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Why you are not Fluent in English!

Updated: Jul 10, 2023

The more English you know, the more English you don’t know!

Does your progress in English seem to be slowing down for no reason? Has your English stagnated although you continue to work hard at improving your English skills? You may be surprised to learn that most English learners feel this happens somewhere between the intermediate and advanced level.

Why does it take so long to become fluent in English?

Having taught English students of every level – from complete beginners to fellow native speakers – I can tell you that the challenges facing beginners differ considerably from those of more advanced learners. This has a lot to do with the English language itself and is not just a matter of students suffering from English fatigue or becoming lazy after reaching a decent level.

What makes English unique?

Think of the English language as an upside-down pyramid.

English is a relatively easy language to start. Learners are generally able to start communicating in English using basic vocabulary. Although English is rich in vocabulary, the grammar rules make speaking relatively painless because a) the conjugation of regular verbs is simple, b) gender forms of common nouns are obvious, making the use of pronouns and articles straight-forward, and c) adjectives do not need to be conjugated at all.

These features make it relatively easy for learners to start communicating in basic English, even with a limited grasp of grammar.

However, once you have worked your way up to the intermediate level and wish to master the language, you realize that advanced English is in fact complicated.

Why is advanced English so difficult?

In order to boost your proficiency, It is vital not only to learn the subtle nuances between the tenses you have previously learned, but also to use sophisticated phrases and vocabulary. The biggest challenge in all this is the vocabulary.

English contains more vocabulary than any other language, and that vocabulary contains idiomatic phrases, specialized collocations and jargon. In spoken English, we use phrasal verbs and idioms to communicate more casually. The language spoken in sports, on the news, in the tabloids, in academia, and in other industries contains specific jargon. Many native speakers are aware of jargon because they have been exposed to the language of various fields and specialized topics from an early age. Non-native speakers just haven’t had the same exposure to these fields to pick up the terminology naturally.

How long does it take to master English?

This depends on several factors, including your goals, your age and, above all, how you learn the language. With regular study, most learners manage to reach an intermediate level by the third or fourth semester. The progress beginners make in the first year or two is rapid and considerable compared to consequent years of learning. This doesn’t mean you should stop making an effort at the intermediate level, it means you need to change the method of learning to accelerate your English at the same rate as before.

How is beginner English different from advanced English?

Beginner and advanced English should be viewed as two separate studies. At the beginning, we learn the structure of the tenses and a lot of time is spent on passive skills like reading and listening. These skills are great and provide you with the basis of the language, but you need to start focusing on other skills once you have a general idea of English grammar and sentence structure.

The solution is not what you think!

At the intermediate level, it is absolutely critical that you change the English skills you focus on and the habits you use to improve your fluency.

Here is what you should change to become advanced in English

You are going to have to concentrate on the two English skills that are active: speaking and writing. I am not talking about shifting slightly toward speaking and writing, I am talking about spending 80 – 90% of your study time on either speaking or writing.

Watching videos on English grammar may answer specific questions you have about English, but watching videos will not propel you into fluency.

Listening to podcasts will help you familiarize yourself with how English sounds, but it will not make you advanced or help with your fluency.

Watching Youtube or Tiktok videos on English grammar and vocabulary won’t hurt your English studies, but it is too passive an activity to make you fluent, even if you take notes and use a dictionary while doing so.

What prevents you from advancing in English?

The problem is not your mental capacity or laziness. The English study habits you have been following until now no longer match the language skills you need to become truly advanced or fluent.

This can lead to a lack of motivation when it comes to continuing your English studies. If you have started watching films and reading books that are designed for native speakers, the vast amount of new vocabulary and phrases you encounter just keeps growing bigger while your English vocabulary remains passive. If you have started speaking to native speakers, you are also being confronted with various accents, regional dialects and jargon. You may start to wonder if there is even a point to learning all these idioms and expressions that come with fluency.

Motivation is a myth

It may seem like you lost the motivation you had at the beginning when your progress skyrocketed, but please don’t think your lack of progress is due to laziness or lack of motivation. People often make the mistake of waiting for motivation to miraculously appear, but the truth is that motivation only crops up once we START and CARRY OUT an activity in the right way. For this reason, the first thing you have to do is change your mindset.

Instead of expecting yourself to have motivation, train yourself to have discipline. There have been studies that show it takes about a month to develop a habit, so be prepared to have a month of discipline and routine before forming a habit. Keep your study materials at hand at all times so that it is easy to start your English practice. You can do it!

What is English fluency and how do I attain it?

First let’s define what we mean by “fluent” in English. Most people would agree that fluency refers mainly to the ease at which a person can understand English speakers and also respond with natural speech. Fluency is difficult to define because it is possible for some English learners to follow conversations and speech fluently despite having a relatively low level of English grammar.

We have all heard so-called ‘kitchen English’, the English non-native speakers use to communicate at work using basic English structure and vocabulary. This has a lot to do with the domain the speaker is using English in; If the speaker’s wage depends on communicating in the kitchen of a restaurant, he or she will communicate rapidly, even confidently, at work, despite making grammar mistakes and using incorrect vocabulary.

Confidence plays a major role in attaining fluency. If people are not afraid of making mistakes, then they won’t hesitate to speak at a natural speed. Everyone is better at speaking on certain subjects than others. This is true no matter whether we are using a first or foreign language.

How do you know if you are fluent?

If you continue taking courses and following a course book alone, you will probably plateau somewhere around the intermediate level indefinitely. If we consider someone who is proficient or fluent in English, this means they can follow a TV series or film without problems and can also contribute to more complex discussions. Fluent speakers don’t translate in their heads or search for words. In other words, they can think in English.

These are the students who rarely need any grammar points explained because they can “hear” it when errors in word order or tense occur. Fluent speakers can follow conversations whether the context is formal or informal, because they have had extensive practice communicating in various situations. Fluent English speakers are able to converse using phrasal verbs and idiomatic language, switch between formal and informal English, recognize jargon and think in English.

Take these specific steps to boost your English fluency

I have been teaching English to staff at the United Nations for most of my adult life and I have made a few observations about who becomes fluent and who does not. I would like to share with you the reasons I believe students are not becoming fluent and give you some concrete advice on what you should be working on to become a fluent English speaker.

Be intentional about your goals

Speaking English only in one domain will help you start thinking in English. By domain, I mean one area of life. For example, this could be at home, at work or at school. However, if you speak English only while working in a technical field, you may still not feel fluent in situations outside of work. I have met plenty of people who are able to speak freely about their specific field, but have little knowledge of general English phrases or idioms unrelated to their jobs. For many people, this is not a problem. If your goal is to communicate effectively at work or at university, then there may be little reason to focus on general English expressions. It is up to you to decide on your own learning goals.

Be intentional about what you study

Make sure that at least 80% of your English studies consists of producing English.

This means you should be spending the vast majority of your learning time either speaking or writing in English. Here are my specific tips on how to do this, and it will most likely require some restructuring of your study habits.

If there’s one thing you study the old-fashioned way, let it be phrasal verbs! I have devised a placement test to check my students’ proficiency in English, and I must say that knowledge of phrasal verbs is the test’s ultimate determiner of whether a person is truly advanced or not. I have students who have worked for international organizations their entire careers, but still find conversational English or the English of native speakers difficult. This is because these students are mainly using English in the work domain. There are thousands of phrasal verbs in English and new ones crop up regularly. If you want to understand native speakers in conversation, you have to add phrasal verbs to your study agenda.

Write all the time. Keep a journal in English. There is plenty of information out there on how to do this and you need to make it a habit. If you do a listening activity, sit down afterwards and write up a structured summary of what you heard. The writing process helps you structure your thoughts in English, with English word order and English vocabulary. You will notice a difference and start thinking in English.

A writing assignment is the most effective homework assignment a teacher can give you. It allows the teacher to see your specific mistakes and allows you to activate the knowledge you already possess.

I have a free printable journal for you to download in case you need writing prompts.

If you take an English course, make sure the group is small and that your teacher gives you time to speak in class. Speak to all types of English speakers. The object is to practice the language and activate passive vocabulary, so don’t place too much importance on speaking with native speakers. You won’t pick up anyone’s accent from a few conversations.

Speak to yourself

This takes getting used to but it really helps. Speaking English out loud gets you used to your voice and your own pronunciation. Pronouncing words causes you to use certain muscles and you should think of speaking as a physical exercise. I am also a big fan of voice recordings. The more you hear yourself speak, the more confident and comfortable with your voice you will become. You can keep an audio record of your speaking skills and one day you can look back at the progress you have made over time.

Find a community of English speakers

Ideally, these should be people you can speak to and correspond with in writing. Language is all about communication and what better way to boost your English than to do so naturally in a group of people or with an individual person. Join an online group dedicated to practicing speaking skills or find a penpal you can write to. You can even kill two birds with one stone by doing a hobby you would normally practice in your first language, like a sport or book club, but join a class for English speakers.

I hope you take this advice to heart and incorporate my tips into your study routine.

I would love to hear from you! What are you going to do to become fluent?

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