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Getting past the expat plateau: a personal story

I was stuck.

I was comfortable ordering food and giving directions to taxi drivers. I could manage my day to day interactions and for any bigger issues (like househunting) I had English-speaking Vietnamese friends.

For months I was content. I did a little happy dance when I could understand something small here or there. I liked being the ‘expert’ among my non-Vietnamese speaking Western friends. I thought I knew quite a lot.

But I started to feel malcontent. If I met someone once I’d be able to make small talk for a short time but if I met them again…I had nothing else to say.

I had ideas to improve my conversation skills. ‘I’ll learn a question a day.’ ‘I’ll start using one of those elementary books my friend gave me when she left.’ ‘I’ll go to the park to practice with the students there.’ But I didn’t.

I was stuck and I was scared. Scared of taking a written placement test for a language school (‘but I can’t remember the tones’, I wailed). Scared of being placed in a class that was too easy or too hard. Scared of the hard work and time it takes to learn. Scared of trying but failing to reach a good level.

Much as I wish it was a better reason, what finally pushed me out of the hole I’d dug myself was the chance to prove someone wrong.

The next step wasn’t revolutionary. It was simply signing up for classes. Paying someone money to make me sit down and learn. No more excuses of ‘tomorrow’. A teacher to ask questions of, a book with exercises, classmates from around the world to practice with and a slot in my day that actually makes me do it.

The icing on the cake came when, after three months of classes, one of my Vietnamese friends said something to someone else in Vietnamese…and I replied. The look of shock on her face was worth all that time studying!

In three months I’d gone from being able to order food to participating in a short but normal speed conversation with native speakers on familiar topics (daily routine, holiday plans). I’ve still got a long way to go but I’m determined not to get stuck again.

Game on!

Over to you: Have you been stuck before? How did you get out of it? Are you stuck now? If so, what are you going to do about it? Tell us in the comments.