Becoming stuck in a language, and how to find that flow again

You start a new language; everything is shiny and new. There are few things as starting from scratch! Especially if the language is significantly different from the ones you already speak, everything is beautiful and addicting. You can’t stop learning! In fact, you tell yourself: this is how I become fluent.

Except… you reach a plateau. Becoming fluent never happens. Damn. Again?

I started teaching English very early, at sixteen. By then, I was foolish enough to think my English was perfect (I can see that judgmental face!), but as I started teaching, I realized… I didn’t know as much as I’d thought. Lucky enough, the people that had hired me at the time seemed to know even less than I did. Especially about grammar. (Is that why I’m so into grammar now? Because back then the best answer I could sum for someone asking me why is it that I “study” but she “studies” is because the almighty gods wanted it to be that way?)

My sixteen fiasco aside, there’s something more recent that’s happened that made me think of the terrible plateau, the ground of no change. You see, I know I can speak Spanish. When I went to Spain last summer, I could communicate well with people. The Uruguayans and Argentineans that make their way to Brazil? They’re my buddies. And yet, I was significantly stuck in Spanish. I tried a lot of learning resources, but it seemed like I wasn’t learning anything new.

Friends, is there anything more frustrating than feeling stuck in a language? Probably about a thousand things, but this blog doesn’t focus on those other thousand things, so bear with me, shake your head with an expression of dread, and say it with me: no, there is not.

I had to find a solution to my Spanish problem. I’m not sixteen anymore, and I don’t want to just organically start learning all the Spanish I don’t know by faking my way through it (if any of my students of a decade ago happen to be reading this, I was trying my best! I was a child! Why did that school even hire me in the first place! Take your complaints to management! – Just kidding, they’ve declared bankruptcy a few years ago, to no one’s surprise. You’re going to have to take your frustrations elsewhere.)

You already know I’m an ESL teacher. Teaching English is where most of my income comes from. Although I’ve taught “many Englishes” (aviation English, business English, regular English, conversation-focused lessons, YLs), my speciality is in course preparation. From TOEFL to Cambridge exams, I love some course prep. I like learning about the style of the test, I like the structured patterns, and I especially love that at the end, you have a clear grade that isn’t biased by a single school or teacher’s opinion. Nope, it’s a bigger center that’s telling you what your level is.

Do you see where I’m going with this?

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Millhouse raising his eyebrows suggestively GIF.

That’s when I started reading about DELE, the Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera by the Spanish Instituto Cervantes. It’s very similar to the Cambridge exams, but in Spanish! Yesssssss!!!! Studying for a test? I’m going to totally nail this.

Of course I don’t know that I’m totally going to nail this. I did some tests online, and I score between B2 and C1. Because my test is going to be in November, I decided I’m going to eat all the C1 Prep books until I feel confident or less terrified about taking the C1 exam. (What’s the fun in not being terrified, am I right?!)

My point is, though, that by more or less identifying my level of Spanish and deciding to take an international proficiency test to validate that, I found out a way to focus my studies. I did eventually find out about Cambridge, but that was two years after I’d started teaching English already (I know, I know, I started early, I was still eighteen, but! I had bills to pay! I started college at sixteen as well!).

There are other ways of getting unstuck in a language, but not many if you feel like you’ve already reached a point where you can communicate effectively and understand the great majority of what you read and listen. Input is still important at that level, just immensely more difficult to measure as relevant.

If your level isn’t as advanced in the language, you could always try flashcards to expand vocabulary, one-on-one private lessons, and pen pals. But I’d still recommend proficiency exams either way, because measuring our own progress can be hard. Having someone else do it for us, and getting an international certificate in the process? HELLS YEAH.


What language(s) are you studying? Have you considered taking a proficiency exam, or have you already taken one?

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