Evaluating Your Ability for Becoming Fluent

I’m in the midst of a fascinating book on foreign language learning in adults called Becoming Fluent, by Richard Roberts and Roger Kreuz.

In the second chapter, called “Set Yourself Up for Success”, they talk about the various myths and misconceptions that have grown up around the topic of language learning in adults.   These are covered in previous posts (all of these have the phrase “Becoming Fluent” in the title if you want to search for them).    After sweeping up the mental debris caused by these myths and misconceptions, the authors then plant the seeds for methods that DO work well, and these are:

  1. Determine what is realistic
  2. Go public with your goal
  3. Find a study buddy
  4. Study at the same time every day

These are discussed in more detail in the previous post.

In THIS post, I want to discuss the various factors you need to keep in mind when learning a foreign language, including:

  • What’s your motivation?   Is it related to your present work and career?  Is it related to what you would like your work and career to be in the future?   Is it related to your interest in a certain country and its people and culture?   Or is it process related, meaning that you like the process of discovering a new language and/or culture?
  • How much time will you have to study?    The reason why I mention motivation first is because, if you’re passionate about your project, you won’t find the study, you’ll make time to study.    For example when driving to work, instead of listening to the morning news or talk radio, you can listen to foreign language materials from your smartphone or CD player.    This will add to motivation, as now you’ll be able to have a choice of languages to swear at the other drivers!    Seriously though, you need to devise a way to make the language learning habit part of your daily routine (see rule #4 above).    I do it after I exercise and before breakfast, if I’m doing active practice which requires writing or speaking, or perhaps even during breakfast if it involves passive practices which requires reading or listening.
  • Do I have the time to take formal classes?    With more and more lessons being offered online, the flexibility people have to take formal classes is increasing.   However, with language classes, it is best to have a “live” class, not just because of the instructor but because you will learn from the mistakes that others make in class (like they will learn from yours).   If you don’t have the time to take a formal class, then get a study buddy so that you will become accountable (see rule #3 above).
  • Am I too old to study a foreign language?   NO.   That’s the simple answer to that question.
  • How much support will you get from your friends and family, or your boss and co-workers?    When I worked for a Japanese insurance company here in the United States, I was appalled at the fact that they had no Japanese culture and language program for the Americans they were hiring as insurance adjusters who would end up having to deal with Japanese companies.    So I set up a program myself–the adjusters who participated loved the program, but I noticed that the company did not have any incentive set up for those that participated.    Yes, adjusters were related on how well they doing learning about insurance, but weren’t getting any recognition for learning about the culture of the companies they were dealing with.   Now these adjusters were obviously self-motivated to learn–I often wonder looking back at how much more they would have learned if management had supported their efforts.
  • How will you deal with setbacks?    Believe it me, it’s not “onward and upward” when it comes to language learning.   At first, you will perceive yourself as learning a lot, but that’s because you’re going from a baseline of zero.   After you learn enough to merit the label of beginner, you may feel you are not moving as fast.   You may be learning 10 words a day, but the incremental amount of learning you feel you are doing will seem less because you are comparing yourself to an ever-widening base of knowledge.   It’s sometimes easy for a learner to think he or she is “plateauing”, like the scene of the Red Queen’s race in Through the Looking Glass:

“Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else—if you run very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.”

“A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

You have to do this kind of introspection before you start learning a language, because it will give you the insight you will need to deal with setbacks, which WILL occur.   Here are some concepts from social psychology which are related to this kind of introspection.

1. Self-efficacy

Self-efficacy is the person’s belief in his or her ability to accomplish something.    Now the efficacy, the actual ability to accomplish something, varies depending on what that something is.    I am effective at learning foreign languages because, well, I’ve done it all of my life.   I am not effective at repairing automobiles, because I have never done it all of my life.

One’s self-efficacy is different.   There is something called the Dunning-Kruger effect which says that one’s ability to judge one’s effectiveness at a given task requires cognitive skills that are related to actual doing that task.    This creates the conundrum of someone who is no good at something, but when asked how well they think they are able to do it, say “I’m really good at it.”    Conversely, the person who IS good at a task is more modest about their ability, simply because they know from experience the depths and breadths of complexity that the task actually involves, as opposed to the dilettante who has just started wading into what he or she thinks is shallow water, not knowing that it is simply the foreground of an ocean.

So having low self-efficacy is not the same as having low effectiveness.   The problem for language learners comes in two varieties.   You can interact with language in a controlled environment such as a classroom, get an “A” on a quiz, and think “oh, what good boy (or girl) am I” and then try to speak with an actual native speaker and be totally flummoxed.   This is when your self-efficacy is too high, because you are comparing using language in a structured environment (such as a classroom) versus an unstructured environment (i.e. life).   So be aware that your effectiveness depends on the environment on which you are trying to do the task.

On the other end of the scale, those with low-efficacy run into the problem of sabotaging their own mastery, even to the point of calling it quits.    “I’m no good at languages!”  No, you just made a mistake.   Which is a natural part of the learning process.

Low self-efficacy is not the same as low self-esteem.   Self-esteem is your overall evaluation of your general worth as an individual; self-efficacy is your overall evaluation of your effectiveness at a given task.

2. Self-fulfilling prophecy

If you expect a negative outcome, you may sabotage your efforts at mastery without even realizing it.   In the June 2013 edition of Scientific American, there was an article that covered the attempts to overcome something termed “stereotype threat” that afflicted minority students who were taking college-entrance tests like the SAT, ACT, etc.


In the article linked above, it turned out that minorities were under-performing on academic tests compared to their non-minority peers in part because they had internalized negative stereotypes that were prevalent in the society at large.   One way they overcame this “stereotype threat” was to take the minority students and have them write essays on topics that they knew they were good at, even if they were not necessarily academic topics. Then the students would present these written essays to a group of their peers, and when they took the exam after this exercise, the gap between the minority and non-minority students largely disappeared.

Similarly, if you carry around a stereotype (“I’m no good at foreign languages” or “I’m too told to learn a foreign language”), you may under-perform just to conform to those reduced expectations.   This is called “self-handicapping”.

3. Self-handicapping

What those minority students were doing was conforming to stereotypes, and there are pressures that such students face when they break outside of those stereotypes and perform to their true ability.

How does this apply to learning a language?   If you are studying a language, and you think that making a mistake is going to force you to make a downward revision of your ability (your “self-efficacy”), you may self-handicap yourself and try materials that are easier to the point where you don’t make a mistake.    What this does is it helps you create improve your sense of self-efficacy by letting you tell yourself “look, I got 100% on this quiz!”   However, if that quiz was aimed at someone who is at an earlier stage than you actually are, then all that tells you is “you should be trying a quiz where you get maybe only 50% of the answers right” because that’s the quiz you’ll truly learn from.

The problem is that foreign language learning automatically takes you out of homeostatic equilibrium, known in everyday language as the comfort zone.   You may be handicapping yourself by doing things that are too easy so that you remain in this comfort zone.   If that’s the case, then you learn to be comfortable at being uncomfortable.   How do you do this?   Well, there’s the part of your brain that wants things as is, but then there’s the part of the brain that wants to explore and learn more.   Nurture this part of your brain!

When you try something in your new language and you fail or make a mistake, don’t forget to reward yourself for having tried.    Set up rewards for yourself, like renting a movie from that country or eating at a restaurant from that country, or simply watching a YouTube video in that country’s language!

In other words, keep moving!    You may see the process going on beneath the ocean’s surface, but you are creating a subterranean iceberg that is a lot larger than the tip that appears above the surface, an iceberg that capable of cutting through more obstacles that you think it could just by looking at the tip.

So when you are learning a foreign language, always aim at a level just higher than you are.   Once that becomes the new comfort zone, get uncomfortable and keep aiming upward!





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