It’s one thing to learn the rules of language. Making them your own is a completely different matter.
I often wish I was better at Thai. I imagine speaking it effortlessly, the same way I speak English; being understood, and never having to see that confused, impatient look I get from native speakers when I can’t figure out how to formulate a sentence. When I think about this, I can feel just how far away I still am from my goal. The path to fluency seems endless.
Of course thinking this way won’t make my learning go any faster, any more than a child dreaming of living like an adult will grow up more quickly than a child who’s busy enjoying just being a child.
If anything, trying to memorize more vocabulary and grammar to sound more like an adult can lead to stunted linguistic growth. It’s one thing to learn the rules; making them your own is a completely different matter.
Get in touch with your linguistic inner child. Make friends with language partners who don’t take themselves or you too seriously. Find silly things to talk about. Play word games. Laugh at yourself. Enjoy your mistakes.
When I chat with a new language buddy
These days I start by saying something like “I’m not that good at Thai, but I want to speak it anyway. Please speak to me in 100% Thai. I might only understand a little bit, but we’ll just do our best.” A good language partner will naturally tailor the conversation topic and pace to better match my level.
Even if I don’t understand what my language partner is saying, I try my best to shadow and repeat what he or she says, using my tone of voice to indicate how well I’m following.
If it’s a new sentence, I sometimes play the “substitution game,” repeating the last sentence but swapping out one word for other words I know. The results are occasionally pretty funny.
Don’t learn a language; play in a language. If you can make speaking your new language fun, despite or even because of your low level, you’re already on the fast track to fluency.