Things that you need to do less as your language skills improve

This topic was also covered in episode 195 of my podcast.

A lot of the time, when we learn a new language, we build on the things that we already know. Every time we learn something new, we add some words to our vocabulary, or we discover something new about the grammar or the structure of the language. As we move to a more advanced level, we begin to create more complicated sentences and to give more details in our answers.

However, there are some skills that are only temporary. We need to know how to do them, but after a while, they aren’t relevant any more and we can rely on those skills and strategies less. That’s what I want to talk about today. It’s useful to learn these things, but it’s also great when you don’t need to do them any more!

Today I’m sharing from my own experience, both as a language teacher and as a learner. I use my second language, German, every day at work. My third language (I don’t count the ones that I started and abandoned), Romanian, is more of a work in progress. As I’m writing this, I’ve been learning for around 7 months. This experience reminded me of the strategies that I used to use for German, but which I discarded because I didn’t need them any more. Now I need to hunt to the back of the cupboard in my brain, dust them off, and start using them again!

1. Filling in the gaps

It’s easy when you know enough about a language to just turn on the tv or pick up a book and you automatically understand everything. I read German books for pleasure and nowadays it doesn’t require any more effort than it would if I were reading the book in English. But that’s not the same with Romanian. I understand quite a lot – apart from when I try to read books for children! But I certainly don’t understand 100%.

This is normal. When you are learning a new language, you won’t understand everything when you read or listen to something. This is why it’s really important to find things that are at the right level for you. If they’re too easy, you might get bored. If they are too difficult, you might get discouraged and feel as though you want to give up!

But at the same time, it’s always good to push yourself. One way to understand more is to figure out what you know, then to fill in the gaps based on the context. You can probably work out the key points with 70 or 80% of the words and it’s not necessary to understand absolutely everything.

As your language skills improve, you will understand more. Therefore you will need to fill in fewer unknown words. The skill of filling in the gaps becomes less relevant, unless of course you decide to listen to something with a lot of unfamiliar vocabulary.

2. Breaking down what you want to say and saying what you can

I find this a real challenge. I talk a lot and it’s frustrating when I can’t communicate all of my ideas in the new language.

Basically I’ve observed two problems here.

My problem

If I can’t put all of my complicated ideas into words, sometimes I’m tempted to say nothing at all.

But this is actually a bad idea because people either think that I’m not interested, or they think that I have nothing to contribute.

The other reason it’s not helpful is that, with a bit of thought and simplification, I could probably say half of it.

This happened to me recently when I was speaking Romanian. I shut down and didn’t contribute anything, whereas really I could have communicated at least some of my ideas. Instead I retracted into my shell like a tortoise and hid from the world!

The problem of exact translations

I have a student who finds it really irritating if they can’t say in one language what would be perfectly fine in another. But languages aren’t like that. Sometimes you can’t translate an idea word for word – unless you want to sound like Google Translate on a particularly bad day.

In any event, translating is harder. It would be much easier to get the ideas across in a simpler way, but that requires you to start thinking in the new language – something that takes some practice.

The solutions

It can be incredibly frustrating when you can’t express yourself in the new language. It’s particularly annoying if you’re someone who has a lot to say, or someone who usually finds it easy to express their ideas.

I had a meeting in German the other day and I didn’t need to use this skill. But when I speak Romanian, I need to break things down more. What are the main points. How many of them can I say. What additional details can I skip over for now. What ideas are at a higher level than I am able to communicate at the moment?

It can be frustrating if you feel less intelligent because you need to utilise this technique, but with time, this gets easier. You won’t always need to do it. You will need to discount less and less of the things you want to say. With time, you will learn to say them and to communicate in a way that sounds and feels like you – in the new language.

3.Find other words

As you become more fluent in a language, you have access to more words! The right words! Even if you can’t think of the right one, you’ll have access to many other words that you could use to make your point.

At the beginning, it’s hard when you have to hunt around for the right words – or in fact any words to convey your meaning. However, as you have more words available to you, this process becomes much easier.

The good news

The good news is that you will need to use all of these skills less as your other language skills develop.

Still, it’s good to have them and to know how to make them work for you because this will help you to make faster progress.

Can you think of any more?

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Kirsty working with students