About benjamin meredith

Ben has 12 years of experience as a language teacher. He has degrees in Applied linguistics and Critical theory and is a certified examiner for various leading English-language exams. Ben has a background in editing, proofreading, investor relations, grammar, and etymology.

Long-term language learning

One of the questions learners come up with a lot is ‘how long will it be till I am fluent?’. This is quite natural question for beginners – people generally perform better if they have a target to shoot for. However, the temptation for the trainer is to respond with a specific amount of time. The reality, of course, is quite different. Here are some facts which are better to accept sooner rather than later:

Language learning is not linear
There is no finishing line
Living with English is a life-long project
Fluency is relative

So, a more sensible way to look at the question of fluency is to divide language into functional and lexical parts

The functional components of English are finite. We can say that there are around 350 functional words which make up the grammar of English. If we can quantify how many of these words a student is aware of and how many they can use effectively, we can reach a reasonably accurate conclusion as to where they are. The other part is more of a challenge; there are in excess of a million words in the English language. On top of this, English morphs much faster than the languages due to the number of people using it. This means that, really, there is no finishing line that anyone can reasonably be expected to reach.

A fluent speaker can, instead, be judged as one who has a range of tools at their disposal beyond their robust foundation of grammar. One tool may be a specialist lexis with which they can work capably. Another may be a sizable passive awareness of the language through exposure to written materials. They may have a range of idioms which afford them cache in a certain cultural environment. They may be superb story tellers with a gift for describing and sequencing situations and events. However, the one skill which should be held above all others is paraphrasing. It is the abilty to make oneself clear despite a lack of vocabulary which will ensure that, no matter who one is talking to, one can communicate an idea of any complexity. This is at the very heart of what it means to communicate.

Fix and build

Long-term learners often experience the feeling that although they know a good deal of words in their second language, they are still using them on a somewhat shaky foundation. They are most aware of this shortcoming when they are asked to use their English outside of a particular comfort zone. If they are used to talking with friends, for example, then asking them to draft a professional letter will make them nervous even if they are aware of how to write it simply and effectively.

When faced with this problem, a lot of learners react by booking another course in the classroom to ‘brush up’ their grammar. This usually results in repeating the same ground in heavy-going grammar-focused lessons. This approach, however, can be mostly ineffective as it does not allow the learner the freedom they require to eradicate error and improve accuracy in a new situation.

Language learning is not a constantly soaring line of progress, but rather, a series of u-shaped peaks and troughs. Although, on the surface, a grammatical concept can be taught and embedded fairly quickly, it takes countless examples to reinforce it against other concepts and use it accurately away from the training environment.

Taking a fix and build approach with students draws a line between what they know and what they don’t know. ‘Build’ lessons are those where a learner has not encountered a grammar point before. They should be characterised as:


However, if a student has already encountered a grammar point before, it is rarely worth going over the same old ground unless the trainer can see that the point was mistaught in the first place. Instead, the trainer and learner should aim to talk freely and flag examples of a particular point within that conversation. This allows the learner more insight into how and when a tense comes up in natural conversation and how it might be used to contrast against other tenses. A ‘fix’ lesson should be:

Passive correction (notes)
Allowing space for a learner to work on confident and meaningful delivery

Distinguishing between these two needs helps trainers and students to manage their expectations and make genuine progress. While a grammar point can be taught relatively quickly, it can take hundreds of examples through many hours of natural conversation to take ownership but there is no reason why this should be a painful process if both trainer and student understand what is needed from each other.