The “F” Word

There’s an “f’ word that comes up a lot when you decide to learn a new language and it can really hold you back. This particular word goes a long way to explaining why I’ve never been able to learn a new language – and I wouldn’t be surprised if I’m not the only one. It became such a barrier to progress that I decided to throw it in the bin and not bother using it.

If you think I’m talking about the word “fuck”, well, as you can see, I’m more than happy using that one. “Fuck” is an old reliable when Duolingo’s speaking exercises are refusing to accept your perfectly accurate response. I have nothing but respect for the word “fuck” and for anyone who uses it – even Gordon Ramsay.

Nope, I’m talking about the word “fluency”. I’m sure you’ve been there – feeling as if there’s no point even trying to learn a language because you’ll never be fluent. Or you make a start with barrel-loads of enthusiasm, only to realise how far away fluency actually is, so you sigh and go back to watching Netflix. It’s just not meant to be, you may think.

At this point I’d like to digress to point out that I am about to use the word “fluency” a lot, despite saying I don’t use it anymore. It’s somewhat unavoidable in a post almost entirely on the topic.

Anyway, the main problem with language learning for me was that I couldn’t see any point in trying given how hard fluency is to reach, and I couldn’t see how I would ever actually get there. This partly explains why I ditched French after high school. It explains why I took one 10-hour set of Spanish classes before throwing in la toalla. It explains why I couldn’t even improve my French while living in France, and it explains why my German never got further than a few lessons on Duolingo before I bolted out of there faster than you can say grammatikalischer Fall.

The problem was that, no matter how much vocabulary I picked up, no matter how many declension tables I poured over, I couldn’t use any of what I learned. I couldn’t actually make any of it come out of my mouth when required. Not only that, I couldn’t understand a word of what native speakers said. Not really having a proper understanding of what it takes to learn a language, I chalked it all up to me just not being good enough and that was that.

But the thing is, worrying about fluency is like a gamer worrying about the fight with the final boss while at the very start of the game. Sonic the Hedgehog had a lot of Emerald Hills and Chemical Plant Zones to negotiate before he got to lock horns with the dastardly Dr Robotnik (I’m cool with how uncool this reference is, by the way). As soon as you start worrying about whether you’ll ever be fluent, or about how hard it is to reach fluency, you’ll become disheartened.

I think fluency is a noble goal to set. It’s just that I also think it’s overrated. It’s not worth giving up on what could be the best journey of your life just because you might not ever reach native fluency. Is it essential to reach that level? Do I need to reach it?

I haven’t given up on the idea. I’ve just altered my goals. Realistically, with a full-time job to try to hold down, there’s only so much time in a week that I can dedicate to learning Norwegian. It takes regular practice – to the extent that it’s best to try to do something every day – a requirement I do manage, but not always with ease or with my best thinking cap on. In my case, I decided to stop fretting about whether I’ll ever be a fluent Norwegian speaker and start focusing on what I know I can achieve with the right attitude in the here and now. I set myself the goals of gradually improving the quality of my conversations with native speakers, and massively increasing the level of input I get – through reading and listening – to be able to better understand the language.

I also spent some time reading about the concept of language learning and watching YouTube videos on the subject in order to give myself some understanding of how to actually go about it. And let me tell you – there is a lot out there! After a while it becomes about figuring out what suits you best and what works for you. I’m still working that out, I cannot lie. There’s no getting away from it – some form of immersion is crucial, but in 2021 this has never been easier to get thanks to the internet and computers and enthusiastic native speakers willing to help you.

For the first time in my life, I have developed a proper language learning habit that I have been able to stick to and develop. Unlike in the past, there’s no chance of me giving up this time – and it helps me more than I ever expected to stop worrying about whether I’ll actually achieve what might be termed fluency. Maybe I will – but who knows? You can do a lot without being fully fluent.

Now if I could just find a way to get more comfortable with making mistakes…

In my next set of incoherent ramblings on the subject of language learning, I’ll be talking about the one thing a learner can say that means they’re destined to fail – and why you shouldn’t say it.

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