As a private language tutor, I often find myself encountering a specific issue: many students have an undeniably high level of proficiency—an extensive vocabulary and general mastery over grammar— but, somehow, they still sound foreign.

I don’t just mean in regards to their accent, either. That’s a topic we’ve dedicated an entire separate post to. I mean that these English students are actually still speaking their native languages… they just happen to be using English words to do so. The expressions and collocations they’re using are merely calcs or word-for-word translations from their native tongues. In short, no native speaker would talk like that.

This is a tough pill to swallow.

It’s not enough to merely know the Spanish word for forget or the Japanese grammatical structures for making comparisons. You also need to know how native speakers actually use those things. Chances are they’re used differently than they are in your native language.

That begs the question:

Why is it so hard to master another language?

The reason is simple: most people live in an environment that does not demand any knowledge of a foreign language.

  • Movies, books, video games, and media are available in the local language
  • Few jobs require any use of another language
  • Our social lives occur almost entirely (if not entirely) in our native languages
  • Few people regularly visit other countries (in fact, most people don’t even have a passport)
  • Virtually all information is available in our native language

In other words, most people can comfortably navigate their entire lives without ever having to know a single word of another language. As such, an overwhelming majority of learners do not get exposed to the sounds of their target language in its natural habitat. For most people, their exposure to a foreign language is limited to the vocabulary and grammar presented in their textbook. This is, unfortunately, not nearly enough to achieve bilingualism.

In other words, you must leave (or redefine) your comfort zone.

Photo by Gaelle Marcel / Unsplash

As a person who not only works as a teacher but also has achieved a very high level of proficiency in another language, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. I’ll share them with you.

But first, please ask yourself:

Do you really need to master your target language?

The first thing you need to figure out is whether you actually need this level of fluency.

  • If you only wish to have non-business conversations in another language (ie, making friends), you can get by with a remarkably low level
  • If you want to read books, watch movies, and generally consume content, you only need to understand the language well enough to personally enjoy the time you’re spending (and reaching a level where you can understand is much easier than reaching a level where you can produce)
  • Even if you’re moving to another country and will be working in another language, the gap between “professional working proficiency” and “native/bilingual proficiency” is massive

The simple truth is that, until you’ve learned another language, it’s hard to understand what level you actually need to do certain things. Most people overestimate.

While everybody would love to master another language, incredibly few people actually need to do so. Keep in mind that I’m not necessarily saying not to pursue perfection. If you want to, more power to you! Simply put, I just want you to think about whatever it is that is really motivating you to learn this language. The vast majority of people can achieve their goals and enjoy themselves without needing anything near bilingual proficiency.

If you fall into this camp, why not invest your time into pursuing whatever it is that really gives you satisfaction, rather than investing it into achieving a language level you don’t need?

Photo by Towfiqu barbhuiya / Unsplash

Another thing to keep in mind is that eliminating all traces of your mother tongue is nearly impossible. If you didn’t start acquiring your second language in early childhood, by which I mean growing up in an environment where that language was spoken natively, then interference between your languages is inevitable. Some of the sounds of your native language will trickle into your target language, for example, and the way you structure a given sentence will likely differ from how a native speaker would.

Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. You’ll simply need to make a decision: are you happy to perform in your target language at a level that allows you to satisfactorily do all of the things you want to do, or do you want to sound like you’re actually a native speaker?

What does it take to master another language?

So, you’ve decided that you indeed want to speak a language so well that you’ll fool natives into believing you’re one of them. Here are some of the things standing between you and that goal:

  • Accent: Some of the sounds in your target language won’t exist in your native language; you must learn them. Some sounds exist in both languages but differ slightly: the T sound might be made with the tip of the tongue in one language but the blade of the tongue in another. You’ll have to learn to separate the two sounds. This is only the very beginning: you’ll also need to learn how intonation works in your language, how the voice is manipulated to show different emotions, and things like that.
  • Idioms: My native language is very rich in idioms, most of which are so commonly used that letting them go in English is almost painful. It’s often impossible to know which idioms from our native language will also exist in the target language. If you use one that doesn’t exist, you’ll sound unnatural at best and unintelligible at worst.
  • Vocabulary: Obviously, you need to learn a lot. But, think about this: when was the last time you used words like valence electron or fiduciary responsibility? Do you really need to be able to express the difference in nuance between words like ooze, seep, trickle, dribble, leak, and percolate? How about dog and pooch? There’s a big gap between having a big enough vocabulary to express yourself adequately in any situation and having a big enough vocabulary to compete with a native speaker.
  • Collocations: Collocations are words that frequently appear together, and they tend to differ from language to language. In English you say that rain is heavy; in Mandarin they say that rain is big. There are tons of these to work out. In more practical terms: knowing the word train doesn’t mean you know that trains run, rather than roll or slide, down the tracks.
  • Grammar: Naturally, there is a lot of grammar to figure out. You’ll need to master obscure concepts like verbal aspect and memorize a bunch of inflections. You’re not out of the woods once you master grammar, either. What’s the difference between I have seldom seen such a promising student and seldom have I seen such a promising student? They’re very different in nuance, but most native speakers would struggle to express exactly how they differ. They simply feel it. You, however, must understand it.
  • Culture: Culture and language are closely connected, and in ways that aren’t always immediately apparent. Japanese people don’t say bless you after someone sneezes, for example. Japan isn’t a Christian country, so there’s no reason for them to make this Christian reference. To give another example, there’s a Jeff Dunham skit about the Washington Monument: Washington? I thought it was dedicated to Bill Clinton! Even if you perfectly understand all the words in that sentence, it’s only funny if you’re familiar with US politics from the 1990’s (and maybe it’s not even funny, then…) Simply put, it’s not enough to learn the language: you also need to learn the culture.
  • Behavioral scripts: The expected responses to fixed expressions and specific situations differ from place to place. For example, in the US the phrase how are you basically translates to hello and should not be responded to honestly. Someone who asks how are you doesn’t want you to say well, terrible, actually. My dog died and my wife got cancer. People in the US know they should say well, and you? No matter how they actually feel. However, most of my countrymen would be offended by this very notion: if you ask us how we feel, we’ll tell you.

That's a lot of stuff... and it's just off the top of my head. Each of those topics could be expanded into an entire series of blog posts.

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Another thing to be aware of is that the time needed to overcome these hurdles and “naturalize” your speech will vary depending on your environment and lifestyle. If you live in your home country without an intention of relocating abroad, and you’ve got absolutely no connection to your target language, this will likely be a very difficult and lengthy journey. If you communicate in your target language at work, speak it at home with your spouse, and binge a local book or TV series on the weekend, your progress will be faster.

Looking at the above list of hurdles, you might be feeling overwhelmed. Perhaps you’ve decided that this is going to be downright impossible. That’s not true, thankfully. It is a massive amount of stuff to learn—likely a lot of stuff you’ve never even thought about before—but, ideally, it’s a process you’ll enjoy. At least, if you’re going to dedicate so much time to this (and it’s going to take a long time), you’ll find a way to enjoy it. Eventually it becomes a natural and inseparable part of your life.

Photo by Carlos Magno / Unsplash

My two biggest tips

I’ve been learning English for 17 years. I could write a book about all the things that did and didn’t work for me, and all the lessons I’ve learned, but when you get right down to it, here are the two things I think are irreplaceable. They’re particularly relevant to people in the early intermediate stage.

Find a reason to care

What reason do you have to put yourself through a trial like this? We had a clear need for our first language. We needed it to interact with our parents and navigate life. However, most people have zero need for their target language. That in mind, your first job is to find a reason to care; a reason to justify the massive amount of time you’re about to put into this.

Your reason doesn’t need to convince anyone else, or even yourself. Here’s a simple litmus test for you:

  • If something pushes you to regularly spend time in your target language, even when you’re tired or have no homework, then it’s good enough.
  • If you’re not engaging with your target language outside of class, or see it as a chore, your reason isn’t good enough.

In my case, my first “reason to care” was fanfiction. I wanted to consume this content, and the quality of English fanfiction was much better than what was available in my native language. As a result, English now stood between me and something that I wanted very (very) badly. I read a massive amount of fanfiction and, almost as an accidental byproduct, greatly improved my English ability.

Even though the overall value of this *ahem* literature *ahem* was extremely low, that guilty pleasure allowed me to delve into the world of the language without actually realizing that I was doing so. I was merely entertaining myself, and the entertainment happened to be in English. Inevitably, some simple phrases like bound to happen or match made in heaven just worked their way into my memory. In general, my vocabulary greatly expanded.

And then, one day, it occurred to me that English wasn’t so difficult for me anymore.

With this improved level of English, other content became accessible to me. English began to occupy an ever bigger part of my life. I pursued opportunities as they came. Now I communicate in English everyday at work and write these blog articles.

In other words, It’s about the destination, not the journey. Figure out where you’re going, and if your reason to go is strong enough, the journey will work itself out.

How a flower grows.
Photo by Edward Howell / Unsplash

Adjust your lifestyle

“Incorporating a new language into your old lifestyle” means transitioning to do certain things in your target language instead of your native one—finding ways to surround yourself with the language. With the state of technology, you can completely immerse into pretty much any language, no matter where you actually live.

Note that I’m not saying to build completely new habits. If you don’t already enjoy reading classic literature in your native language, chances are you won’t enjoy doing so in your target language, either. If you don’t want, need, or enjoy reading that stuff, why read it?

Instead, take your hobbies and find a way to work your target language into them.

  • Phone: Set your phone interface to your target language. This is a small way you can force yourself to see your target language every day, whether you study or not.
  • YouTube: If you change your YouTube profile location to one where your target language is spoken, the YouTube algorithm will start recommending you videos that are popular in that country. This means you get a continuous stream of content in your target language that increasingly matches your interest. In addition to improving your listening comprehension, consuming foreign content also comes in handy for subconsciously acquiring the expressions and intonation habits of native speakers.
  • Reading: Books come with a particular significant advantage: you likely don’t have native speakers waiting on you 24/7, but you can read whenever (and wherever) you want. While it may feel cumbersome or even exhausting at first, you’ll quickly adjust. You’ll likely see noticeable improvement from your first book to your second.
  • Skype: The easy availability of online lessons means that you can practice any language without ever leaving the comfort of your home. There are numerous online services, such as iTalki, which help you to find language exchange partners or even tutors from abroad.
  • Conversation apps: There are many applications, such as Tandem, HelloTalk and Tinder, which make it easy to connect with people from around the world.

To be duly noted

Despite the emphasis I’ve placed on making a language part of your life, on living it, please don’t forget that those activities should still be accompanied by formal learning. Classes, teachers, and textbooks are as crucial as watching Netflix shows, conversations, and reading for fun. Teachers can help you to understand the mistakes you don’t realize you’re making and give you guidance about overcoming hurdles you aren’t even aware you’re not aware of.

Interested in the topic of bilingualism?

  1. 3 Scientifically-Proven Ways to Improve How You Learn
  2. How Being Bilingual Benefits the Development of Your Brain
  3. How to Learn Languages Like a Child?