The Myth about Achieving Native-Like Levels


​The post below is an edited (improved) version of the video clip above.

Hi there.  Today, I want to address the question of why so many people believe that attaining native-like levels in accent or fluency or expressive ability in a second language is not really possible, if you're learning a second language as an adult.

Now there are many reasons for this and I'm only going to talk about the main ones. The reasons I am going to talk about aren't listed in order of importance. The first one I want to talk about is belief.

Beliefs

Because you believe something, it means that the odds of you actually exceeding your belief is very very limited. As Henry Ford once said, “Whether you believe you can or whether you believe you can't, you are right”.

Put it another way, if you believe you can't do something, it means that whenever you come across a big problem, you're going to unconsciously be thinking, "Well the reason I can't solve it is because I know I don't really have the ability to do it anyway. So, why even try?" In other words, you're not going to go out of your way to go to find out an alternate solution. Or, you're not going to try to find what you can do to get past the problem. Unconsciously you tend to give up and that's fundamentally the reason why beliefs actually form an important part of the reason why the myth of not being able to attain native-like levels persists.

It is a myth and I can say it's a myth because I've seen enough examples to know that. Having worked with over a thousand language learners, I can, equally confidently, say that this reason, belief, is a powerful one. Time and time again, I have heard some version of this being uttered. " I have no talent, ability" . "I am no good at learning". "I just don't understand things like this". Then I see the results of that. 

A powerful way to work against such beliefs is to find practices that give real results! More on that another time.

Practice and Use

The second reason, which you might find surprising but I believe it's a critical one, is the issue of practice or use. I have troubles with this word “practice” in English because practice has a certain implication that what you do is artificial and you're repeating what you do. Repetition does have a function, but when it is done without conscious attention and without the view to improve, it can actually be counter productive.

Whereas, in using a skill, a lot of the time what is important is that you use the skill. So, for example, people talk about “I need to practice English.” Well, “practice” English doesn't quite get it right. I believe with some things clearly you need to do some practice, but I believe what's really important in skill development is using it. So, for example, if you're going to be practicing basketball, you are at home playing shots or you are doing other such things, right. But if you are playing games, that's not practicing, you are actually doing it. You actually are playing the game of basketball. That is the same as using English (or any other language) in real life.

You can be at home practicing certain sounds or doing certain exercises. But ultimately until you get out into the court, or out into life and actually using English, it may not amount to much really, as many of you will know. So, anyway, back to the question of this practice / use issue. You need extensive hours of using a skill like English or a language to get to the highest levels. Practice is not enough. You need a lot of use.

I will go back to the example of basketball, it's a really good analogy. Just because you're practicing basketball at home or with your mates, it doesn't mean you can go out the next day or the next week and play like Michael Jordan. You need a lot of games in between. You need extensive use.

Malcolm Gladwell, who did extensive research on this, maintains you need 10,000 hours, he says, of practice.  Practice by itself will not get you there. So, I will come back to “use”, which he includes in practice.. 10,000 hours, to me, sounds like a lot. If you work out the arithmetic of that in terms of how many hours a day, it adds up to a long time. I'm not convinced about that in terms of mastering a language, but you certainly do need a lot.

You need to not just, you know, going out and talking to somebody on the street, but you need a whole array of situations, from talking about family kind of stuff, to arguing, to talking about ideas, to talking about religion, to disagreements, negotiating and so on.

You've got to get yourself involved in all these different kinds of language experiences, Not necessarily all kinds but, you do need to have a really broad array of situations where you can actually use the language to express different kinds of thoughts, emotions, suspicions, biases and so on! That's the way to broaden and deepen your new language.

If you're not exposing yourself to these different kinds of uses, you may well end up feeling you are limited in your ability. That happens because you haven't "stress tested" your English. That can create a feeling of a lack of confidence in your language skills. The wider the variety of people you talk to and the more situations you are involved in over time, you can build belief in your abilities in and feel “I can do all this”. 

However, use or practice is not really sufficient in explaining what can go wrong. I'll give you an example. I live in Australia and here we have migrants who have lived here for many, many years. Most of them have been using English for a long long time, having well more than 10,000 hours. But many don’t sound native-like. Many, actually sound heavily accented and sometimes with severe grammatical issues. They can make themselves understood, don't get me wrong. But in terms of becoming native-life, they are a still a long way from it. They may have satisfied the need for extensive practice or use but many haven't managed to get to the highest levels. Why?

I will suggest that the reason has nothing to do with a lack of ability or some misplaced gene. It is more to do with the fact that they haven't learned how to use the time when they are using a language to actually improve it.

Learning at the Higher Levels 
(Compared to the Lower Levels)

This is a very different kind of learning that you have to get engaged in if you are to approach native-like.  That is the next reason, which is the third I believe. There is a difference between learning English or a language at the lower levels or learning it or improving at the higher levels.

At the lower levels, the distinctions are coarse. It's more a question of:

  • Do you know it or don't you know it?
  • ​Do you know the sound in question or don't you know it.
  • ​Can you say this word or not?
  • Can you ​express that idea?
  • ​Can you speak about the past or can't you speak about the past?

At some point, you start to learn all that and may even become quite good at it. But to get to native-like levels you require more than just a bit of skill. You need to get better and better and better. At the upper levels, you need to become more and more sensitive. You're talking about becoming attentive to finer and finer gradations of meaning, or finer and finer differences in meaning or sounds. To become aware of these distinctions, you have to become more and more sensitive, and more and more perceptive.

Without doing that, it's not really possible to get to the highest of levels. The only way you can do that is to do be "learning" in the midst of talking to people, while using a language. This is a skill or an art that many people don't actually master because no one's really taught this. No one talks about or actually shows you how to keep learning while using the language.  Sometimes this happens ad hoc or accidentally, or as part of what happens to you. It just sort of seems to happen. But this is ad hoc. It means it's just accidental or random. It doesn't mean you have a system for it. Without having a system for it, it just remains a random event, which you can't really rely upon to keep improving.

That's a key reason why people get stuck because they don't really master what they have to do to become better and better and better at the upper levels. It remains an art form out of the reach of most people. It, of course, does not have to be like that.

People don't really talk about how to improve after you leave formal instruction or learning. You don't really hear it mentioned. Just something your teachers assume you will do after you have left their classes… to keep improving. Well, sorry it doesn't just happen naturally to most people.

​Passion

A part of this kind of learning at the high levels of becoming more and more sensitive and becoming aware of the finer and finer gradations of meaning requires you to have some sort of passion or interest in what you're doing

Without having that kind of passion, that kind of drive inside you that has you want to keep paying attention, that has you want to keep finding the differences and has you want to keep doing this, it's not going to happen because nothing is driving you forward. 

This passion is evident for anybody who's at the highest level of skill in any area. Whether it's a sport or whether it's business or whether it's in the arts or in fact anything in life. The people at the highest levels display this kind of passion, this kind of urgency, or this kind of feeling about what they do. It's something of a kind you can't even drag them away from it. They don't want to leave it and this comes back to that they feel inside, in their heart.  It's not in their head.

It's in their heart so they want to keep doing what they are because it's part of who they are. They enjoy it, revel in it, extract satisfaction from it. They get better and better at it. It is not just that they want to get better and better. It is deeper than that. They want to keep doing what they are, as they feel fulfilled in what they are doing,  so they can fulfill their own potential so they can feel alive. It's something deeper than just wanting to get there. The passion aspect is critical for the learning to be sustainable.

So, if you don't feel this passion, if you don't start to do something that enables his passion to show itself, to become evident so you can actually feel it, I would say it again, it's nearly impossible to get to the native-like levels because there's nothing driving you forward. So this passion is what we're talking about.

It is not just passion but it has to be also in the way you are actually learning. So, for example, if you're learning in ways that don't lend themselves to passion appearing, you are going to struggle. An example would be studying from a book. I mean, I don't know if you can get really passionate about studying in the book. I don't. Maybe you can.

​Your practices and what you do have to in fact support or ​create a passion. So​, passion and what you do have to be in sync, work together. In other words you have to develop practices and ways of learning that support your passion and that basically keep feeding you. The practices can't be divorced from the passion.

So you have to have practices that actually not just support but become a part of or generate the passion. They have to serve your passion in what you're doing, and what you're doing supports your passion as it were so it's like a loop to support each other. 

So, that's another reason that can have people give up. They may have a passion but the practice they use doesn't really support their passion. So the practices they use act to reduce their passion and then they start to give up on their learning practices. There's a whole art to finding the kind of practices that will feed your passion and having a passion that drives your practices.

The Result

From this discussion you may come to see that there are real reasons why having this idea that second language can't be fully mastered as an adult is really a myth. It's nothing more than that. It is a myth because most people just don't understand what they have to do to get to native-like levels. As a result their belief becomes perpetuating. It's supported by their practices because they're doing the wrong kinds of things.

Then they start thinking, "Of course, I can't get to the highest levels." And so the only way you can break this myth is one start believing you can and then start changing your practices and changing what you're doing. That ​may then start helping you to create this passion that you need that in turn will create your more practices that will support the passion and so forth. So it becomes like a loop. 

Anyway, I hope this little talk has been of help to you. I will talk to you more about this later on when I will start to unpack some of the elements I have been talking about.

Bye for now.

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