Obstacles to Fluency and How to Overcome Them

Fluency: the holy grail of language learning. The gold medal. The final destination of a seemingly endless journey.

Or is it more like a mirage in the desert?

It’s easy to walk into language learning with the dream of fluency. It’s a lot harder to actually make that dream a reality.

When we’re starry-eyed beginners, we underestimate the time and energy that goes into learning a language to a high level. The truth is, to get good at a language, you will need to devote time and energy — lots of it. That really can’t be overstated.

Add more time and energy when life happens. Things come up and get in the way. Our plans fall apart and have to be rebuilt.

If you commit to learning a language, then understand that there are going to be a lot of obstacles in the way between you and fluency. The good news is that many of them can be managed or bypassed.

Let’s not run into these obstacles with both arms swinging, though. No one here is Superman. It’s important to first step back and observe, Batman-style. Why and how are they blocking you? After understanding these obstacles, you can then begin to work out solutions.

3 Types of Obstacles

Common obstacles to fluency can be divided into three categories: Time Suckers, Disruptors, and Mental Roadblocks.

Each of these obstacles stem from a common reason. Some are easier to deal with than others.

Let’s go through each type of obstacle and some ways to get around them.

Time Suckers

Time Suckers are activities that demand our time. They are mostly indispensable aspects of life. Here are some examples:

  • Work or school obligations that take priority.
  • Relationships, such as spending time with family or friends.
  • Housework and errands.
  • Taking care of health, such as cooking healthy meals, exercising, or meditating.
  • Feeling too tired at the end of the day.
  • Mindlessly scrolling social media.

All of the above activities require putting in time. Most of us can’t not have a job, and that’s 40 hours a week right there. Most of us also can’t not have people to talk to and care for, such as family or friends.

In other words, most of these activities take priority in our lives. And if you want to become really good at a language, then that language also needs to be bumped up to VIP priority-level. Or if that is not possible, then there at least has to be a dedicated time and place for your language study.

It’s really just about time management. This problem can be fixed in four easy steps:

Step One: Make a list of what takes your time. You need to really see where your time is going.

Step Two: Trim the fat. Instead of hanging out with friends every weekend, could you do it every other weekend? Or instead of for three hours, could you cut it to two? Instead of cooking every day, can you make a big pot of soup and freeze it for the week?

Step Three: Pick a day and time of the week that is your study time. During this time, you will be unavailable to friends. Turn off your internet if needed. Set a timer and crack open your books.

Step Four: Look for ways to incorporate language learning into your daily routine. Doing housework? Put on a podcast. Feel like watching TV? Choose one in your target language. Want to mindlessly scroll social media? Go ahead, scroll away — in your target language, of course.

Disruptors

The second type of obstacle, Disruptors, are things that de-prioritize language learning. Some examples include:

  • A major life change, such as moving to a new home/city/country, a change in job status, or a change in relationship status.
  • A health or family emergency.
  • Another project that requires immediate attention, such as preparing for a conference or an exam.

Disruptors are legitimate challenges that can’t always be avoided. You might just really need to put the textbook away and deal with what’s in front of you.

The good news is that most of these disruptors are temporary. Once they’re dealt with, you can return to a routine.

In the meantime, if you do manage to squeeze in some language learning here and there, then that’s something to feel good about. Every little bit counts.

Mental Roadblocks

Both Time Suckers and Disruptors are fairly straightforward to understand. But the third type, Mental Roadblocks, is where some soul-searching is required. Mental Roadblocks are the games our minds play on us. They’re the psychological barriers that make us feel stuck.

I believe that the most common mental roadblock comes from when we can’t see our own progress. Have you had to look up the same word over and over again? Have you gotten nervous and fumbled through a speaking exercise? Or maybe someone picked your language skills apart?

We live in a fast-paced world that’s geared towards instant gratification. Language learning is a slow journey that defies schedules, and therefore resists measurements of progress. These doldrums can last for days, months, or even years.

Accept that reality, or throw in the towel.

There are a couple tricks that might help, though.

The first is to inject a dose of novelty into your studies. If you’ve mostly been using textbooks, try seeking out native-level material, even if you can’t completely understand it. Conversely, if you’re drowning in native material, then maybe it’s time to retreat into a textbook.

The second is to build confidence by doing work a little bit below your level. If you’re Upper Intermediate, then listen to a podcast that is Lower Intermediate. Read a graded reader at a level just below your own. If your confidence is taking a hit, there’s nothing wrong with swimming in a smaller pond for a while.

Another mental roadblock is disappointment or loss of interest in the culture of your target language. Let’s face it… people can be hard to like. As Daria once said, “People suck no matter what, so don’t be fooled by location changes.”

I think this is more common than we’d like to admit. Maybe it happens after bad experiences with native speakers, or a bad experience in the host country. As an outsider, you might be able to see all the problematic aspects of your target language’s culture. Or maybe you just don’t care for the media and entertainment.

If you’re not interested in the culture of the people who speak your target language, then it’s going to be pretty tough to get fluent.

Do you find yourself with this problem? If so, here are a few questions to ask yourself:

  • No place is perfect, no people are perfect. Can you try to focus on the positive aspects of the culture?
  • Out of the millions of people who natively speak your target language, are you sure there’s not a single person who you can click with? (Of course there is. Probably many.)
  • Are the flaws in your target language’s culture really that much different or worse than those of your own? (Probably not.)
  • Is there something about the target language’s culture that is triggering to you? Example: if you have body image issues, then a culture that is weight- and image-obsessed might affect you negatively. Can you recognize that native speakers of the culture may also be struggling? What can you do to stay true to yourself and support others?

Obviously, some of these questions are rhetorical. Of course there are native speakers you can click with. Of course your own culture is equally flawed.

Besides, one of the greatest gifts language learning gives us is the ability to experience, understand, and appreciate cultures that are different from our own. If you’re struggling with the societal norms of your target language’s culture, consider it an opportunity to grow.

Conclusion

Fluency may at times feel like an impossible goal, but it’s not.

Once you identify the obstacles that are holding you back, you can develop an action plan to forge ahead. Sometimes, it might be an easy fix, such as making a more realistic schedule. Other times, you’ll have to look within yourself for the answer.

Ultimately, the real question is this: how important is fluency to you?

Realistically, it may not be more important than getting that promotion.

It may not be more important than spending time with family.

But if it truly is important to you, then language learning will find a place in your life. Fluency, we’re coming your way.

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Linguistic Ally

Linguistic Ally

Lifelong language learner, educator, blogger, and explorer! Find my work on alliely.com and instagram: linguistic.ally