If you’ve ever learned a language by spending time in a foreign country, you will know what a roller-coaster of a process it is. If you’ve never had to use the language outside a classroom before, the start may be bumpy. Why didn’t your teacher ever teach you helpful little words like ticket office, and why didn’t you pay attention during the lesson on giving directions?
(Tangent: Why did my Spanish teachers tell me that it’s “doblar a la izquierda” when in Spain it’s unequivocally girar? Ugh.)
Once you get through that rough patch, you will absorb the language like a sponge, depending obviously on how much you immerse yourself into it. If you listen to and read a language all day, before you know it you will find new words and phrases sneaking their way into your speech.
The part that comes next is more challenging, and it’s where I find myself now. There will be a point at which your vocabulary and grammar will be sufficient to communicate nearly anything you want to. There will still be plenty you don’t know, but using what you do know you can describe your way around the gaps in your knowledge. The phrases you put together might not be quite how a native speaker would say something, but you easily get your point across. If any of the above applies to you, congratulations, you’ve reached the language learning plateau.
In order to improve from this plateau, you need to make a concerted effort to fill in those gaps, take every opportunity to listen to native speakers and read in the language. This is my latest project, which I am going about in a variety of ways.
First, and I am ashamed to admit I haven’t done this until now, I am reading in Spanish. Not just skimming through a newspaper each morning, but tackling a book.
I admit, I’m slightly cheating. I’ve read this in English (My Sister’s Keeper) and know the story, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty for me to learn in reading it in Spanish. It’s a slower process, as would be expected, because I want to look up every single word I don’t know or even have doubts about. Because I know the story, I can stop more and reflect on the specific language used. What phrases are used in more colloquial situations, and which in more formal? I find structures I’ve never heard before and suddenly have a new (more native!) way to say something.
Second, writing down all new vocabulary I come across, and then actually studying it! This notebook and my pocket dictionary come with me everywhere.
Third, every few days a couple words get put on this board in my entry way so I see them all the time.
The fourth, and most helpful step in pushing my Spanish beyond the plateau? Let’s just say I’ve found my own personal human dictionary. But more on that later 🙂