Advanced Self-study: 6 Ways of Snagging Fluency in Your Target Language Through Home Learning
Congratulations, language learner.
If you’re here, you’ve probably become proficient in a new language, maybe even on your own.
Have you ever noticed that the resources can hit as many plateaus as your progress?
Fear not. I’ve put together this list of ways to advance to being, well… an advanced language learner.
- 1. Deliberately fill holes in your vocabulary.
- 2. Start working your target language into your daily life.
- 3. Get intensive and extensive with your novel reading.
- 4. Add output to your input!
- 5. Forget long-term goals: Set mid-term and mini goals.
- 6. Relax and accept learning plateaus.
1. Deliberately fill holes in your vocabulary.
Learning vocabulary through media is great—it’s carried by context, and it’s easy to remember. However, you don’t have to learn that way only. Sometimes word lists can be great. You can even engineer your reading to fill gaps in vocabulary!
While this tip is a little textbook-y, it’s great for learners who already have a good handle on their target language. Competence in a language only drives further competence—you’ll understand and remember individual words better as you progress.
This is active learning right here. Think hard about your vocabulary-based weaknesses. Can you talk easily about your job? About your favorite animal? Your hobbies? Can you teach someone to play your favorite sport in your target language? No? Then fix it!
For example, scroll down to check out the baby-themed part of this “Around the House” vocab list on MedicalSpanish.com.
It includes the Spanish equivalents of words like “crib,” “stroller” and “diaper.” You probably knew these words when you were four (for good reason), but they don’t tend to pop up in your run-of-the-mill language course or immersion environment. A specific word list like this one is your solution if you suddenly need to talk about babies!
Most major languages have tons of vocab lists online. And it’s important to realize that even if they seem basic, they’re not necessarily just for beginners. There are lists out there with every household object you can think of (can you say “clothespin” in your target language?), obscure animals, gaming vocab, etc.
One way to find these kinds of lists is to simply Google “[topic] word list [target language],” if you’re learning a popular language.
Some language learning platforms group their content by subject matter. FluentU, a virtual immersion platform, is one example. It uses short videos with interactive subtitles and adaptive flashcards, to identify and reinforce unfamiliar words and phrases.
You can also read Wikipedia articles on whatever subject you like, and look up the terminology you don’t know. It’s reading, it’s fun and it’ll make you into one fantastic conversationalist!
2. Start working your target language into your daily life.
What’s the number one benefit of traveling or living abroad? It gives you an environment in which your target language is all around you all the time. You can’t ignore it or easily retreat into an English (or whatever your native language is) bubble. If you can embrace that kind of intense environment, your linguistic skills will improve and fast.
But that doesn’t mean that traveling abroad is the only way to boost your level. You can easily imitate this in your own home!
Move beyond deliberately setting aside time for textbook study, reading or even target language TV. You’re past the beginner stage, so now’s the time to mix these things in with your other everyday activities. Make the language a part of you. Shape your life so that it mirrors the lives of the most advanced speakers of your chosen language on the planet (native speakers!).
Start browsing the Internet in your target language. Look up websites and online communities that talk about your favorite hobbies, your field of study or your work. TV, movies, video games—whatever native resources you like—are doubly important now. Mix them in with the other things you watch—watch target language TV or movies not just specifically while thinking about improvement, but for fun, just to relax. Change your OS language or your phone settings, if you haven’t already. Own the language like you’ve never done before!
However, if you’re one of those good souls who’s been hitting the native resources from the get-go, or even if you’re not, trying upping your concentration level every now and then. Really try to understand everything. See a word you don’t know? Don’t ignore it, look it up! Write it down or enter it in your SRS.
More input is crucial for advanced learning. Aim for resources outside your comfort zone every now and then, and focus on the parts you don’t know.
Which leads to…
3. Get intensive and extensive with your novel reading.
In the spirit of focusing on what you don’t know, novels will improve intermediate and advanced language abilities in a very specific way: They will hand you that elusive, obscure, specialized vocabulary on a silver platter.
This is the stuff of fluency! Of eloquence! It’s hard to express yourself if you lack the specific words that express precisely what you mean. Imagine yourself always having the right word, right at the tip of your tongue. Imagine being able to communicate exactly what you mean, exactly when you need to.
Novels will give you all this and more.
But come on, why novels specifically? Won’t Internet surfing, nonfiction scanning, technical manual browsing or shampoo bottle reading get you there just the same?
Not quite. Novels differ from nonfiction in that fiction authors tend to employ a broader and richer vocabulary, all to your benefit. It’s poetic! They’re not just trying to convey information, they’re trying to do it artfully.
Really pay attention to the long, descriptive passages in your novel of choice. Sections like this tend to be more difficult and tend to use less common vocabulary. If you’re already into target language novels, you might have skimmed these bits before between easier parts with more action and dialogue, but really concentrating on these passages will serve you well at this stage in your learning.
Nevertheless, dialogue is also great for picking up conversational nuances and slang you might have missed in your listening or textbook work.
But what should you read?
What to read
I find that, at the intermediate and advanced levels, middle-grade novels (aimed at children ages 8 through 12-ish) and young adult fiction (aimed at the 12 through 18 crowd) are particularly useful for making progress. The stories tend to be short and engaging without being bogged down with too much flowery language.
Try to find your own favorite childhood novels in translation, or look for book bloggers and vloggers and get recommendations from them. (Google or YouTube search “favorite books” in your target language.)
How to read
So besides keeping up with those descriptive passages, how can you incorporate novel reading into your routine with an eye on the advanced level?
Try balancing these two methods:
- Extensive reading: This is reading for pleasure! The goal here is breadth. You want to be reading lots of novels, skipping what you don’t know. You have my permission to ignore unknown vocabulary words and weird grammar constructions! You’ll end up picking up a lot of these through context, anyways. Extensive reading is great for intermediate and advanced learners, because a lot more comprehensible literature is available to you. You can pick up things in your favorite genres and just relax and have a good time. You won’t understand everything just yet, but extensive reading gets you there!
- Intensive reading: This is just the opposite of extensive reading. The goal here is depth. This fits in with the aforementioned idea of really focusing on what you don’t know. Look up words on each page and make note of them or enter them into your SRS. Make mental—or physical—note of grammar patterns you haven’t seen before. This gets tiring, however, so I’d recommend limiting this to 2-3 pages or 10-20 minutes at a time. After that, go back to extensive reading for fun!
4. Add output to your input!
Output (speaking and writing) is often the benchmark of whether we “know” a language. While this might be a little unfair (comprehension is worth a heck of a lot), output is what a lot of us are after.
During the beginning stages of language learning, it can be beneficial to stick with input (listening and reading), while you build up your skills. Then, when you feel somewhat confident, you can bounce over to talking and writing!
If you use this kind of input-based method, you can comfortably start speaking and writing practice at the mid-intermediate stage, around when you start to understand sizeable chunks of clearly-spoken media (think news, radio shows, things like that).
You can certainly wait longer if you want. Input is still hugely beneficial for speech and writing, even if you wait to speak. And if you’re the outgoing type, make sure you still include input even when you’re focusing on output!
However, what this all comes down to is that practicing output at the intermediate and advanced levels can really make your target language feel natural to you, and you’ll soon be able to speak and write without stumbling. The main thing to keep in mind when practicing output is that it’s important to get corrected!
Here are a few resources for practicing writing:
- Lang-8: Lang-8 allows you to write journal entries in your target language, and native speakers correct you. The turnaround is quick: Native speakers will generally get back to you within the day, sometimes within hours. Because we’re talking advanced level here, try to use Lang-8 and similar resources on a scheduled basis, say, a journal entry every day or every other day. Additionally, make sure to push yourself. If you just talk about your daily life in every entry, you’ll be using the same vocabulary over and over. Pushing beyond intermediate and advanced stages means getting a little creative: Try writing book and movie reviews, political opinions, tutorials for sports or games, religious manifestos, you name it!
- Conversation Exchange: This site allows you to contact native speakers for Skype calls, live meetups, or pen pal exchanges. While it gives all of these options, I find it’s best for seeking out pen pals—a lot of people on the site are willing to exchange emails every now and then. This is great because, like Lang-8, it forces you to write drawn-out letters rather than quick texts or chat, and you’ll get corrections! Again, push yourself out of your comfort zone and talk about a variety of subjects (though political opinions or religious manifestos might not be as appropriate when writing directly to another person).
- Google searches: If you’re just writing on your own and you’re not sure about a particular phrase, try typing it into the Google search bar—if it autocompletes, you’re probably right! If you’re still not sure, search the phrase in quotes to see if native speakers commonly use it.
- WordReference forums: Finally, while many of you might already be familiar with the online multilingual dictionary WordReference, you may not have taken advantage of the site’s extensive forums. The forums are a fantastic resource because native speakers and learners alike discuss the nuances of all kinds of vocabulary. This is a boon for the intermediate-advanced learner who’s moved beyond your standard bilingual or monolingual dictionary!
For speaking practice, try:
- Finding an exchange partner on italki, The Mixxer or any other language exchange site: italki is a hugely popular site that’s geared towards learners who want to practice their languages over Skype (though it has features similar to Lang-8, too). On italki, you can also hire an online tutor if you so choose. The Mixxer is similar, but a little less active. As many of you will know, a Skype language exchange will likely involve speaking one language for a set amount of time, and then switching to practicing the other. So, how do you tailor this to the advanced level? Look for a serious partner on these sites who’s willing to brutally correct you and talk about a variety of subjects!
- Find an online tutor. For a relatively low price per lesson, you can also find a professional tutor. Verbling is a site that makes the whole process of searching for an online language tutor super easy and comfortable. Once you’ve found a tutor, make it clear that you’re there for conversational skills, and a well-trained tutor will be able to help you expand those. They’ll help you target your weaknesses and get you away from talking about the “safe” subjects you might have a habit of clinging to.
5. Forget long-term goals: Set mid-term and mini goals.
When you’re a beginner, it’s easy to absorb what’s around you—that’ll be a lot of the common vocabulary and common grammar, and other basic conversational stuff.
When you’re at the high-intermediate or advanced stage, you know that there are still linguistic bits you’re missing, but doing the same old things that worked as a beginner doesn’t necessarily cut it anymore.
Sometimes you can get bored. You’ve been at the language for a while now, and it might be frustrating for you that you’re not further along.
Goals are key here—they can vary widely, from learner to learner, but they help maintain your progress.
To make sure you stay on track, set mid-term goals. Your long-term goal is probably fluency in the language, and you’re still working towards that. But mid-term goals keep you on track from week to week and month to month.
These can include things like:
- To be able to comfortably have casual conversations within two months.
- To be able to talk about my work at job interview level within ___ months.
- To be able to understand classical literature in my language within ___ weeks.
Specific goals are best—you know what reaching the goal should look like, so you’ll know with certainty when you’re there!
Set mini goals too—these can be things you do on a daily basis. Try to tailor them to your long-term goals, and they’ll help you along the way. For example:
- Skype conversations once a week.
- Lang-8 journal entry three times a week.
6. Relax and accept learning plateaus.
Learning plateaus are common amongst learners in the intermediate stage and beyond. You were used to making huge strides as a beginner, but now it may seem like it’s been a long time since you’ve made significant progress.
The good news is that these plateaus are not caused by your inability to learn a language. Your strides might seem smaller, but you’re making as much progress and more! In fact, if you harness the power of the intermediate and advanced stages, you can get better at your target language a lot faster. The key to this, as already mentioned, is exposure to native resources—once you understand a little, that understanding builds on itself.
Personally, I’ve found that at the intermediate level, learning starts manifesting as sudden, almost inexplicable “jumps” in ability. The fact of the matter is that you’ve been improving all along, but you only notice the improvement when it’s dramatic.
So don’t worry too much about seeing progress from day to day. Just carry on with your reading and listening and watching and talking, and be comforted by the idea that you’re surely still on track and you’re making progress. And some day soon, you’ll surprise yourself with fluency!
There you have it: Everything you need to know to move up to and beyond an advanced level, all without spending thousands on travel!
Travel is not a necessity for reaching proficiency in a language—not by a long shot.
And getting fluent in a language before you travel can come with some sweet benefits.
When you do eventually go, you’ll be able to talk, read signs and generally relax in the language.
It’ll make your progress that much more rewarding!