Why Adherence is Everything

workoutEven the best of us can sometimes get persuaded by new strategies or tactics that promise to deliver remarkable results.  I don’t necessarily take issue with websites or books that claim to have found the perfect plan to achieve your goals.  Yet the best plan or strategy is the one that actually gets used.  Besides language learning, I see this principle apply to many other areas of life such as fitness or dieting.  Many people get inspired to get healthy or lose weight, but they often fail because the plan they chose requires too big of a change in their routine or habits.  It could be that going from nothing to working out at the gym three times a week is a to big of a jump in commitment.  It is no wonder that the majority of folks who sign up for a gym membership as a New Year’s resolution stop going to the gym by the middle of February.

The main principle here is to be brutally honest with yourself about what sort of plan you will actually adhere to.  Far better to choose a decent plan that you will actually stick to versus having the perfect plan that never gets utilized.  At the same time you should be extremely intentional in removing as many barriers as possible that are going to prevent you from procrastinating or giving up.

I’ve needed to heed this advice in my own language learning journey.  In studying Mandarin, I tried using a mass sentence method called Glossika that required me to listen and repeat thousands of recorded sentences.  Each day a new recording would have me parrot dozens of sentences for 30 minutes.  I actually believe that this is an effective learning strategy, and many polyglots have utilized it with great success.  I actually stuck with it for about 3 months and can honestly say that my cadence and fluency actually improved.  But the problem I faced was that I dreaded doing this practice, and it was extremely difficult to adhere to each day.  Eventually I quit and moved on to other types of language practice.  Some may object and say, “no pain, no gain”, which is true.  I believe that practice should be both challenging and deliberate.  But we also need to be realistic about what we are willing to commit to.

If you have no interest in reading the newspaper even in your mother tongue, then don’t use a learning plan that involves daily reading practice from a newspaper.  If a language learning method encourages you to go out and talk to strangers, but you are an introvert, don’t expect yourself to be in the marketplace each day doing hours of conversation practice.  Better to have private practice with a tutor twice a week than a daily practice routine that never happens.  It may be that language programs like Pimsleur or Assimil get you great results, but only if you stick with them long-term.  Find the program that you think you are least likely to quit a few weeks later.

The language learning app Duolingo seems to be one program that has addressed some of these barriers that keep people from adhering to a plan.  They have taken the language learning process and gamified it, and turned daily practice into bite-size pieces.  While skeptics may criticize an app like Duolingo and say it can never replace a proper classroom or teacher, 20 minutes of daily practice that actually happens easily beats the language course that you never get around to attending.

It’s been said, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.”  What distinguishes greatness is consistency.  The next time you’re considering a new language learning resource or study approach, think about this principle of adherence.

What We Really Mean by Fluency

When it comes to language learning goals, we need to be clear on what we are actually setting out to accomplish.  There’s no doubt that every language learner wants to achieve fluency in the language.  But often we are not so clear on what we actually mean by fluency.


Beyond Pronunciation
On a superficial level, we fool ourselves into thinking that we would arrive at fluency if we could just sound like a native speaker (i.e. people might mistaken us for a local over the phone).  But if we really think about it, flawless pronunciation is most likely not our ultimate goal.  What we are really after is an ability to use the language accurately and effectively in a wide range of situations.  Also, fluency inherently involves an ability to use the language in a culturally appropriate way.

Fluency Within Domains
Sometimes we also fool ourselves into believing that thousands of hours of practice will one day lead to us waking up being thoroughly fluent in the language.  In reality, we gain proficiency in different domains one conversation at a time (i.e. you are much more fluent in topics you’ve already discussed hundreds of times before).  Therefore it is no surprise that you are probably much more fluent in the personal domain to talk about your family than in an occupational domain to talk about something like rocket science.

So When Can We Call Ourselves Fluent?
You may never get to a point in your language learning to be able to discuss the nuances of quantum physics (unless that actually happens to be something you practice hundreds of times).  But over time you will hopefully reach a level in which you can interact flexibly and effectively across a wide range of domains, including both social and professional settings.  By the time you are able to communicate skillfully and discuss various complex topics, you are most likely entering into an advanced level.  It is helpful to refer to specific standards that different organizations have established as a way of standardizing proficiency levels in a foreign language.  For example:

ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages)
CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The ACTFL scale runs from Novice to Distinguished levels.  The CEFR scale runs from A1 to C2 levels.  Some define fluency as requiring Advanced-High or Superior level in the ACTFL scale, or C2 in the CEFR scale.  But it seems to me, unless you require a particular proficiency level (e.g. employment requirement), it is much more productive to talk about what we ultimately want to do with the language.

Why Am I Learning This Language Anyway?
Though it may change along the way, we all embarked on this language learning journey with an end goal in mind.  For some, it may be learning Chinese to be able to communicate with their in-laws and relatives.  For others, it may be to have enough French to be able to backpack through France.  Therefore what seems most pertinent is no so much debating the definition of fluency, but actually targetting the gaps between your current proficiency and your end goal.

One specific tool that is very practical is the ACTFL Can Do Statements.  This document serves as a precise checklist that learners can use to assess what they can currently do with the language, and the functions or tasks that may still need more practice.  Identifying needs in this way will hopefully lead to more focused practice and greater progress.