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Why Can't I Improve My Second Language Proficiency?

Updated on December 27, 2017
Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul has spent many years teaching EFL and ESL. He taught EFL in Taiwan during the 70s, ESL in the U.S., and most recently EFL in Thailand.

Second Language Learning Books

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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 having lived in Thailand since 2003, 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.

1. 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.

How to Develop Fluency in Languages

2. 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 in 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.

How to Learn Languages

3. 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.

4. 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.

Tips for Thinking in a Foreign Language

5.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.

Summary

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.

Improving Second Language Proficiency

Which is the biggest reason for not being able to improve second language proficiency?

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© 2013 Paul Richard Kuehn

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    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      4 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      &YogaKat Thanks for reading and commenting on this hub. I remember my dad telling me that his mother who was from Austria refused to teach him German when he was young because she, too, wanted him to fit in. I hope you enjoy your trip to Italy!

    • YogaKat profile image

      YogaKat 

      4 years ago from Oahu Hawaii

      Very eye opening hub for me - I am learning Italian via the Pimsleur method for a summer trip to Italy. My American Italian mother was not taught her native language, an immigrant backlash of Italian American's wanting to fit in? In Italy, we will be visiting my Grandpa's village, where she has visited before but couldn't communicate with anyone. Thanks for the Utubes here . . . I am going to listen to Italian opera and watch Italian TV and movies.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 

      4 years ago from Singapore

      Excellent points, Paul, the second language learners I taught English to were precisely unmotivated to learn because they spoke in their second language at home! Thanks for sharing, and I am passing this round.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      DDE,

      Thank you very much for your insightful comments. If a person lacks motivation, it is so hard to improve in a language.

    • DDE profile image

      Devika Primić 

      5 years ago from Dubrovnik, Croatia

      I also have the problem with my fourth language(Croatian Language) lack of motivation, and so difficult that sometimes I don't want to do anymore.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      Mary, Thank you very much for your very insightful comments. It seems like the older I get, the harder it is for me to immerse myself into new cultures. Thanks for reading and voting up this hub.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      rajan,

      Thank you very much for commenting on this hub. I think my proficiency in Thai has suffered because I have been reluctant to really immerse myself in Thai culture and try to think and act as a Thai. There's a guy teaching with me from Austria. He has been in Thailland for at least 20 years and speaks Thai almost as well as English. I haven't heard him speak one word of German, his native language. He lives by himself in a Thai neighborhood. Amazingly, he never had one formal lesson in Thai, and picked the spoken language up all by himself! Thanks for the votes and sharing this hub.

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 

      5 years ago from New York

      Thaification....a problem all second language learners suffer from. With your personal experience you have outlined the problems of all second language learners. Imagine American school children learning Spanish; to them its just a course and of no importance beyond the classroom. All the things you've mentioned apply here. We expect things to become second nature without really putting in the effort.

      Learning a second language is not easy and motivation is surely an essential!

      Voted up, useful, and interesting.

    • rajan jolly profile image

      Rajan Singh Jolly 

      5 years ago from From Mumbai, presently in Jalandhar,INDIA.

      You are correct in saying that language is tightly woven with its culture and unless one immerses in that culture totally one cannot achieve great proficiency in the language.

      Very interesting read and voted up, Paul. Shared here and pinned, tweeted and shared on facebook too.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      everymom,

      Thank you very much for your very insightful comments. If you want to be fluent in a language, you have to work at it just like an athlete must perfect his skills. I'm glad you found this hub interesting and useful, and I appreciate you tweeting it.

    • Paul Kuehn profile imageAUTHOR

      Paul Richard Kuehn 

      5 years ago from Udorn City, Thailand

      jainismus,

      Thank you very much for your interesting and favorable comments. Yes, if we have an opportunity to learn new languages and they will benefit us in the future, it is worthwhile to acquire these languages.

    • everymom profile image

      Anahi Pari-di-Monriva 

      5 years ago from Massachusetts

      Yes! You have nailed the reasons leading to lack of fluency right on the head! One definitely needs to be a chameleon (and, as you say, willing to become like the native speakers of the language one is studying) to achieve even a near-native fluency across all four domains (listening, speaking, reading, writing). That said, it also takes at least seven years of study and the true immersion you speak of (not just living in the country where the language is used, but becoming part of its culture), just to reach a full fluency for BICS (social language) and a lot longer for the CALPS (academic language); that's why we go to school for at least 13 years in most cultures.

      Voted Up, Useful and Interesting...and, of course, tweeted through my Twitter-verse! :-)

    • jainismus profile image

      Mahaveer Sanglikar 

      5 years ago from Pune, India

      This is a great analysis.

      In my case, I always ignored two local languages even after I had an opportunity to learn them. I ignored the opportunities and now I feel it was my great mistake.

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