How Your Comfort Zone is Limiting Your Language Development

Posted on February 25, 2015


By Emily Stallard, Owner at Orchid English


Recently I was speaking with a business contact and friend who is Japanese and who speaks excellent, see-if-you-can-spot-he’s-not-a-native-speaker English. What, in his opinion, did very high level non-native English speakers have in common?  His advice: you need theory and also, crucially, practice. The practice part is where we need to leave our language comfort zone.


Language Comfort Zone 1: Books and silent self-study

This is my experience learning Japanese and I’m sharing it so that you don’t copy it! When I lived in Japan I used to study Japanese a lot. My teacher gave me homework and I would spend a long time studying; during my commute, at lunch and at weekends. Disappointed at how long it was taking me to be able to have a conversation, I would easily forget vocabulary and kanji that I had learned a few months before. It would take me a while to access the words I wanted too.

My Japanese friends spoke with me in Japanese at the weekends and I spoke to my colleagues in Japanese between classes. However, as a result of teaching English all day,  I didn’t spend a large proportion of my time speaking Japanese. I didn’t put myself in a Japanese immersion environment where I had to communicate in new and challenging ways. I was in my language comfort zone most of the time; speaking English, or Japanese with people who I knew for short periods.


Language Comfort Zone 2: Listen and Repeat

Students who use a listen and repeat method to study slow their learning in a similar way. Listen and repeat is stress-free because you won’t be caught out by a question you don’t know the answer to. To progress, we need to produce sentences of our own spontaneously, when someone else is partly in control of the conversation. Listen and repeat often only familiarises students with one accent of English, and this is a nice clear accent done for the recording.


Advice on Leaving Your Language Comfort Zone

If you can speak to people and feel the stress of not knowing words, guessing and not knowing what’s coming next in the conversation, this is really the high-progress zone. Living in Japan, it was stressful to be in situations where I didn’t understand what was being said to me in Japanese, or I couldn’t express myself. But looking back, I wish I had had put myself in more situations like that. At parties and other social events where the conversations were in Japanese or French I remember feeling awkward. But actually it was good practice and people were almost always nice about my linguistic efforts. The parties were still fun!

So for real progression you must leave your language comfort zone and get stuck in. Lots of students do not take opportunities to practise outside of the classroom. They speak their own language with their friends and colleagues so the new words and structures they have learned in English are soon are forgotten. Knowing enough English to go to shops in London is quite easy to achieve and this becomes their new language comfort zone.

If you are worried about making mistakes ask yourself this: when non-native speakers of your own language speak to you and make mistakes, do you think they are stupid? Of course not; you know your language is complex and hard for people to master perfectly.


Read about why you should never say “I don’t speak English” here.


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