From B to C: Part I – How to Become Proficient in Any Language

Fluency.

It’s the biggest buzzword in all of language learning. If you don’t have it, you want it, and if you have it—well, you’ve made it!

For some, this word simply means capability, an ability to listen, speak, read, and/or write in a language without much difficulty.

For others, the word implies mastery, nothing less than complete dominance of the language in nearly every aspect, at a level comparable with any native speaker.

With such a range of possible meanings and implications, it is impossible for us to discuss fluency without first defining our terms.

For the purposes of this article, let’s divide upper-level language skill into two parts: fluency and proficiency.

Fluency is the lower of the two skill levels we will discuss here. If a learner is fluent in his or her target language, then she knows between 5,000 and 10,000 words in that language. We will say that this corresponds roughly to the B2 level on the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).

Proficiency is, for our purposes, the higher of the two skill levels. A proficient learner has near-complete mastery of the language, and can be said to know more than 10,000 words in his or her target language. On the CEFR scale, proficient learners can be considered at the C1 level or beyond.

To explore these terms in more detail, let’s look at them in terms of the four major language skills: Reading, Writing, Listening and Speaking.

Reading

Fluent: A fluent reader will likely understand any basic short text without a lot of specialized vocabulary, but would be lost when attempting to read a book or newspaper, especially ones that discuss a single topic in-depth.

For example, I would myself fluent in Russian, to the level that most people I speak with believe that I have Russian parents, or some other intimate contact with native speakers. Despite this, I still struggle when reading a newspaper or a book.

Proficient: A proficient reader has all the literacy of an educated native speaker. He or she can understand complex texts meant for a general audience—like books and newspapers—but also is capable of digesting specialized texts in a few key areas of interest.

Listening

Fluent: A fluent listener understands most of what he hears, but often has to piece together the meaning of more complex utterances by relying on individual keywords.

Proficient: A proficient listener has a near-automatic understanding of anything he hears. There is no mental backtracking or inference needed to parse difficult utterances. Proficient listeners can understand many of the most difficult media for listening, including music, movies, comedy, and news broadcasts.

Speaking

Fluent: Fluent speakers are able to get their points across with a general smoothness, and can navigate expression of unknown or unfamiliar words or topics through circumlocution.

Proficient: Proficient speakers are able to speak across a variety of registers. In a lower register, the proficient speaker is comfortable using the slang or jargon of the times. In a higher register, the proficient speaker can communicate with an elegance and style typically reserved for well-educated native speakers. Proficient speakers are also able to “play” with meaning, imbuing their speech with tone and intent solely based upon word choice, body language, and intonation.

Writing

Fluent: Fluent writers stick to short, direct sentences and messages. At the fluent level, writing is almost entirely devoid of subtext or overtones—what is written is usually what is meant, and nothing more.

Proficient: Proficient writers are inherently flexible, with many ways of writing the same thing. They can write plain, direct sentences, but they can also infuse a text with hidden meaning, wordplay, innuendo, and humor, among other devices. Like proficient speakers, proficient writers have full control of the various written registers of the language, and can alter a text to suit its intended audience.

 

How to Bridge the Gap from B2 to C1

Of all the learners who start on the path of learning a language, very few reach fluency.

Of all the learners who reach fluency, very few of those people reach proficiency.

You might be wondering: If a learner has been dedicated enough to reach fluency, then why do they have such difficulty reaching proficiency?

The answers are twofold.

Firstly, many who reach the B2 level find that since they can do pretty much anything they need to do in their target language, they don’t need to spend all the time and energy necessary to improve to a near-native level.

Secondly, those to do endeavor to improve past the B2 level encounter one of the most difficult language learning obstacles: the intermediate plateau.

What is the Intermediate Plateau?

The process of language learning can largely be compared to climbing a mountain.

When you begin climbing, you’re starting from zero. Every single thing you’re learning and doing is helping you gain ground up the mountain.

As you climb further towards a B2 level, the percentage of new knowledge that your gaining becomes less and less, as a certain portion of your time and effort comes to reinforcing what you already know. Therefore, progress up the mountain slows.

Just beyond the B2 level, upward progress slows to a virtual crawl. This is what is known as the intermediate plateau.

At this point, you may spend hours and hours diligently learning, but you won’t feel like you’re making much progress. Though you’re putting the time in, you may feel stuck, and see much less return on your learning investment than you did when you started.

Learners who have reached the intermediate plateau are certainly capable of performing any of the four skills reasonably well. The problem is, however, that using the language has not yet become automatic. A not insignificant amount of mental effort is still require to use the language effectively—and for a frustrated learner, this can often take its toll.

Lacking the skills and techniques required to overcome the intermediate plateau, most learners give up at this stage, and their language skills stagnate, never reaching a truly proficient level.

Back to our mountain climbing metaphor, the above situation is analogous to arriving halfway up the mountain, taking a look at the peak in the distance, and deciding to stay put, telling yourself that the peak, quite simply, is just too far away.

You’ve still got lots of mountain to climb, this is true. But this does not mean that the summit is not worth reaching.

If you’ve arrived at the plateau, you can certainly overcome it. And if you can overcome the plateau, then you have what it takes to reach the peak of language learning success.

I know this because I’ve done it. Not once, but many times, across a dozen languages.

To reach C1 from B2, to cross the so-called intermediate plateau, you don’t need to stop climbing—you just need to change how you climb.

In the next article, I will share with you my five crucial strategies for overcoming the intermediate plateau and finally becoming proficient in your target language.

Written by Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse

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  • Romy says:

    Hi luca ^_^

    Thank you for writing such a great article, I think it really makes clear the process of learning a language, and the long-term nature of the journey :). It is really motivating to read!

    I have a random question about your journey with Russian. So you have been learning for somewhat 12 years, and you mentioned before that the first decade was mostly input, and then you mentioned the last 2/3 years has been an increase in speaking (due to living with someone Russian-speaking).

    Obviously its situation-dependent lol, but I was curious whether you feel you would be at the same level if you had had maybe 3 years input, 3 years speaking intensively, then 6 years input again?

    (I understand its not a science, but I was curious when the best time to move to a country is to maximise your language level)

    • Luca Lampariello says:

      Hi Romy,

      thanks for swinging by and for the lovely words!

      In answer to your question, it is really difficult to give a through answer, especially one’s language level fluctuates all the time.

      What I can tell you is that what generally counts the most in increasing your language skills steadily and progressively is a mix of the following:

      1) A good balance between input and output

      2) Getting good, daily habits through which you engage with the language

      3) Build a micro-environment where you engage with the language (be it listen to the radio, read regularly on and off the internet, or speak with your flatmate)

      4) Build a macro-environment where you use the language (go out with natives, enroll at some course where the language is somehow envolved etc)

      This is what helps you integrate that language into your life and you don’t even have to count the minutes, hours or months learning it

      Hope this helps! =)

      Luca

      • Romy says:

        Thanks for the response Luca ^_^
        I completely agree. One of my biggest realisations for language learning is that with enjoyment and habit combined, it really is an amazing journey :).

        I was more worried about going abroad at too early a stage, and not getting the benefits of an immersive environment that maybe would come with waiting? (more for speaking, since I focus heavily on input here in the UK for my German learning).

        Hope Hungarian is treating you well! 😉

  • Sean says:

    Fantastic article, I’m at this point now with my Spanish. I’m living in Japan now so I am making lots of progress there but I’d love to overcome my plateau in Spanish and reach what you defined as proficiency. Great work and I can’t wait for the next article.

    • Philippe says:

      Hi, Sean.
      What is your native language? And which are your Japanese and Spanish levels?

      • Sean says:

        Philippe,
        My native language is English and I haven’t taken an exam or anything in Spanish but my italki tutor is sure I can pass the B2 level exam. So let’s call it B2 reaching for C1. Or maybe B2 and climbing. I’ve just started learning Japanese so I’m getting through the basics but that’s it. I’m finding all of the videos and stories about living in a country not being the magic pill for language learning to be spot on. I think I’d get far more by living in a Spanish country because of my current level than I’m getting out of Japan because I don’t know anything.

        • Philippe says:

          I’m studying those same languages, but I’m a Portuguese native speaker (which helps me a lot with Spanish). I agree with you, Japan[ese] is almost a complete new world for westerns, the only magic pill in language language is proximity/similarity besides lots of immersion and practice.

  • Michael says:

    I completely agree with the intermediate plateau. I just realized I wasn’t progressing as before and I have been in the plateau long enough to effect my memorizing what I’ve learned. It’s becoming harder to recall when speaking and it’s making me frustrated.

  • Tarantababu says:

    Hello Luca,

    You’re aspiring when it comes to language learning. I’ve just wanted to learn, Have you ever tried to user Glossika Method to get Fluency level in your target language ?

  • Mohamed Baladeena says:

    Great post as always
    Thanks a lot for the useful stuff in here .

  • Misti says:

    Just found your blog. I like your approach and explanations. 🙂

    I’m coming back to studying languages after not doing so for several years. Summer of 2017, I started a personal challenge to get through introductory courses for 10–15 languages by 2020. (My real goal is at least 12, but I’m the type that does best when my goals have an easy-to-hit floor.)

    I have multiple reasons for this, but a side challenge is to get my Spanish (my strongest L2) back to B2 or possibly up to C1—partially just to have it comfortable, and partially as a testing ground for figuring out how I learn. (As a side benefit, that would let me stack; I’m already studying Spanish -> Greek some. There are some grammar things that are closer between the two, and it’s easier to think of it in terms of Spanish, where I’m comfortable with it, than to remap it all to English.)

    Your descriptions of the difference between what you term “fluent” vs. “proficient” are quite helpful, as is your description of B2 vs. C1. It rather succinctly describes what I experienced when my Spanish was strongest. Due to the dependence on general conversation and limitations in topic, I personally term that “functional” or “semifluent”—but I’m also one of those people who casually drops words like “exacerbated” and “telomerase” in conversation. >_> That doubtless affects my comprehension and definition of “basic fluency”.

    Thank you. 🙂

  • Vikash Gupta says:

    One thing most of us fail to comprehend is that learning a whole new language is never going to be like a walk in the park. Higher proficiency in any language takes time, and enough of it must be dedicated to it. I feel passion and interest matters more. The interest is an essential ingredient which can motivate you and help you scale through whatever hurdles it contains specially at upper intermediate level or Lower Advanced level like B2.

  • Artiom says:

    Hi Luka! Privet from Russia! Could you explain please, for which level are your articles and videos? I have been studying English for almost 9 months, I do it by myself, that’s the reason why I am not sure about the level I have. I normally use the space repetition method and shadowing. Now I capable to understand all the stuff you do (both articles and videos), so I am happy about it(except some words). Since that, can I regard my skill as an intermediate level? Best regards, thank you very much!

    • Hi Artiom! I think that if you have at least an upper-intermediate level in English, you should be able to understand and enjoy the content of my articles (both script and audio).

      One thing to keep in mind: remember to focus on the PROCESS more than the result because language learning is a long journey.

      Congratulations on your English and as they say in your own native tongue, продолжай в том же духе =)

      Luca

  • Sonali says:

    Proficiency comes with practice. If you keep practicing a language on daily basis, you have chances that you will keep up with the language. Also I highly recommend to keep you basic clear and if possible try and have conversation in your foreign language with anyone with same language. This really helps.

  • Prerna Mehta says:

    Thanks Luca Lampariello and Kevin Morehouse.
    I found this article is very helpful. I like your approach and explanations .These days, more and more people are looking for Foreign language course for beginners in this highly competitive world. In this era of globalisation,

    and yes you explain very well. I also learned Spanish form the institute. it was good experience with them.

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