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The fluency illusion is this: You think you know more than you actually do.
It’s sneaky in that it will steal weeks, months, and years from you, leaving you alone + wondering why you still can’t get to the level of Italian you want.
It’s important to understand because, like many skills, learning a language is a progressive thread.
Each skill builds onto the next, so if you let the fluency illusion cloud your thinking on the majority of skills you need to learn, you’re going to end up thinking that you should be fluent and wondering why you’re not.
And when it happens, it hurts, because you’ve been so diligent and you’ve spent so much time, but you still end up dissatisfied with the results.
The fluency illusion, quite simply, is your ego.
It tells you that you know how indirect object pronouns work now because you’ve done 15 exercises of them online and only got one of them wrong.
“You got an A!” It says with a high-five and a goofy grin. “You annihilated that stuff. You’re awesome at this.”
But then you’re talking to an Italian and you realize that you need to use an indirect object pronoun, except it isn’t coming to you.
Instead of helping you out, your ego points the finger and says with a smirk, “You’re the one who learned it. Why don’t you remember it now? You got an A, remember?”
While it isn’t a constant houseguest for all of us, it does show up for every single one of us at some point in our journey, demanding clean sheets, an omelet and the paper every morning.
The illusion thinks it’s helping you by covering up the confusion you felt reading something or talking to somebody as long as you could eventually grasp most of the meaning or get through most of the conversation.
It tricks you into thinking that minimal commitment + minimal understanding can take you where you want to go.
The entire school system has been personally catering to the fluency illusion.
It gave us all the right tools.
Here are your study guides, here is when your exams are, here is a grade proving that you’ve “learned” what happened in this course.
And we feel accomplished until we’re asked at some cocktail party what this or that fact is about some big war, and we can’t even remember what time period it’s in. The fog lifts. It becomes very clear that we’ve missed out on a lot of information.
Then we feel inadequate, like it’s our fault that we’ve forgotten, that we should’ve paid more attention in school, but the reality is that it was never set up in a way to help us remember.
We moved from subject to subject, gaining more credits on our transcripts, and we trusted the system because we didn’t know a better way.
Our hands reached out for the next report card, the next A, the next level up. The hit of dopamine we received from each milestone was enough to keep us asleep in our illusion.
This is a weird human phenomenon, and sometimes our propensity to forget what we’ve learned is good for us, like the mother who gives birth and forgets the pain when she is overjoyed that she is pregnant once again; how the father forgets the sleepless nights, the imbalanced hormones, and the fights because the joy of bringing another life into the world trumps all.
In this way, forgetting is a gift.
But forgetting when it comes to learning a new skill—now that can be a little more dangerous.
We trick ourselves into believing that we’ve mastered something, that we’ve put a nail in the coffins of history, mathematics, Huckleberry Finn.
And we’ve brought that dangerous mindset into how we learn languages.
Many of us cling to classes, which isn’t bad unless we become dependent and expect them to teach us everything that we need to learn.
Others cling to workbooks, and we feel accomplished when we close the cover of another.
We finish another level in Pimsleur, and we feel relieved because we won’t feel guilty that we didn’t do anything for Italian that day, even if we might forget 80% of what we learned later.
Some of us cling to the small things, like textbooks full of highlighted sentences, notebooks full of words we’ve already forgotten, conversations we’ve had where we were particularly on our game, a show we’ve watched where we only needed to look up 10 words the entire season.
Doing these things isn’t the downfall. In fact, they’re useful.
The downfall is thinking that these things are enough.
Because we can stack up our notebooks, fill in our exercises and listen to all of the Pimsleur lessons twice and show up to a conversation and realize that we’re still grossly unprepared.
But what I think is lovely about this illusion is that once you’ve found it out, you’ve already taken a step to clearing it.
You employ techniques that make you less likely to forget.
You don’t place dependence on a teacher, a program or a website. You know that it’s up to you to take command of your journey, your learning experience.
You have a better idea of where to spend your time.
It becomes less about whipping through lessons at a roller derby breakneck speed and becomes more about making sure what you’ve learned stays with you, sinks into your mind, shows up at the moments you need it.
We’ve been so concerned with proving to ourselves that we’re making progress that we’ve forgotten that our minds are made to forget.
Someone reminds us of a grammar rule after we’ve made a mistake, and we say “oh yes, I remember learning that.”
But it didn’t stick.
We need more ways to make things stick in our memory.
Many of us feel like we have an awful memory because we don’t know how to use it.
Your mind stores TONS of things.
It’s how well your mind retrieves what you’ve taken in that will make the difference.
Choose activities that help you revisit what you’ve learned again and again until it feels like information that you’ve always known.
Lucky for us, there are ways to see through the fog.
3 Ways to See Through the Fluency Illusion
— Instead of reading through your notes to study, write sentences or stories using the words, phrases and grammar rules you’ve learned from class.
This introduces another way for your mind to re-familiarize itself with what you’ve learned. It adds depth to your understanding by working within a context that you’ve created. Take it another step further by posting your sentences or stories where a native speaker can provide feedback, like Italki or Lang-8.
— Take a handful of hours to learn the system of Anki, and start putting new words, phrases and sentences into it.
Anki is based on the fact that you forget, so if you use it regularly, it will make sure that you are gently barraged with the things that you’ve forgotten or are about to forget so when you’re in conversation and it matters whether the words you need to come to you, they will.
Find a study partner from your class who speaks your native language, and take turns explaining what you’ve learned most recently to each other.
A test of understanding something is being able to coherently explain it to someone else because the gaps that you’ll encounter in those conversations will show you what you’ve forgotten.
If you can’t find a study partner right away, start a blog and write articles of your understanding.
Benedict Carey, author of How We Learn, says, “These apparently simple attempts to communicate what you’ve learned, to yourself or others, are not merely a form of self-testing, in the conventional sense, but studying – the high octane kind, 20 to 30 percent more powerful than if you continued sitting on your butt, staring at that outline. Better yet, those exercises will dispel the fluency illusion. They’ll expose what you don’t know, where you’re confused and what you’ve forgotten – and fast.”
Be patient with yourself and the journey you’re on. It’s more important that you dig deeper into what you’re learning now than consider it done and move on.
You must remember, often, that you forget.
See through the illusion, and use methods that help keep the fog away.