How to Stretch the Language Muscle

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Unsplash

“Become FLUENT in a YEAR!”

“ADVANCE a language LEVEL in 6 MONTHS!”

As a language teacher, these pop-up ads often leave me shaking my head or feeling sorry for the entrapped student looking for a quick fix to their language woes.

While it is true — you can advance a language level in 6 months — these types of large leaps from A2 to B1, for example, take intensive commitment and practice.

Even though the appeal of a quick fix exists, before you throw your money into a sleekly marketed language program, first consider what your goals are.

  • Do you want to travel internationally with ease?
  • Do you want to get a job with a global company?
  • Do you want to be able to understand movies in your target language?

As we strive to improve our communication in a second language, we need tangible markers to prove we’ve accomplished something, to justify the time and money spent on learning a language.

These goals are sometimes more difficult to identify because we are always learning in a language. We don’t ever reach a point where we know everything. (This is also true in our native language, but we rarely stop to consider how much we keep adding to our knowledge base as we age.)

So why are language goals elusive? Why do we sometimes feel like we aren’t making any progress?

As a second (and third) language learner myself, I’ll admit there are times I also feel stagnant.

Usually it begins with feeling drained from other activities. By Thursday night, I don’t have energy to read in Spanish (my target language), so I browse Facebook instead. Or, the weekend comes around, and all I want to do is relax and watch a movie. And watching a movie in Spanish takes work. I might miss the jokes or key plot points. And the last thing I want to do on my weekend is think more. So instead, I switch over the language option on Netflix to English (my native language) and forgo my goal.

Over time, just like any behavior change, it’s easy to become lazy.

“Just this time” can turn into a week, a month, then eventually, you realize you’ve barely consumed any content in your target language.

And as un-exciting and non-appealing as it sounds, the true key to improving your skills in a new language is consistency. And consistency doesn’t happen just because you sign up for a language course.

What does consistency look like?

Everyday practice.

Yes, every single day.

I know it sounds daunting in the midst of work meetings, dirty laundry, meal prep, and finding time to watch a movie or unwind with a friend.

But (even as cliché as it sounds) we make time for what matters most.

If communicating in your target language is a true goal — you will find the time.

I’ll take a bit more tangible goal for an illustrative approach.

Last year, I couldn’t walk. Every time I placed my right foot on the ground, piercing, debilitating pain was present. In the morning when I woke, or when I walked in the grocery store. All day, everyday, I was in pain.

Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. I used to walk just fine. In fact, I used to run half marathons for fun. But now I was injured.

What had once been simple, unthinking motion now had turned into challenging work. I was constantly contemplating where I would place my foot, dissecting what path was the most stable or which tennis shoes gave me the most comfort.

When I finally scheduled a consultation with a physical therapist, he examined my foot and sent me for x-rays. There were no fractures, just inflammation from repeated, consistent running.

So here I was, in my mid-30s, barely able to walk — let alone run — and I had to go back to zero.

You might be thinking, “That sucks, but how does this relate to learning a second language?”

Imagine that your mother tongue is like walking normally — it comes naturally, easily, you don’t have to think about it. Learning a new language is akin to learning how to walk again.

Something I used to take for granted now needed extreme focus, minute concentration, and daily practice. This consistent focus is what it also takes to learn a new language as an adult.

Yes, you know how to communicate — but in your native language, you no longer need to think about how to form a sentence, infer intonation, or understand humor. Even though communicating in your native language seems like a breeze, in fact, it took decades to develop.

Since we learn language as we age, our level of vocabulary and sentence structure matches our needs at the time. Now — as adults — we quickly notice the gaps in our language knowledge.

You do, in fact, learn language more quickly as an adult — it just seems more laborious.

Because I had to learn how to walk again — something I don’t remember learning in the first place — here’s what I learned that can be replicated in language acquisition.

1.

I began with my toes. For my foot to truly regain strength, I began stretching and exercising my toes. Open the toes wide, isolate the big toe from the rest, lift, and eventually bend.

Sometimes we’ve been speaking in a second language for several months, maybe even years, but some of the basic mechanics were never developed or badly formed. So if you begin feeling like you don’t know what to study any more, go back to the beginning — articles, verb conjugation, questions. You need to strengthen the simple mechanics of language in order to truly grow.

2.

After working on my toes, I developed my ankle and calf strength. Three times a day — morning, afternoon, and evening — ankle lifts. Every day. It was hard to be consistent, but if I got in at least two, I felt pretty good. And after months of daily repetition, my ankles were able to support my weight again.

When it comes to language, a little everyday is better and more effective than a few hours crammed together. Schedule 15 minutes in the morning, afternoon, and evening to listen to a podcast, read an article or watch a YouTube video. If you get to two of those, that’s 30 minutes of intentional language contact. Every day.

3.

Then came balance. Place one foot in front of the other, then throw a ball. After six months, I was able to close my eyes, lift one leg off the ground and balance for close to a minute. Focus on each part of the foot, leg, and body. Adjust as needed to maintain equilibrium.

Balance is key in language as well. It’s tempting to fall into routine — watching the same series or listening to the same podcast. But this can lull your brain into understanding certain voices or accents, but leave you lost in new contexts. To avoid this complacency, switch it up. Find a new podcast each month. Look for a different speaking partner each year. Explore a new topic in conversation. Read a new author. Focusing on all elements of language creates a well-balanced communicator. (Yes, that means writing, too!)

4.

Finally, after all the other elements were developed, it was time to walk. My right leg was wrapped in an elastic band to force me to step straight. Lift the knee hip-height, strike with the heel, move the foot down to make contact with all the toes, then push off, repeat.

In your target language, sometimes you probably feel the progress is too slow. Trust me, when it came to my foot exercises, there were weeks and months the pain was still there, the doubt was constant, and I felt I wasn’t making any advancements. I cried twice in therapy out of frustration. But the consistent exercises and daily routine is what got me back on my feet again. Back to running again.

Consistency and attention to detail is also key as you develop your language communication.

So how do you do it?

Establish a mindset that speaking is important. Schedule time on your calendar. Design a six-month plan to accomplish your goal. Evaluate, and then set a new one.

Speaking a second language is akin to rehabilitating a muscle group.

You already know what it feels like to express yourself with ease. You know what it feels like to laugh at a joke. You know what a relief it is to not second-guess every spoken word. Focus on attaining those goals in your new language.

With consistent, everyday practice, in the not so distant future, it is possible to achieve your communication goals.

Small, simple changes will make a significant difference. Remember —

Even now, with my right leg pain-free, my left knee has developed a throb. But now I know to take it easy, add some new stretches, begin to develop the correct muscle groups, and I’ll be able to keep up my weekly running.

We are always growing and developing. Language is not a class to pass or a presentation to perfect.

Truly learning a language means the target is constantly moving.

We can always improve, learn something new, and increase our confidence.

A little focus each day will develop the language muscle.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.

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