Improving your foreign language skills : some tips on how to get from B1 to C1

There’s only so much that a book or a class will teach you. Fluency comes from understanding and using the language you are learning in all kinds of settings, from talking to your doctor to chatting other participants at a meet-up.

First of all, you need to identify which is your preferred way of learning. Personally, I feel more at ease with the written word (learning Norwegian intuitively, in immersion, proved to be a challenge).

Can you learn vocabulary lists by heart and remember them? Or do you need context to fix new words or phrases in your memory? Are you more of a conversationalist who can strike up a chat with the cashier or the bartender, two weeks into learning the language? Do you remember dialogues or could recite back the news report you have just heard?

Most people show a combinaison of these characteristics, but knowing how you function will help you narrow down your options and even learn unconsciously, simply by doing your favourite activity.

Nevertheless, I believe climbing up that extra notch from B1 to nearly fluent proficiency requires an active method:

Read smartly

  • Browse online articles on a theme (let’s say, fjord pollution in Norway) and write down all new words and phrases you meet. Sort them out by category as well: nouns, verbs, adjectives. Do it everyday and after a week, you’ll realise you have assimilated the vocabulary.

  • Read YA literature in your second language. It helps with slang and common vocabulary. I learned a lot about life under Thatcherian rule as well as teenage lingo by reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole!

  • Subscribe to or borrow scientific publications like History magazine or Science Digest. Their articles are well-written in the form of small essays and contain logical operators and stock-phrases as well as technical vocabulary.

Netflix time

Try to log on to an online TV channel (most of them have programmes accessible from abroad) and find something you want to commit to watching every week.

I personally turn subtitles on directly in the foreign language to double the exposure. Although there are slight differences in the transcription, hearing the words while seeing them unconsciously fixes them in your mind.


Find a news podcast and listen to it daily to build up on your reading efforts. Some of them are accompanied by a detailed article using a lot of the specific vocabulary in use in the report. I use Politisk Kvarter, a 15 min programme showcasing three politicians who are invited to debate a hot topic. I often jot down ideas or phrases that I find interesting.

Get active and produce

This is my weaker point, as I often get stuck for words before I have “gathered” a database of words and phrases that I deem large enough to communicate. But immersion, as well as daily conversation on a broad range of topics, will prove beneficial. Think about getting a tutor who is a native speaker. They are likely to reformulate the same sentences several times and mimicking them will help you get confident.

You could also write small presentations or record yourself telling a story. Create one every second day and you will quickly notice an improvement.
For example, write a small presentation of your favourite TV-show. Challenge yourself, so you will have to search for words you don’t know. Twin Peaks relies on the uncanny, House of Cards, Mad Men or New York: SVU deal with the judicial system and office politics, … Think; would you be able to say: “Mulder and Scully are two special agents who investigate unexplained cases. The show hinges on the dynamics between Scully’s scepticism and Mulder’s need to believe.”


For a bit of fun, I love doing crosswords in English (especially skeleton). Doing them in Norwegian, even if I “cheat” and use a special dictionary, helps me learn synonyms, and this has already improved my linguistic abilities.

Think about playing games with native speakers: Trivial Pursuit, Pictionary. My first Chrismas in Norway, we played Kokkelimonke (you have to describe an object). I certainly learned a lot that night!

Categories: Language skills


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