From foreign to fluent: Tips on mastering a foreign language

A lot of you might know the struggle of living in a country that doesn’t speak your language. Whether you need to master the language or stick to the basics, depends on your goals and future plans. However, if you plan on becoming a fully integrated member of this country’s society, mastering the language is not only helpful, it’s essential.

But what’s fluency anyway and why would I describe myself as “fluent” in any language? Well, according to the Cambridge English Dictionary, to be “fluent” means to “speak a language easily, well, and quickly”. This seems like a clear enough definition to work with. Apart from Bulgarian, which is my mother tongue, I also speak German and English. But here’s why this is relevant:

I myself am an expat and Germany has been my country of choice (or as Germans beautifully say “Wahlheimat” – “Homeland of choice”) for the past 6,5 years. Like most Bulgarians coming here to study, I had a language certificate in my pocket and yet I couldn’t say more than 2 sentences without completely blacking out or low key having an anxiety attack (those who’ve only known me for 2-3 years might have a hard time believing this). 6,5 years later I’m the marketing executive of a German brand and communication is an essential part of my job. So obviously, I’ve come a long way since those early days.

I often take this fact for granted and tend to forget how hard mastering a foreign language really is, because I’ve been doing it “on the side” for most of my adult life. So for those of you who are currently in a similar situation or are just generally curious about the topic, here are some things that have helped me progress a bit faster. 

 1. Surround yourself with the language

Right away there’s the single most important advice I could ever give you on the topic. Make the foreign language a part of your daily life. This includes:

  • Talking to natives any chance you get – fellow students, acquaintances, friends, colleagues, partner, people you meet at parties, basically anyone who speaks the language fluently;
  • Listening to people talking – try the radio, podcasts, movies, tv, Instagram stories, people around you on campus, people at the supermarket, people on the subway;
  • Reading the language – read the news, read posts on social media, read magazines and, although slightly more difficult, try to read books

Why is this important? First of all, you learn new words and phrases. Even the best knowledge in grammar is no use if you can’t find the right words to express yourself. Second of all, you learn how to use the language. What intonation do people use? How do they structure sentences or even conversations? Which words and phrases have a culture-specific connotation (positive or negative)? Trust me, you do not learn most of this in school.

 2. Be curious about the language

Download a bunch of dictionaries on your phone, so you can quickly look up any new words or spelling. I have Bulgarian-German and English-German on my phone and I also use Duden all the time. No matter how fluent you are, there’s always plenty of stuff you haven’t come accross, especially when it comes to German. German is weird, man.

Furthermore, if you’re interested in that kind of stuff, try to understand the etymology (origin) of certain words. Not only is this super interesting, it also helps you understand the word and remember it more effectively. Or try to break down words to see where they come from. Ever thought about the phrase “Entschuldige mich!” (“Excuse me!”) we use every day? We literally ask someone to remove our fault (particle “ent-” + root “Schuld”). Languages are so fascinating!

 3. Try your best not to translate your thoughts too literally

Now I know this sounds like a pro tip and it really is. Thinking in a different language does require a certain level of proficiency, but it’s an important thing to master. Depending on how different your mother tongue is from the language you’re learning, literal translations can vary from slightly confusing to downright wrong. This is where step one comes in play again – learning how to implement the knowledge you have of the language and structure your thoughts and expressions accordingly. 

…and while at it, try avoiding translating from or to your mother tongue altogether. Whenever you see an unknown word or phrase, read the explanation in the same language. This way, even if you happen to forget that one particular word, you still might be able to explain what you mean. 

 4. Don’t be afraid of failure

Speaking from personal experience, the reason why most people struggle with breaking the language barrier is because they’re afraid of making any mistakes or being laughed at. I personally consider this a valid fear, but here’s why it’s actually bullshit (pardon my French):

  • We all make mistakes. Natives make mistakes, linguists make mistakes, fluent people make mistakes – it’s what we do because we’re human. It can happen accidentally or it can happen due to lack of knowledge. Either way, it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Most people won’t be bothered by your mistakes, especially if they know that’s not your mother tongue. In fact, they really respect you for that.
  • Accept that making mistakes is an essential part of learning. As a kid you fell on your face hundreds of times before you learned walking normally, so why should that be any different?

If you really need to, here’s how to best handle your mistakes:

  • If you only notice your mistake long after you made it, let it go. Chances are, nobody else noticed it either, unless it’s very important for the context of what you’re saying. In that case, clarify what you meant to avoid misunderstanding;
  • If you happen to forget a word, take a moment. Or explain it. Or look it up. Or say it in a language both you and your conversation partner speak. Or replace it with a synonym. Just don’t panic, okay?
  • Laugh it off. Let’s admit it, we’ve all made some ridiculous and quite funny mistakes. Don’t wait for someone else to laugh at you, go ahead and laugh at yourself. It’s almost always a good strategy!

I’m very curious to read your feedback on this post because I know a lot of you are expats like myself and can relate to this topic. Let me know your own tips and thoughts on this in the comments below or on Instagram!



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