Fluency & Why using a 2nd language can be so Exhausting

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Do you get exhausted speaking in your second language for prolonged periods? 

There is an anxiety that you will miss something that is said if you do not translate into the mode of communication that you are confident with, your mother tongue. This anxiety retards the ability to just understand what is said, despite the fact that few of the words you heard were unknown, the structures and syntax were things you’d have no problem with in a fill the gap exercise or reading this article. 

What is fluency? When you can use a wide vocabulary to express yourself, to write an essay that gets a top grade from a teacher? This is something that I have argued with many educators forever and I’ve got a more practical opinion of it. Oxford defines it as “the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately.” But what is easily and accurately. Fluency comes from flow, when your ideas flow. That’s great, we can see that in a speaker but what is happening in the brain of a fluent communicator that is not in others. Can we clinically diagnose fluency? I believe that it is simply the point at which a communicator stops using the mother tongue as a reference and operates in the target language. In other words, stops translating in the head. 

What happens in the brain of the non-fluent speaker? 

When the input is received the listener translates the message, comprehends the translation then formulates a reply and translates into the target language. THAT IS 5 STEPS! Now I don’t care how smart you are that is going to take time and fatigue the brain. That is why you feel so exhausted after a relatively short period of communication.  

In the fluent communicator this is just 3 steps and if the subject is complicated this will still be tiring, in fact I get exhausted when I’m trying to be smart! but not as much as 5 steps. 

So how do you develop this ability? 

Obviously you need to cut out the 2 translation steps. But how?  

Well, you do it quite often. “How are you doing?” 

“Yeah, fine thanks.” 

This is a transaction that needs no translation and for two distinct reasons. Firstly, you are familiar with it as a standard pitch and riposte; secondly, there is no anxiety about the meaning.   

One method is to record yourself solving grammar exercises.  

Pick some exercises that are a challenge but not a phenomenon that you are unfamiliar with. Be sure to have the solutions, usually at the back of the book.  

Start recording and work your way through the exercises, solving them orally, on-the-fly.  

Once you have done 30-40 questions stop recording and listen to your answers. 

If you think you have any mistakes, do it again.  

Once you are satisfied that you have no mistakes, then you can listen again with the solutions.  

If you discover that you have some mistakes, go back and do it again. 

Repeat until you have no mistakes and your delivery is natural and fluent. 

How does it work?

This method will force you to think in the target language, listen and process the target language. PLUS, grammar books tend to use a lot of standard phrases and replies, which you can incorporate into your daily language. 

Now, this will take a lot of repetition, it is like drilling but you should find it more of a challenge and more engaging than what you did at school. Don’t do more than about 30 minutes at a time. If you need to you can go back to the same exercises again later. 

It’s like driving.

The idea is to make the structures instinctual, to feel the flow of the language. In the same way that you don’t think about the basics of driving, you concentrate on the road, pedestrians, other traffic not changing gear and pushing pedals. Using the right vocabulary or expressing your ideas will become the pedestrians and traffic.  

I’ve had great success with this method, Chinese speakers tend to have difficulty with past tenses as verbs are not conjugated in Mandarin, continuous and simple tenses are challenging for many European language speakers and prepositions in English are the core of its succinct accuracy. 

Programming your brain to deal with the everyday processes of English will free it to deal with the more complex problems and reduce fatigue.  

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