When I first moved to China, I thought my Mandarin was pretty good. I was top of my Chinese language class in Los Angeles, I worked hard, and I could converse fairly well. But I had no reference point of what the Chinese language was like in real life in the mainland. When I arrived in the town of Quanzhou in Fujian province, I was in for a shock. I would try to talk to locals and they had little understanding of what I was saying. I was met most of the time with blank stares or curious grins wondering what this stranger from abroad was trying to communicate. Much of the time, I had no idea what they were saying to me either. This caused discouragement and frustration. I realized that I would have to acquire better language skills.
So I slowly began the process of learning the language and engaging in the culture with the locals to the best of my abilities. Over time, I found something that has given me more and more success with learning languages. Each day, I would ride a taxi cab into the town to visit a friend, get a bit to eat, go shopping, head to a park, or go to the gym. I would strike up a conversation with the driver. Each time that I would get into a cab, I noticed that the drivers would often ask the same set of questions. So as timed passed, I learned automatic responses to each of the questions. Which country do you come from? Are you married? How long have you studied Chinese? Are you accustomed to eating the food? For each question, I learned a phrase or two or three that would work for that specific situation.
As my time spent in China increased, so did my recognition of more and more Chinese language patterns. I learned automatic responses for shopping for groceries, ordering food at a restaurant, depositing money at the bank, and many other situations. The more language patterns that I knew, the better I could listen and speak in my target language.
One very important key to learning any language is getting familiar with language patterns and developing automatic responses that can be pulled from memory at the right moment for the right situation. It is actually a very natural process, something that we do without thinking in our native tongue. But when you actively work with language patterns, it will make your language acquisition much more effective.