Why Can't I Improve My Second Language Proficiency?
German Student Learning French
Problems in Improving Second Language Proficiency
Most individuals usually have an extremely hard time improving their second language proficiency. Whether it be from a beginning to an intermediate or intermediate to advanced level, most people find it very difficult to make the jump and be more proficient in listening and speaking and/or reading and writing.
Since studying Thai and living in Thailand from 2003, I have not progressed much beyond the intermediate stage of listening and speaking. It has been even worse for reading and writing in which I have stagnated at the beginning level.
Why, then, can't I improve my second language proficiency in Thai? After pondering this question, I have determined that it is a combination of motivational, cultural, and environmental factors which I will examine in this article.
Reasons for Not Being Able to Improve My Second Language Proficiency
Based on my experiences of formally studying Thai for two years and living in Thailand for twelve years, I have concluded that my Thai language proficiency in all four skills has stagnated for the following reasons: one, lack of motivation; two, unwillingness to accept Thai-ness or Thaification; three, unwillingness to correct badly learned language habits; four, comprehension and language responses which aren't reflexive; and five, being in the incorrect immersion environment.
How to Develop Fluency in Languages
Improving Second Language Proficiency
Which is the biggest reason for not being able to improve second language proficiency?
Lack of Motivation
The biggest reason for stagnation and some atrophy in my Thai proficiency is due to lack of motivation. For the past few years, I have been non-motivated to improve my Thai due to the following two reasons: one, I don't really need Thai to satisfy basic social needs; and two, there is really no reward for me to improve my proficiency.
In Bangkok, I lived and worked in an environment where English could be used to satisfy all of my needs. At the school where I taught English, I could get by practicing all four English skills with school administration, fellow teachers, and students. Outside of school, most native Thai working in hospitals, stores, businesses, and government offices were able to communicate with me in English.
Now that I am retired and living in Udonthani, a provincial city, the situation is almost similar to when I lived in Bangkok.
When I was learning Chinese Mandarin and Taiwanese years ago, there were personal rewards in improving language proficiency. These rewards were manifested in better communication with my Taiwanese wife who couldn't speak English very well. Improved proficiency in Mandarin also meant that I would receive more money in my job with the government. In Thailand today, there are no personal rewards for improving my Thai.
For the above two reasons, I have been unmotivated to actively practice speaking, reading, and writing. While listening, I do it very passively with no plan for improving my comprehension.
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Unwillingness to Accept Thai-ness or Thaification
I am a firm believer that if people want to achieve fluency in a second language, they must embrace the culture of the second language and also want to be like the people in that culture.
Isn't it amazing how young immigrant kids to America are able to become fluent in English and assimilate into American society so quickly? The obvious reason for this is because they are forced to swim or sink. If these immigrant kids want to be accepted by their native American peers and advance in society, they must accept American customs, thought, and culture.
Older expats like me and in other countries are in a different boat. We are not required to embrace Thai-ness, Thaification, or act like Chinese or other ethnic groups to advance in the society where we are living. By not accepting Thai-ness, Thaification, or acting like other foreign nationals, we are retarding our growth in language because language is so closely interwoven with culture.
Unwilling to Correct Badly Learned Language Habits
To this day, many Thai still have a hard time understanding my spoken Thai. This is because I often use the wrong tone when saying words in isolation, and sometimes my pronunciation is incorrect. Many Thai also can not read the Thai that I write due to the incorrect stroke order I use in writing the letters of the alphabet. I know that I need to take remedial Thai classes to remedy these problems; however, I have been unwilling to take these classes up until now.
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Comprehension and Language Responses Aren't Reflexive
To really achieve fluency in a second language, you can't spend time thinking about what something means. Translating everything you hear into your native language before making a response just won't work in a live conversation whether it be for listening or speaking. Language responses in comprehension and in answers must be reflexive. I believe this can only be achieved by trying to live and act like a Thai or other foreign national constantly while shutting out your native language and culture when you do it.
Being in the Incorrect Immersion Environment
Living in Thailand to improve your Thai proficiency is a good idea; however, you must find the correct immersion environment. It must be in surroundings where most people can't speak your native language and you are forced to use Thai or the language of the country where you are living. This worked for me when I lived and worked in an environment in Taiwan where very little English was spoken years ago.
Most people aren't able to improve their second language proficiency because they lack motivation and are unwilling to embrace the culture of their second language. This leads to an unwillingness to practice and live in the true environment where the second language is spoken.
© 2013 Paul Richard Kuehn