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When will I stop translating from my native language to English?

This is a common obstacle to language fluency and flow when speaking. I hear it all the time from clients. 

“I’m fluent in English - I can read and write all day. I can understand everything. I consider myself to be intelligent and well read. But when I speak, I get stuck. I’m still translating and I can’t always find the right words. I feel the pressure building, and get embarrassed, or I don’t express myself as well as I know I can.” 

Does this sound like you?

Let’s start with a basic, fundamental understanding of how we learn languages.

In simple terms, we acquire language through 2 main ways: input and output.

The input is what you receive - what you take in = READING + LISTENING

The output is your external use of the language = WRITING + SPEAKING

Most people, because of schooling, classes, self-learning, excel in reading, listening, and even writing.

But, speaking often  times is given the least amount of opportunities to grow. Not enough practice time, not enough safe spaces or conversation partners. Not enough priority either outside of school or work. Oftentimes people come home to a family life that still fluently engages in their native language(s), while still reading books, watching tv shows, and writing text messages in English.

But where is the opportunity for speaking? In order to get better at something, we need to practice it.

How often are you expressing your ideas, thoughts, opinions fully in English? Using your language abilities to its FULLEST extent? Not some in between, half and half version that is understood by those closest to you.

People who don't spend enough time speaking with others tend to struggle in formal situations, when the pressure is on, and it’s time to present technical ideas, solutions, strategies, opinions, where you don’t have the chance to bounce ideas off of a friend or look something up in Google Translate.

What can you do to improve your speaking skills in English (or any language for that matter)?

In order get better at speaking, you need to speak more. Speak out loud to yourself, but more importantly, speak with others. Yes, I know how simple that sounds. You’re even thinking - Diandra, I work all day in English speaking with my coworkers. I would ask, how is that going for you? Are you getting stuck? Are you holding back? Are you feeling insecure? Are you blanking? Being misunderstood? having to repeat yourself? If you answered NO to all of those questions - then you can skip this advice. 

But you’re here for a reason. So, let’s be honest.

I, too, have felt inadequate expressing myself at work when I started working in a formal clinical setting for adults with brain injuries. My usual way of conversing and being myself did not cut it. There was a structure to the language and descriptions, and sensitivity that I was not exposed to previously. I was given feedback on multiple occasions to say less, speak less “comfortably” in front of higher-ups. To be more selective in the data I shared, and to do less “venting” and more solution-finding. This had nothing to do with English being a foreign language for me.

But it had EVERYTHING to do with the context being new and uncomfortable. I had to take a step back and reflect on how I was showing up and expressing myself. I had to learn the difference between speaking with my peers 1:1 and in large groups. I had to learn how to present data formally, and adhere to the office environment I was in (even if I did not like it or appreciate the communication style). I learned how to give instructions to clients that did not overwhelm them. I learned how to not assume my clients already knew basic ideas or concepts that were familiar to me and seemed straightforward.

I had to be conscious of meeting people where THEY were at - and making sure we were all on the same page.

Oftentimes people won’t stop you when they don’t understand something out of fear of being embarrassed or negatively perceived.

They just nod along, smile, agree. But because it was my duty to ensure I was being an effective communicator, I learned how to check in and ask if I was communicating in a way that was most accessible for them. 

This is all a part of the process of communication, speaking, interacting: being aware of how you’re showing up, and checking in to make sure you are all discussing things in a way that works for everyone in the room. Otherwise, you’ll go nowhere.

So, back to our original topic, how do we get better at speaking another language naturally?

As I said before, find more opportunities to flex that muscle.

  • Start my practicing at home, with yourself. Not in your head - OUT LOUD.

  • One step further would be to record yourself and watch it back. Send it to a friend and get their feedback.

  • The ultimate practice opportunity comes from having conversations and interactions with multiple speaking partners. Peers, your partner, kids.

  • One step further would be to join a group of others who are practicing similar skills like at Toastmasters, or in specific conversation groups. You can find groups centered around a hobby, like a book club, or sign up for improv classes. 

An adult at a beginner level would need anywhere from 500 to 1200 hours to master the basics if receiving consistent, formal instruction.

So, assess where you are currently at, and be realistic with tracking how much time you are actually spending speaking and practicing INTENTIONALLY. It’s usually not enough.

Realistically, you won't have endless hours to commit to the process, but the key is to immerse yourself in intensive, challenging situations on a consistent, weekly basis.

If you can commit to 2-3 times per week of socializing, interacting, speaking in public, you will without a doubt make progress in ways you thought you never could.

If you’re looking for more inspiration and insight into how to master speaking + communication skills, check out my Youtube channel for more content. 

For 1:1 speech + communication assessment and coaching with me, click here

Additional sources on language acquisition and language learning:

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