Fluency is the Holy Grail of language learning. Highly sought after yet somehow elusive for most. Some swear by language learning software such as Babbel or Rosetta Stone, others by intensive language immersion, etc.
However, some beliefs that people hold about fluency are not only incorrect but can also undermine their goal to become fluent or lead to unexpected negative outcomes.
So, in this article, I’m going to debunk some myths about fluency, some of which might surprise you.
MYTH #1: IT TAKES YEARS TO BECOME FLUENT
The common belief is that it takes years to become fluent – if you’re lucky at all or persevering enough to stick it out for so long.
This belief is based on the misconception that you have to master a language perfectly before you can be considered fluent. However, that’s not the case.
Personally, I hold the view that fluency starts the moment you can express yourself and your opinions with ease on most common topics during a normal conversation. That level of fluency can typically be achieved as early as the intermediate level – provided you learn and practice with effective language learning strategies.
Also, if you check out this article I wrote, you’ll see that in order to become fluent, you “only” need an average of 400-600 hours of study. In other words, if you are able to dedicate about 4 hours of language learning per day, you could become fluent in as little as four months. Of course, the speed at which you ultimately become fluent depends on several other factors but you get the point.
MYTH #2: FLUENCY IS ACHIEVED THROUGH SPEAKING PRACTICE
This is a VERY common misconception and theory, one that is held and practiced by most teachers and language schools. As a result, most language learners bought into it too. So did I, until I was taught otherwise through a personal and enlightening language learning experience.
What I took away from that experience, is that if you want to become fluent fast, the thing you have to focus on and practice most is listening.
Listen, listen, listen.
People always marvel at how babies and children pick up languages so fast. What no one seems to realize, is that they pick it up because
- They FIRST spend hours listening and observing
- They THEN start using words and expressions as soon as they learn, know and understand them.
If you aren’t convinced, give this new theory the benefit of the doubt and try it out for yourself. Listen to French 3x a day for 15-30min for an entire week and then let me know how your French has improved, both in understanding and speaking. Make sure to record yourself before and after the experiment. (If you can do more than 30min, good for you!)
MYTH #3: FLUENCY IS THE FINISH LINE
The third myth naturally comes as a result of the first one: “If you master a language, that’s it. You don’t have to learn anything else.”
This, of course, is a fallacy.
If you look at your language skills in your own mother tongue, you know that you don’t master it perfectly, even though you speak it fluently and are technically considered a native. A look into a few pages of a dictionary or grammar book should be enough to convince you that even you can continue learning your own mother tongue. Never mind a foreign language. There is always something more to learn. The only question is: is it necessary? Only you will be able to answer that question depending on:
- Your personal interests and motivation
- What level of mastery is required for your intended use of the language.
And now that you know that you can become fluent as early as the intermediate level, you know you’re far from done. Because fluency is not a goal. It’s only the start of a journey.
It would be like driving to the airport and saying you’ve arrived. Nope, the trip is only just about to start!
MYTH #4: FLUENCY IS FOREVER
The next myth about fluency, is that once you’re fluent, you’re fluent forever. Gabriel Wyner supports that theory. And while I agree with most of what he says in his book Fluent Forever, he omits a fact (I think).
It’s the fact that you need to reach and remain at a certain level of fluency long enough to actually stay fluent permanently.
If you’ve read my personal story in my free email series, you will know that I managed to reach fluency in Spanish in the space of a few days through binge-watching a Mexican TV series (we’re talking 16h/day here!).
(Little Disclaimer: I already had an intermediate written understanding of the language but couldn’t speak it well or understand a native speaker speaking to me.)
HOWEVER. What most of you probably don’t know is that I lost a lot of that fluency and ease of expression again within a few weeks simply because I didn’t continue meeting my language partners and watching TV series because it wasn’t important enough to me.
However, if for any reason I had to become fluent in Spanish again, I now know that I could reach that fluency again in a matter of days if I really needed or wanted to.
So if you happen to lose part or all of your fluency, don’t panic. I know for a fact from experience that fluency can come back at lightning speed, if you’re just using the right methods. Because you don’t really forget or lose your language skills – they’re just pushed back from the active memory to your passive memory part of your brain to make space for what’s important and relevant to you NOW.
So, if you’re one of those people who say, “Oh, I used to have French at school years ago but I’ve forgotten all of it”, chances are you probably haven’t. You’ll be surprised at how fast most of it will come back to you.
As a matter of fact, it might surprise you to know that even if you’re permanently fluent or multilingual, your level and mastery of a language can decrease or deteriorate over time through lack of exposure and use (if I say so myself as a multilingual!).
Which leads me to my last myth about fluency.
MYTH #5: FLUENCY ONLY HAS BENEFITS
Because fluency is viewed by language learners as the Holy Grail, it is naturally assumed that this skill only has benefits. I’m here to tell you that this is not the case.
There are three main drawbacks to being fluent in several languages.
First, it can create linguistic confusion and overlap.
I’m not talking here about children who grow up with two languages and mix both in one sentence (or in the same word, like I did a while back when telling my eldest child to be careful and switched languages halfway through the word: “Aufpattion!” = Aufpassen + Attention). #teacherfail
I’m talking about more subtle linguistic elements such as idioms, expressions, prepositions, phrasal verbs, etc.
When you master more than one language fluently and you’ve done so for a while to the point of reaching a native or near native level in your second or even third language (as English is for me), you start mixing up and making mistakes in your own native tongue.
Which leads me to the second drawback.
Believe it or not, it is possible to lose, not fluency, but at least accuracy in your own mother tongue. This can happen if you live in a foreign country for a long time where your native language isn’t widely spoken. If on top of that you too are mostly speaking another language and not speaking your own or not making a conscious effort to expose yourself to your native tongue (through books, movies, TV, radio, etc.), you will be surprised to suddenly realize one day that you’ve lost some of your native language skills.
Finally, being fluent in another language makes people forget you’re not from their culture. At least if you speak accent free. And that’s not always a great thing. It may not look like a drawback at first but trust me, it sometimes can be.
I’ll spare you the amount of times I looked like a complete idiot when moving to a new country simply because I asked a basic question in perfect English/German/French. Whoever was across from me would often hesitate for a second, probably wondering where I had been for the past 30 years and whether I was an idiot or just messing around with them.
Same thing happens whenever I express thoughts and views that come from a different cultural mentality. People tend to think you’re weird instead of realizing your opinions often just come from a different cultural background – or a mix of them! (I could go on and on about cultural differences.)
Which is why, after having lived in Germany for a while, I started getting so embarrassed about asking basic questions in supermarkets, the bank, the post office, etc. that I decided to start speaking German with a French accent whenever I was going to ask a “stupidly simple question”, especially when making administrative calls. And would you believe it: The results were awesome. Clerks were much more forgiving when I didn’t know or understand a procedure or industry-related terminology and also much more willing to repeat or explain. I never looked stupid again (at least I like to think so, haha) and I finally felt free to ask all the “stupid” questions I wanted to ask.
Takeaway for you: when moving to another country, don’t be afraid to keep your own accent, at least in the beginning. You’ll often be better off with it!
Also, people will remember you’re not from their culture and won’t act mean or weird if you happen to think, do or say things that are contrary to the status quo of your host country.
So, this was a looong article but I hope that through it I was able to clear up some myths around the much coveted skill of fluency and prepare you for what’s lying ahead of you!
In a nutshell, here’s what you should remember:
Fluency is achieved much more easily than you think, but perfection is never really achieved.
After all, language is an art just as much as it is a science. The only thing they forget to tell you, is that it’s not a science set in stone (no matter what Rosetta says ;-)).
To your success,