a realistic time frame for you to attempt to take and pass it. Then you will typically find past examples and study materials, and you can focus on becoming more familiar with how the exam works for your next desired level.
People who enjoy the technical aspects of language learning may even get great benefits out of taking exams in the earlier stages. I know many successful language learners who pace themselves by taking each level—A1, A2, B1, B2, and upward—every few months. This can be a great way to be absolutely sure of your level, but I find that due to the academic nature of the tests, I personally get more benefit out of taking exams only in levels B2, C1, or C2, at the levels where a more academic approach is more beneficial to my language learning strategy.
A looming deadline forces you to do things you may avoid in the earlier stages, such as sticking to the kind of material you may not otherwise have the patience for.
I have prepared to take three C2 examinations—one in Spanish, which I passed safely; one in German, which I failed by a hair; and one in Italian, which I prepared for but didn’t take due to travel issues. In each case, my otherwise fluent level was forced up several notches. I have also met up with teachers to review written exercises I’ve done. We discuss complex themes so I can expand my vocabulary and turns of phrase, and they assign me readings that I will be tested on in the next lesson.
There are people who are structured enough to do this themselves throughout their learning experiences, but I think most people prefer to use the language in ways more immediately relevant to them. They require a little guidance to get them to do exercises or read about and discuss topics they might not otherwise. Without this extra nudge, most of us would only expand our language abilities in topics we find interesting, but in the real world, we have to use our language for more than just this.
This exam structure helps us bring our levels up, and I think it definitely has its place. It should just be applied less at the start and more near to the end, when we have the meat of a language and require refining. It can give us the sophistication and command we require to use the language in as many situations as possible.
Writing, Reading, and Listening?
Formal language education generally divides language learning into four aspects: writing, reading, listening, and speaking. One controversial aspect of my advice is that I say we should focus much less on writing and reading in the early stages, and even on listening (when it is done alone with prerecorded audio, since we are going to improve our skills here by default in conversations). This is not applicable to everyone, but I feel that for most of us a language is several times more relevant when we are speaking to another person than during any of the other options. Rather than devoting 25 percent of our energy to each of the four aspects, I think it’s wiser for beginners—especially those who want to travel to a country and interact with people or use the language with friends and family—to devote most of their energy to improving spoken skills, which in turn naturally improves listening skills.
I would devote just 10 to 20 percent of my time to reading and (noninteractive) listening in my initial A1/A2 beginner stages of language learning. For writing, as a beginning learner I am simply not going to write letters or complex messages, but I do write short text messages on my phone.
This is another reason why I feel you can reach spoken level B2 in a few months; you can genuinely have fluent conversations at this level, without necessarily having written or other language skills. You can refine these skills separately and will do so more quickly having reached a conversational level above this. My spoken skills ultimately lift my other skills up when I work on them, and much faster than if I were working on all aspects at the same time.
On the other hand, when I’m securely within level B2 and ready to advance through C1 and on to C2, the tables turn. I then spend only 10 to 20 percent of my time in conversation and (thanks to motivation from signing up for an exam, as I explained previously) divide the rest of my time between reading complex texts, writing assignments that will get corrected by a native teacher or a motivated friend, and listening to complex audio interviews or watching video discussions that I have to test myself on afterward.
If your focus is very different from mine and your passion lies in being able to follow movies in your target language, adjust this and get into movies earlier in your language learning journey. But thanks to my spoken focus, I have had so much practice by the time I reach B2, the only thing really stopping me from progressing is a lack of vocabulary and experience with the subject matter. I’ve met others at my same general level, with vastly superior writing, reading, and listening skills, but who are way less confident and versatile in spoken situations because of the lack of practice. I can bluff my way through even complex conversations thanks to this confidence from all the practice. This type of exposure to conversations should never be underestimated.
Of course, the ultimate goal when you want to advance toward mastery is not to rely on bluffing at all but to truly understand.
Thinking in the Language
Thinking in the language for most people refers to your inner dialogue, and I force myself to do this from the start.
If I’m out of milk, say, rather than think (in English) Damn! No more milk. Looks like I’ll have to go to the store, I force myself to have this same inner dialogue in the language I’m learning. If I don’t know a word, I need to look it up, because my inner dialogue typically follows the kind of vocabulary I would use and the conversations I would have casually with friends. As mentioned previously, if I don’t know the words, then I’ll still have that dialogue, just with simpler choices and bad grammar, like Oh no! No milk. I must go store!
I think this is an essential part of advancing in a language, because a major crutch we rely on in the beginning stages is constantly thinking through translations. We form a sentence in our mind in English and then try to search our minds, word by word, for how to say it in our target language. Not only does this slow us down, but our native tongue also influences our word order and grammar.
This is why a lot of successful language learners try to talk to themselves as much as they can, presuming they can’t meet up with native speakers (which I hope I have shown in chapter 4 is much less of an issue nowadays). But even if you can talk to people, try to fill your alone time with some thinking (aloud or to yourself) in the language. When I walk along a street and see a dog or a hat or a fast bus or an advertisement or a traffic light or anything else, I try to have my inner dialogue comment on that, or I see if I know the word for that thing or can understand a word I see. I’ll naturally come across something I don’t know the word for and I will force myself to think of alternative ways to describe it, or I’ll take out a pocket dictionary or app and look it up.
You can learn in every moment by getting inspired by your surroundings. Thinking in the language is a decision you make, not something that magically happens. Force yourself to think in the language whenever you might otherwise think via your mother tongue and you will speed the language learning process.
Training your inner dialogue means that, in later learning stages, you skip the slow process of translating what you want to say and just say it in the language, because you are not only thinking in that language but it is now flowing out of you naturally and immediately. Thanks to forcing myself to think in a language and ask myself questions in that language, I don’t translate my Spanish, French, and other languages anymore. I hear a word and just understand it. I want to say a word and just say it. No long sidetracking via English.
There’s a Time for Academics
Teachers open the door. You enter by yourself.
— CHINESE PROVERB
While I am trying to make people as independent as possible in their language learning adventures, when you reach a certain stage there are definitely advantages to going back to academic material, examinations, grammar lessons, and such. I still don’t think their right place is at the very start of the language learning journey, but they can certainly help you at the right time in the journey.
Just remember that this material is there for a purpose: to improve your language skills. This is not the same as “teaching” you a language. You can never truly be taught a language. But you can use teachers, exams, grammar books, and exercises to help you solve problems when you are at a stage to charge on toward mastery.
For more information about CEFRL examinations and any alternatives for non-European languages, as well as a more detailed explanation of what each of the various levels means, visit fi3m.com/cefrl.
For a more detailed explanation of the ideas introduced in this chapter, resources for improving your writing, reading, and listening skills, and how to combine traditional learning approaches with an independent learning approach, see the videos and links at fi3m.com/ch–7.
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