The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

How To Improve Language Fluency When You’re At A High Level


italki Arabic language

I finally got a chance this week to meet and hang out with one of the fantastic Arabic teachers from italki here in Cairo.

I gave her a t-shirt (courtesy of italki) and she gave me some fresh dates from her farm near Assuit in Upper Egypt. This is why I love learning languages and travel – making new and interesting friends all around the world. 🙂

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Most of us eventually hit learning plateaus.

These are times where we feel like we’re not learning much anymore. Learning stops feeling like a rapid ascent and no matter how much study we do it seems like we’re getting nowhere.

When you’ve finished a book or a course and hit a learning plateau it can leave you wondering, “Well, what do I do now?”

There’s a pretty straightforward enough explanation for why this happens too: we become proficient enough in the language and able to use it enough to achieve what we want or need that all the gaps in our proficiency level start to become less clear and definable (this is where fossilization becomes a risk).

Put simply, when I can’t talk about what I did yesterday, I know that I need to learn the past tense.

If I can’t talk about what I’m doing tomorrow then I need to learn the future tense.

It’s more obvious when you’re at a low level what needs to be learned and what doesn’t.

But when you’re at a higher level you know most of this stuff already. This doesn’t mean you know it perfectly by any means but you know enough language to handle most situations.

This is where we reach higher level plateaus.

So firstly let’s clear up one misconception:

 

Fluent DOES NOT mean you can talk about advanced topics

I think the word advanced is almost as poorly defined and confusing for people as the word fluency.

You can be very fluent in a language and still not be able to discuss loads of advanced topics.

How so?

My dad is totally computer illiterate. He’s the kind of guy who needs help finding the power button on a computer.

I on the other hand am a bit of a nerd. I like programming, I use an open source operating system, I do things like vector and web design, and so on.

If I talked to my dad about any of those things or on the same level that I would talk to another person with the same interests as mine, do you think he’d have a clue what I’m talking about?

It would basically be a foreign language to him.

So would it then be correct to say that I’m more fluent in English because I can talk about something that he can’t?

No way!

We’re both perfectly fluent English speakers.

So fluency has nothing to do with content and even if there are a bunch of topics that you can’t talk about in a foreign language, it’s not an indicator of your proficiency level.

You can be at near-native level fluency and still be unable to discuss a range a topics that you’re unfamiliar with or not knowledgeable in.

The key is in how you would respond to someone who was talking with you about an advanced topic that you don’t understand.

Are you any less fluent if you choose easier words over others? For example, using look at instead of examinetalk to instead of discussfight instead of dispute or argument, and so on.

Could you explain your political, religious or social views in a simpler way even if you didn’t know all the terms?

How about describing your feelings or emotions?

Think about people who live in lower socio-economic areas of your country who aren’t highly educated – how do they communicate with each other? Actually the term lower socio-economic is a good example – I know plenty of people back home who wouldn’t even know what that means.

They’d use a simple word like poor instead and they’re just as fluent as I am!

As a language learning exercise pick any advanced level conversation and see if you can re-word it using layman’s terms (first in your native language and then in your foreign language).

Knowledge of advanced content has nothing to do with your fluency level.

 

We become settled on comfortable ways of expressing things

Language learners develop habits over time.

These aren’t necessarily bad or wrong habits either.

We pick up certain ways of saying things that work well for us if they get whatever it is we want done. They achieve the goal we want so we no longer see a need to improve on them.

For example, in Arabic there are so many ways to go about haggling prices in street markets (you could write a book on haggle slang I’m sure :)).

Since there is a verb that literally means ‘to make something cheaper’ (rakhas (رخص)) should a person just use that every time?

If it makes sense and it works why not?

But what about the plethora of other ways you could get the same point across – (for example using the verb ‘to make something go down’ (nazzal(نزل)) for the price)?

It’s quite easy for a learner to develop a habit of using the same word or expression every time in the same situation.

When I first arrived here in Cairo 12 years ago one of the first phrases I learned was ‘can you take me to…’ for taking taxis. I used it every single time I got in a taxi as a new learner.

The problem is – native speakers rarely if ever do this. Even though it’s not incorrect and gets the job done, there are better ways to handle the situation. Cab drivers don’t have time to sit there and listen to you speak that long-winded shite on a busy street when they want to keep moving.

It requires a real conscience effort on our part as learners to stop and think about what we’re saying and whether or not there are other better ways to say it.

Be attentive to the way native speakers do it.

When we talk about improving at high levels what we actually want to do is to find better or more appropriate ways to say the things we already know.

So as a high level learner of Arabic how am I doing this?

In addition to taking private lessons a few times a week, there are two things I’m mainly doing now to improve at my level (one is a self-learning exercise and the other is social).

 

Dissecting video and audio content

Now this can be quite tedious if I spend too much time on it but it helps me immensely in small portions.

I’ve been using talk shows on CBC (a popular station here in Egypt).

Anki SRS

Talk/interview shows are the best source to use because they’re natural and mostly unscripted. I don’t like to use films for this reason.

Listening to real people interact on a talk show or in an interview allows you to hear how language is naturally used between two or more people and it generally stays on topic.

I save the YouTube file to my computer (so I can easily rewind, pause and cut the file if I need to) using any one of the many browser add-ons to do this and I choose an interesting but brief one minute segment of the interview.

I listen to that segment dozens or even hundreds of times over.

I then take whatever new words and expressions I can get out of it and store them on Anki which is one of several great flashcard programs (once I’m done with Anki I can export the Anki file to Dropbox and then import it to my Android).

There are two difficulties I face doing this however:

1. It’s not always possible to find colloquial expressions or vocab definitions online (this is an even bigger problem for languages like Arabic where dialect material is scarce).

2. A lot of the new expressions I hear are unable to be translated literally and make no sense to outsiders. This is one of the biggest challenges for higher level learners in that there are lots of idiomatic expressions which can’t be literally translated or understood without an explanation.

So because of this it’s essential that I take notes on the segment and then show them to my private tutor the next time I see him (who often says things to me like, “Oh man, this is a very slang expression. Where did you hear it?”) 🙂

In the screenshot above is an interview I watched recently where the woman uses an array of descriptive language taken from a classic novel and a lot of it just stumped the hell out of me. I couldn’t find an answer for much of it anywhere online so having a teacher was vital to get explanations.

This is something you can find a tool like italki very useful for if you don’t have access to local teachers or practice partners.

The most important thing is that whatever I learn on my own by watching or listening to something, I put it into practice as soon as possible.

Memorizing flashcards is an utterly pointless exercise if you don’t use what you’re learning.

I like to think of my goal as being 10% study time – the other 90% of the time should be using/practicing what I covered in that 10% of the time.

 

Prepare for real situations and take advantage of them

I have a huge tear on a pair of my good shorts right now.

I was going to throw them out but I see it as a great opportunity for me to improve my Arabic and learn a few new things because there happens to be a tailor on my street here.

So I’ve actually been learning new words and expressions to do with mending clothes and will go down to one of the local places here to get my shorts mended next week.

Of course I could easily get this done without any problems already.

I could speak fluently with the guy and get the job done without having to learn anything new but that would be a wasted opportunity to improve. Wouldn’t it be better to use moments like these as opportunities to pick up a few new profession-specific terms and find out exactly how native speakers deal with clothing repair/alterations?

Sometimes you don’t even need to learn new vocab or expressions – you might just have to discover exactly how a native speaker would ask for it (with words you already know).

The lessons I have with my private tutor are all highly practical, situational lessons like this. We pick a real situation, he teaches me a bunch of local expressions and terms I can use (a lot of which aren’t covered by any textbook because they’re very colloquial/slang) and then we role-play them.

After the lesson I head off and use it all as soon as possible.

This doesn’t just have to be situations that are unfamiliar.

Think about all the things you can already talk about in a foreign language and consider how you can improve on them.

I spent a 2 hour lesson last Thursday on how to improve my conversation with the butcher and all the different meat cuts, how to request lean meat, minced meat, breast, chops, portions and so on. It was a super specific lesson and it amazed me just how many local expressions there are for that one situation alone.

If you’re stuck on a learning plateau just open your mind to the almost infinite amount of different situational expressions you could work on improving.

 

Should I use higher level textbooks?

Just one final note on textbooks for higher level learners.

I’m reviewing a few incredibly outstanding books for colloquial Arabic from AUC at the moment (see here, here and here) and one thing they have in common is that they teach by addressing real world issues through the target language.

This means that they focus on getting you to think about serious topics that will require you to use new terms and expressions.

They equip you with the expressions and terms you need and then through both reading and video content you’re able to see/hear and apply them through interaction.

Language learning in a sense then becomes incidental to serious, interesting discussion (rather than the other way round).

The thing I like about these kinds of books is that you can use them on your own or use them as points of discussion with language exchange partners or in a classroom.

The point is they’re not just teaching you language in isolation (a lot of textbooks will run through chapter-by-chapter analysis of advanced grammar, isolated word lists and so on). These kinds of books might interest some people but there’s little value in them for improving your conversational skills overall.

It’s of course not possible for me to address individual languages and what books are available here but it’s something for you to keep in mind when looking for a text to work with (be sure to make recommendations of your own in the comment section below to help others if you use any!).


Are there any issues you’ve faced as a high level learner trying to improve (comment below)? 

What have you found helpful?

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  1. Great article Donovan. I love the taxi example of using the same phrase all the time as a beginner. It’s something everyone can relate with.

    Of course you know my favorite way to continue learning a language when you are already at an advanced level: learn the local slang, regional variations and dialects. It’s amazing how much more you can learn about a culture, a country, its people and history, by studying the variances in the language.

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  2. As someone who's at a high level and who has hit as plateau, this article was very helpful to me. I definitely need to work on my slang/colloquial expressions. I always joke that I speak Russian like a KGB man from 1970s Leningrad. Sad, but true. 🙂

    Reply
  3. I've found this is my problem as well. The language I'm learning at this level is becoming less and less useful in my everyday life because everything I'm learning now refers to very specific topics and situations. I still get plenty of general practice with friends in Chinese, however it wouldn't be fair for me to bother them with these specific topics. Anyone up for speaking to me about China's one child policy for an hour? In order to improve I'm finding I need a one on one teacher who is willing to talk to me about a very specific topic for an hour. Sometimes I might need to speak to several teachers about the same topic in order to cement it in my brain.

    Your method sounds similar to mine, although I'm sure you are much more consistent at applying it. I've had to create a little grid on excel detailing what topics I've studied and what I've done with them. I start off just by listening and understanding, then I move on to shadowing, transcribing and memorizing the dialogue. I aim to have a conversations with my italki tutors and then finally either put something up on Lang-8 or Soundcloud. I haven't been sticking to this regime as rigorously as possible but I find that having a record of what dialogues I've studied and what I've done with each one is quite helpful.

    Great article!

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  4. In my opinion self-practice of a foreign language should go hand in hand with regular long-term oral communication of learners with native speakers of that language on every topic of practical communication. I think it ought to be effective to combine input (listening, reading) with output (speaking and writing) when practising one's target language even on one's own to develop one's speaking, reading, listening and vocabulary skills.

    It would be quite helpful for language learners to select ready made materials with natural wording with different levels of difficulty on every topic of communication to practise the target language(s). Language materials can be found in phrase books, conversation books, on the Internet, on audio and video aids, etc. for all levels from basic to advanced high levels. Language learning materials can include helpful thematic dialogues, practically useful texts on each topic for potential practical use of learners, thematic sentences with colloquial set phrases and expressions (idioms), extensive thematic reading material, etc..

    Multiple reading and listening to samples of such conversational materials followed by retelling or reproduction or imitation of dialogues and narrative texts/stories based on one's needs can result in substantial improvement of one's language skills.

    The more vocabulary a learner knows how to use correctly the easier it is to convey a thought in a language when speaking, in writing and to understand what a learner is reading and is listening to. In my opinion vocabulary should be learned and practised first through input (listening and reading), and then used through output (speaking and writing) on each real life topic.

    I highly value comprehensive monolingual and bilingual thematic English learning dictionaries that arrange vocabulary by subject matter and topics, and provide word meaning explanations with usage examples in several sentences for each word or phrase meaning.

    A language learner can combine reading texts (from newspapers, magazines, books, online, etc) with reading thematic dictionaries to accelerate learning of vocabulary in addition to listening and speaking practice. Thematic approach (not random content) matters a great deal in learning and practising a language to master it sooner.

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  5. Great article Donovan. Being shared immediately!

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  6. You’re right. When you’re at an advanced level, you can get across comfortably in many situations. But sometimes, that’s not what you want. You want more, you want to sound like a native, you want to be like a native, and in this, situational lessons can help.

    One thing that I missed in the post is culture. Culturally, Egypt and Australia couldn’t be more different. (Please correct me, if I’m wrong.) How do you manage that?

    Let’s assume (no intention of offending anyone) that you find wearing the hijab an oppressive practice. Will you want to speak like a man (it’s usually men) and tell a woman in your house to put it on? Will it be easy for you? I think, it’ll not.

    English is my third language. My boss–who is an Indian-Australian–suggests me to read Westerns books. I find them horrible. So, I spend my reading Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Russian books translated into English. I prefer Chinua Achebe to Stephen King.

    Do you think this habit of mine will keep me glued to the plateau I’ve reached? How important do you think it’s to be a part of the culture whose language you’re learning to be truly great at it?

    Personally, I know little about the U.S.–let alone, Australia, New Zealand, and the U.K.–culture and have little desire to learn. It’s not that I’ve any animosity towards anglophones. I think I’m not as extrovert as they say a typical anglophone is.

    Reply
  7. I have experienced this with Farsi. I am half Persian myself and have been improving my Farsi over the years. Now I’m at a point where I can speak to people without any problem while there is still the occasional term or phrase that I simply don’t understand. I’ve been trying to improve my vocabulary by reading more and improve my knowledge of abstract phrases by watching shows/films.

    One problem I’ve encountered is that the vocabulary used in advanced material (such as the news) are words that you practically never say in conversation (unless you’re a college professor). Persians like to keep things simple just as speakers of Levantine Arabic have very simple pronunciations. I have recently started learning Shami, by the way, and I love it. Knowing Farsi definitely helps when learning Arabic. There is so much in common.

    Reply
  8. Great site and this article has helped me to figure out how to go about learning my target language with a private teacher. Previously I did use a book but I realize that the book and word lists in it did not actually (at least not greatly) improve my speaking ability. When it comes to situations, after a year of study now I can do basic things even without studying such situations specifically (haircut, repairman, buying meat etc) but the language I would use would be very simple….one or two words or brief sentences. I am going to try out this TBL strategy with my new private teacher and see if I can improve. Thanks.

    Reply
  9. This was crazy helpful! I’m not yet at the level where I can use this information, but I’m hoping it’ll come in handy the more and more I learn about French. This is the only type of article I’ve found that really addresses this topic well, so thank you very much! I’m saving it in Evernote for later.

    Reply
  10. I needed this article, thank you! I’m a long way off being at the advanced stage in my own learning endeavours but I’ve been thinking recently about how to help a couple of my advanced students of Welsh. As you say, it’s easier to see what needs to be learned at an earlier stage. I love the idea of learning different ways of saying the same thing and will certainly keep this in mind when teaching ‘nearly fluent’ students.

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  11. I live in Detroit and have the biggest Arab population outside the Middle East. I took classes in college but barely remember anything. After reading your articles, I began to take a different approach. I talk to native speakers and don’t worry if I make a mistake. I started attending a Arab Christian Church for Bible study (the pastor speaks and reads everything in Arabic). My goal is to learn my numbers so I follow along in the Bible and to ask if people need tea and cake. Also, to say all my purchases in arabic at the local gas stations and party stores. Do recommend me having flash cards on hand just in case I get stuck? Since we have people from all over the Middle East, should I stick with MSA?

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  12. Interesting article. My tip would be subscribing to podcasts. They involve people interacting, so you pick up a lot of the subtleties of how people react to what others are saying. They’re also on a range of topics, including current affairs, so you can choose your area to work on, and can be downloaded and listened to multiple times.

    Reply
  13. Great article! I feel like this article is something I want to write for my English learners… but I haven’t got around to it yet.

    You described the situation very well where an advanced learner thinks they need to know every-single-specific-little-word-about-every-topic in order to consider themselves fluent.

    I’m going to share this article with my member group now!

    Reply
  14. Great content Donovan. I am currently facing this in learning English. I have been at a plateau as well. Having worked seven years in Singapore, I have achieved advanced fluency. But I find it difficult to write well, compared to my native language. Any advice? Thanks.

    Reply
  15. Interesting ideas and responses. I agree with there being an important distinction between the idea of being an advanced learner and being fluent, considering how “fluent” can mean different things to different people. It may not be correct to say that a native speaker with a limited vocabulary is less fluent, but then again maybe it is correct to say that. After all, at an advanced level, you’re not usually struggling to do day-to-day tasks, you’re struggling instead to express yourself in the way that you would want to express yourself. You might be stuck saying “Lots of problems…” when what you really mean to say is “A never-ending list of problems…” They’re close enough, but they don’t really mean the same thing. It’s this kind of more imaginative, more expressive speech that I’m struggling to attain.

    Reply
  16. The point about finding media that contains “normal” everyday language is so great. I’m at the point now in Spanish where I consider myself fluent, and the best way to constantly improve has definitely been by watching telenovelas that are aimed at an elderly audience in latin america. The language used isn’t highly technical, but is laced with idiomatic phrases and vocab that everybody who is a native Spanish speaker should know by the time they’re 16 essentially.

    Reply
  17. It happens with me also, i also feel like what do i do now after completing a book. Its great reading your article, thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  18. I really liked your article man, I was looking for the same thing but in learning English since I am already fluent but its boring to be able to speak fluently and in a really good accent but not able to improve since nobody is correcting you anymore because this 5% error is not anymore noticeable so its like who cares! but i really do care about improving same as you in arabic

    its surprising for me to find this article while someone is struggling with improving arabic since this is my native language and rarely to see ppl reach this point.

    thanks for the info man and if you want even some to explain to you anything in arabic even the things ppl cant translate literally, I think i can help you better contact me over fb: msmralo

    Reply
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