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.

3 replies on “Getting past the expat plateau: a personal story”

Well waddya know – nice to see you resurface my dear. And what luck, a site to learn this &%@#! language – just what I need!

Like you, I’m “stuck”. Stuck, and ashamed that after more than a year and a half here, I can speak/understand such a paltry few words of Vietnamese. And I too, have been thinking that what I need is a STRUCTURED tutor relationship – one that I PAY for with regular sessions.

Plenty of stray locals around that would be happy to do that – in exchange for learning English, but… That’s not what I’m looking for. I want someone that’s professional, that knows how to structure a class and can guide me along from beginner to elementary, etc.

Kinda like the difference between those many backpackers that come over here and purport to “teach” English, just because they happen to SPEAK English. Just ‘cuz you can speak it, doesn’t mean you know how to TEACH it, am I right?

So that’s what I want – a pro teach that’s gonna keep me on my toes. Only question is…

Not sure if it’s best for me to get a private tutor, or I join a class with other students.

Come to think of it, the latter probably isn’t even offered here in Dalat as there are so few foreigners here. So I guess a pro private tutor it is.

In any case, truly glad to see you resurface and start this new site. I’ve already dropped you into my RSS stream, and will check out all your many resources.

It’s ok to get stuck. I think it’s a natural part of the process. It then takes effort to get unstuck, but it is worth it. The classes I’ve taken for 4 months have paid dividends. There’s nothing quite like a teacher to guide you through a structured course and be there to ask questions of. And because you’ve paid for it already you’ll follow through instead of putting it off!

At least with a private class it can be moulded to suit you and you’ll get better pronunciation practice. A friend of mine liked having a private tutor here in Saigon. Go for it!

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