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Barriers to Fluency: Getting Around the Dam

It’s happened to every language learner at some point or another. You’re chattering away in your new language when all of a sudden…bam! You stop dead because you don’t know how to say what you want to say.

It’s as if you’d been floating happily down a river and suddenly run head-long into a dam.

The Reelin River in Co. Donegal, backed up after a heavy rain.
The Reelin River in Co. Donegal, backed up after a heavy rain. Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel.

The thing is, you know better

What makes this kind of thing particularly frustrating is that you typically DO have the vocabulary and grammar available to you to say what you want to say.

In fact, you’ll often find yourself waking up at 3:00 a.m. thinking thoughts along the line of “Damn! I should have said…”.

So if you have the vocabulary and the grammar, why is it that they somehow refuse to come together when you need them most?

Problem #1: Inexperience

My experience has been that there are at least three possible causes for this problem, and one of the most basic is simple inexperience.

Unless you’re lucky enough to be in a situation where you can take classes with other learners, or perhaps participate in a discussion group, you might be surprised at just how different actual unscripted speaking is from what you may have done in your self-teaching course.

It probably won’t surprise you that practice is the best cure for this particular cause. It may be difficult at first, but the more you practice speaking in a natural setting, the better you will get at it.

An unexpected solution: break out the books

If an immersion course in Ireland is out of the question at the moment, and if opportunities to participate in discussion groups are infrequent, probably the next best help is reading aloud.

Reading aloud, even if it’s only a paragraph or two a day to start, is really, really helpful. It gets the words into your mouth, and helps bridge the gap between seeing the words and speaking them.

It’s different from practicing from a script because the words just come at you, much as they do in a real-life conversation. At first, you may be surprised at just how challenging and tiring it is. If you keep at it, however, it will get easier, and it will go a long way toward smoothing out your spoken Irish.

Problem #2: Performance Anxiety

Another term for “performance anxiety” is “stage fright.” Even if you’ve never suffered a moment’s anxiety over singing or acting on a stage, you may find yourself experiencing very real “stage fright” when it comes to speaking the language you’re learning.

What happens when you have “stage fright” is your brain freezes. Anxiety becomes overwhelming; your “fight or flight” instinct kicks in; and the last thing your brain wants to deal with is coming up with a grammatically correct (or even halfway sensible) response to cá bhfuil an leithreas, le do thoil?*

In fact, you may find it happening in different circumstances as you progress. At first, just speaking out in class may be so intimidating that you freeze up on even the most basic of sentences.

Later the problem might arise when it comes to speaking in a discussion group, especially if some or all of the other speakers are more experienced than you.

Even if you’re not consciously thinking in these terms, a portion of your brain is busily repeating the mantra “Oh my God…what if I make a mistake? Better to just shut up.”

And if you grit your teeth and force your brain to function in the new language, guess what? You’ve got a self-fulfilling prophecy on your hands. Yep…you make a lot of mistakes, and mostly pretty basic ones that have you kicking yourself after.

* Cá bhfuil an leithreas, le do thoil? = “where is the bathroom, please?

Hair of the dog

Curious dog
“Whose hair are we talking about here?”

As painful as it can be, there’s really only one solution for this one, and that’s (you guessed it!) practice.

This is usually the point at which your commitment to the language really gets tested, because continuing to talk to people, knowing that you’re making mistakes (“baby mistakes,” your anxious mind keeps telling you) is just plain hard.

This is where it helps to know that just about everyone you’re talking to (unless that person happens to be a native speaker) has been through exactly the same thing. No, they are not laughing at you or rolling their eyes (even secretly).

They may correct you, or they may let you self-correct (usually a mixture of both, depending on the dynamic of the group), but they do understand what you’re going through.

Examples from your native language

One thing I’ve found that helps is thinking of all the people I’ve met for whom English wasn’t their first language.

Living where I do, I frequently come into contact with immigrants and visitors from other countries whose level of fluency in English may vary considerably.

The thing is, I never find myself thinking “man, this guy’s English is terrible!”  And I certainly never find myself dwelling on minor issues of grammar. In fact, I usually find myself amazed at just how well they navigate this crazy native language of mine.

When you find yourself afraid to speak in front of more experienced (or even native) speakers, it really helps to keep that in mind.

At worse, you sound a little like that guy who asked you for directions the other day…and you didn’t think he sounded “stupid,” did you? “Foreign,” yes, but “stupid”? No way! So tell your negative internal dialog to take a hike, and just keep talking!

Problem #3: Unconsciously Translating

This problem is an insidious one, and one that besets the most experienced of learners (in fact, it’s probably the biggest problem that afflicts the nearly fluent). And the worst thing about it is, it can be difficult to spot.

This is one that got me over and over again this past summer when I was in Ireland, and it was intensely frustrating because I couldn’t figure out why it was happening. I’d be talking along and all of a sudden, bam! The words weren’t there.

What made everything clear to me was something my bean a tí said. I was expressing my frustration over not knowing how to say something, and she said “You know how to say it. Just think of a different way.”

That’s when it occurred to me that, during those times when my brain was freezing up, I was subconsciously defaulting to English.

I would be going along speaking Irish without thinking about it, when I would suddenly come to a thought that was more complex (in English) than my Irish was able to handle. Not realizing that this was the problem, I’d find myself stuck in neutral as I tried to work out how to say what I wanted to say.

Once I realized what was happening, I went to a technique that an on-line friend of mine suggested years ago for writing in Irish. It’s so simple, really, that I’m a little surprised it took me so long to apply it to the spoken language.

When I found myself unable to think of how to say something, I would very deliberately push English aside, pretend I had no idea how to speak it, and force myself to think of how to express the thought in Irish, even if it was in very simple, “baby” sentences.

Often this meant that I had to pause for a moment or two to collect my thoughts. But refusing to let myself THINK in English, even if I had to resort to single words, grammatically suspect phrases, and gestures, really paid off huge dividends.

The more I forced myself to think in only Irish, even if I had to go right back to absolute basics, the easier it got, and the more quickly I was able to access my more advanced speaking skills again.

I was still occasionally running up against a dam, but instead of stopping completely, the flow of language simply darted here and there until it found (or created) a channel down which it could continue.

As the weeks progressed, the dam started to wear away, and the sudden stops became fewer (and the diversion channels more easily found).

Even now, when I find myself struggling, I remind myself that I DO know how to express this concept in Irish, and I make myself think it through IN Irish. It’s amazing, really, what a difference it’s made in my confidence and in my ability to express myself.

It’s a wonderful feeling, getting past that dam!

The Reelin River when it's NOT backed up! Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel
The Reelin River when it’s NOT backed up!
Photo 2013, by Audrey Nickel

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5 thoughts on “Barriers to Fluency: Getting Around the Dam”

  1. patrick mc nally

    Hi Audrey, Thank you for this helpful and informative post. I haven’t had much chance myself to speak out with the little Irish I have got. To busy learning new words and phrases. It can get too much at times, so I will have to find a space were I can fit in a bit of Comhrá. Thanks for the tip about reading out loud, I will have to get on to this. At one of the Irish classes I attended we were asked, “Cad a rinne tú ag deireadh na seachtaine”?. and I would start of with, “Rinne mé lán rudaí deifriúla ag deireadh na seachtaine, then try to expand the story. But it is good fun and practice. I don’t know if you have heard of Benny Lewis, but he recommends speaking the target language from DAY ONE!. So for me this is the year to try and “Abair amach, agus Imigh le sruth”. Go raibh míle maith agat a Audrey, Slan. Pádraig

  2. Go raibh maith agat for our patience with me. I enjoy your posts and pictures an all your helpful tips and advice! le meas, lottie