The Comfort Zones of Learning a New Language

People often get stuck at predictable points along their linguistic journey. This is usually because they are at one of the comfort zones of learning a new language.

A comfort zone is simply an area that you feel at ease in and familiar with. On the other hand, when you move outside of your comfort zone you feel awkward and generally perform poorly in this new area.

But going outside your comfort zones regularly is actually a necessary part of the process because it is the only time that you grow in the language.

What happens is you start working on newer and harder things, and you usually have a tough time at first, but then you get better until a new and larger comfort zone is established.

I’ve identified a few that most people go through and would like to talk about them now.

Your Native Language Only

Obviously the first comfort zone is one in which you only ever operate inside of your native language.

This is the easy and natural way that you go about your life, and when you want to learn a new language, you have to step outside of it and be prepared to learn all sorts of new things.

In fact, many people in primarily mono-lingual countries (like America) never learn a new language because of a variety of reasons, some of which are the difficulty and time commitment aspects.

But if you want to learn a second language, you’re going to have to be okay with feeling like a bit of a dummy, at least for the first part while everything is new and unknown.

The First Hundred Hours or So

Once you’ve started learning the new language, you become a beginner and have to get used to all of the things that exist in the target language that don’t exist in your first one.

Here are a few of those things:

  • New sounds.
  • New vocabulary.
  • New grammar structure.
  • New idioms.
  • New writing system.

Once you’ve spent around 100 hours in the new language, you should a pretty good grasp on each of these, although mastering them may still take a while depending on the new language itself.

There is a saying that you “get used to” a new language with enough practice, and that really encapsulates the whole idea of expanding your comfort zone so that you feel confident at each point.

Rather than worry about making mistakes and looking like a fool with the new language, take on the mindset of a child and be intensely curious.

Be like an investigator who is examining all of the aspects and turning them over in his or her mind.

Try to see each individual piece, and then take a step back and look at it as a whole.

It’s one thing to know what a word means, but potentially another to know how to use it.

To use a metaphor:

By wading into the pool this way, you can begin to get acclimated to the feel of the water and its temperature so that your body slowly adjusts to it and you don’t go into any sort of shock.

Eventually it feels natural for you, which it both good and bad.

It’s good because it means that you are ready to move on to the next level (the deep end).

It’s bad because people don’t like moving from a feeling of comfort to one of discomfort.

In fact, I would say that this is one of the primary reasons people never get beyond a beginner’s level in a new language – they don’t want to struggle again!

The Fast Version of the Language

Unfortunately, the struggle is real and it’s something you’re going to have to not only deal with, but embrace.

I say this because it’s going to happen each time you move to a new, higher level with the language.

Once you’re good with the beginner stuff, you need to move on to the “fast version” of the language.

Calling it “fast” is actually kind of misleading, since it’s just the normal rate that natives of the language use.

But the one common complaint from people who have tried to learn a second language is that, “Natives talk too fast!”

So how can you improve your abilities so that natives stop sounding so dang fast, and begin to sound like they are talking at a normal speed?

I only know of one way: Listen to natives speaking quickly, over and over again until it feels normal.

The sad fact is that practicing with a slowed down version of the language won’t help you to get better at the fast version.

Having said that, you can actually repeat aloud what the native said, trying to match the speed, the rhythm, intonation, and so on in order to accelerate the process.

Listening is more important since you can’t repeat it if you didn’t hear it first, but I would say that a “listen and repeat” practice would be the fastest way to get used to the fast version of the language.

Most people say, “But I can’t understand them when they speak quickly!”

It was the same for me, so I had to get audio that had a written transcript alongside it so that I could practice the lines slowly at first, and then at a medium pace, and finally at the speed of the natives.

The interesting thing is that I used beginner materials for a year, and at no point did I ever feel good about my abilities with the fast stuff.

Yet when I made the commitment to go big and work with fast audio no matter what, it only took about two weeks for it to begin to feel normal and natural for me.

You will be amazed at just how rapidly your comfort zone expands when you force it to!

Operating in the Target Language Only

Something I didn’t mention earlier is that, these comfort zones don’t necessarily have to be done in the order that I’ve presented them.

For example, you could expand into this current comfort zone of the target-language-only before getting used to the fast version of the language if you really wanted to.

I’ve just laid them out in the most natural progression, but it’s okay to go at it however you like.

Having said that, let’s talk about letting go of your native tongue.

When you begin learning a second language, you primarily use your first language to do so. This makes sense for the beginner stuff since it usually lines up nicely between the two languages.

But once you begin to get into the higher levels of the language, there are things that are untranslatable!

This means that you can only learn and understand the new concepts within the context of the target language itself.

People don’t really like the uncertainly that this situation brings, and hence a new comfort zone is needed.

What you want to do at this point is bring your vocabulary and grammar knowledge up to the point where you can learn new words in a dictionary that is only in the target language.

Then you want to start reading lots and lots of books.

These two things will begin to change your mind to that of a native, as people from different countries see the world (gasp!) differently.

If you can read a dictionary, you can learn the new words you encounter without needing to fall back on language #1.

And by reading a lot, you can see how the language is used in a lot of different situations and contexts.

Do this enough, and you will be able to flip a switch in your brain between the two different languages and therefore think and understand reality differently.

At some point you are going to have to stop using your first language, and start to live in the second language if you desire to attain a high level of skill with it.

In fact, you could even consider your native language to be nothing more than training wheels, designed to be removed once you are able to keep your balance on the bicycle of your new language.

Speaking the Language fluidly

One of the interesting things about language is that, you have to do the thing you want to get better at!

So if you want to get really good at reading it, you need to read a lot.

And of course if you want to get really good at speaking it, you need to speak a lot.

This is perhaps the single biggest struggle for people: speaking confidently and fluently in a foreign language.

Even the definition of fluency itself is: “The ability to express oneself easily and articulately.”

It is not all that uncommon for people to be able to understand a language when they are hearing it (comprehension), but to still struggle with speaking it themselves.

This is why speaking the language is most often the final hurdle and the last comfort zone to be mastered in learning a second language.

The best way (in my experience) to become better at speaking a language, is to mimic native people while they speak it.

I touched upon this as a good way to get used to the fast version of the language, and the procedure is the same here: Listen and then repeat!

It helps if you can pretend that you are an actor who is playing the role of a character.

That way you can feel the emotions as you speak and get used to the kinds of situations where you would actually use the phrase.

Then the next time you’re in that situation in real life, you can choose to speak your mind in either language.

Try starting off with some simple lines that you tend to say every day in your primary language, and work on saying them in the language you’re learning.

At some point, you’ll actually begin to defer to the language you’re working on and skip your mother tongue altogether!

From there you can simply expand outward to the point where you are comfortable expressing yourself verbally about anything you desire to.

Are There Any More Zones?

Like I said, you don’t have to expand zones in this exact order that I’ve laid out, but if you do it should be a rather natural process.

But it won’t necessarily be easy!

That’s the rub.

I mean, if it were easy I wouldn’t be able to talk about expanding comfort zones! Right?!

Are you feeling stuck in one of the comfort zones I talked about?

Do you think there are any other comfort zones with language learning?

Let me know in the comments!

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