I get a lot of comments, emails, tweets, and other communications related to this blog, and perhaps the most common theme among all of them is this: "I've been studying for a long time but I'm still not fluent. What advice can you give?"
I give tons of advice every week that answers that question, in the form of the posts I'm writing here. No doubt that's why you've found me, and why you read this blog, and why you've asked me that question. So today, rather than telling you what you can do to improve, I'm going to talk about what you're already doing that's working against you. These aren't the things you should do, these are the things you need to stop doing.
Compartmentalizing happens when you have a specific set of circumstances under which you use the language, whether that's a specific day or time when you use it, a particular place where you use it, or a particular set of people with whom you use it.
Compartmentalization can be a big problem, particularly for those who are enrolled in classes related to a language. When you're only using Spanish at school, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, after lunch, your brain is unprepared for introducing the Spanish you know into a new situation. If you only speak Italian when you're with your Italian friend on Tuesday evenings, you'll have a hard time engaging that part of your brain when you meet an Italian cab driver on Saturday morning.
The solution to this problem is to introduce your target language into other parts of your life, at other times, with other people, etc. Add half an hour of foreign-language reading before you go to sleep. Add some foreign-language contacts to your Twitter or Facebook. Start listening to foreign-language music during your workout or on your lunch break.
2. Unnatural usage
The majority of your language usage involves flashcards, vocabulary lists, quizzes, SRS, Rosetta Stone, grammar exercises, challenge-and-response tests, vocabulary repetition CDs, etc. You're a walking dictionary, capable of quickly answering "what's the word for..." questions, faster than everyone else, but your attention gets lost half-way through a sentence.
You can't hold on long enough to understand a full paragraph, much less to follow along with a speech or a lecture. When someone says "come ti chiama", you excitedly think "Oh, I know what that means!" rather than instinctively answering the question. You live in translation mode.
Languages are meant to be used in organic, information sharing ways. Question-and-answer. Discussion. Conversation. Etc. All of those exercises make you good at doing exercises. SRS makes you good at SRS. Flashcards only make you good at flashcards. And you may think you've got a huge vocabulary, but it's working against you.
It's been said that you must use a word 20 times before it's yours. Think about that. That means that having a bigger vocabulary is actually working against you, because you have all those extra words you need to use before you can really count them in your fluent repertoire. Whether you believe you need 20 uses, or you believe you only need 3, the result is the same: more words requires more work. Flashcards don't count.
The solution is to spend less time in unnatural practice and more time consuming and creating real, organic thought. Talk more. Chat more. Read more. Write more. Listen more. Unless you're appearing on a quiz show, you probably won't encounter many challenge-and-response types of dialogs. You're not 5 years old, nobody's going to ask you what the cow says.
3. Fear of mistakes
You're paralyzed by perfection. You don't speak because you're afraid of making mistakes. When you do speak, everything sounds like a question, because you're more concerned with saying it correctly than you are with effectively saying what's on your mind.
Athletes practice their sport every day, running, jumping, throwing, kicking, shooting, skating, or whatever else they do... they don't just study books about the sport and then go play it. Singers, and dancers, and musicians, and performers practice and repeat their craft for hundreds of hours before they perform. They don't just go out and get it perfect on the first try.
The solution is to get those mistakes over with right away, and correct them. No one ever goes immediately from silence to fluency. You can't wait until your ready, because you'll never be ready. You have to use the language constantly in order to get good at it — even if that means talking to yourself all day every day until you're able to talk to someone else. You have to be slow before you can be fast, so stop delaying and start talking.
You give up before you've reached your goal. You stop using the language. You stop learning. Maybe you've moved on to a new language before reaching fluency in this one. Or maybe you've just gotten bored with studying the same things over and over, and doing the same exercises, and always passing your time in the same ways.
We humans love novelty. We're attracted to new things. Routine is boring. Many people spend several months on a language, only to completely drop it and start a new language. I see stories from a lot of people who know a little about a lot of languages, but don't have real mastery in any of them. (In fact, I myself was guilty of that for many years.)
Since starting this blog 10 months ago, I've seen dozens of other language bloggers burst onto the scene and fade away shortly later. Just a few hours ago, I read a final update on another site, stating that there would be no more updates.
If you're not fluent, you're not done. Commit to something. The solution to this problem is to change your routine. Find new ways to use the language and make it interesting, so you can stimulate your need for novelty without being swayed away from your goal. Try a new web site. Make a new friend. Read a new book. Watch a new movie. Discover a new musician. Change your routine, but don't give up.