Proficiency: how to measure language learning progress – Fluent with what you have – Part 1/2 – Anthony Lauder

Are You Making Progress?

How do you know you are making progress when you are learning a language?

Counting Words

In the olden days of language teaching, students would study textbooks, memorising lists of words and grammar rules, and take tests that counted how many words they knew, and how many grammar mistakes they made.

Tests based on counting have the great advantage that they are really easy to administer for teachers. Unfortunately, the counts they produced proved over time to be a very poor indicator of language ability.

It was (and unfortunately still remains) common to hear lots of students complain that they have studied a language for years, and even achieved high scores in counting-based tests, yet still can’t say anything.

Online Counting
Given that simplistic counting-based measures are pretty ineffective, it is surprising that several online language-learning tools still show your progress in terms of how many words you “know”, how many grammar rules you have studied, or how many points you have earned due to “stages completed”. As with old-style classroom teaching, these counts give a false measure of your ability with the language.

If you want to see the impact of counting-based measures on language ability, just do a YouTube search. You will find videos of people who have studied languages for years using prominent online tools, with tens of thousands of words they “know”, yet when they try to talk they find it very difficult: stuttering, mumbling, and with awkward pauses.


Language Proficiency

Since counting has proven to be such a poor indicator of language ability, several alternatives have emerged. The most prominent of these is the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) which has switched the focus away from counting how many facts you know about the language to evaluating what you can actually do with the language. That is, your language proficiency.

CEFR has had a major impact on language teaching, with a widespread shift away from students studying a language as a list of countable facts, to them learning to actually use the language in real life situations to improve their proficiency. 

Teaching Yourself

If you are not in a proficiency-driven classroom, and you are teaching yourself a language, it is easy to slip back into measuring your progress by counting (“how many words have I learned?”, “how many verb conjugations have I memorised?”, “what page am I on in the textbook?”, etc.).

Instead of measuring progress by counting, we can follow the CEFR example and focus on developing proficiency through progressively more challenging can-do goals.

For example, instead of aiming to spend today learning 20 new words, you can make much better progress in proficiency by learning to “buy a stamp and send a postcard at the post office”.

Can-do goals, based on realistic real-world scenarios, are important because they keep you focused on learning what is relevant to your actual needs. Without can-do goals, you can find yourself memorising lists of plant names or studying conjugations of rare verbs, yet still be unable to order a cup of coffee or ask for a train ticket. 

Increasing Proficiency

When planning your next language learning session, then, instead of thinking “I will read the next five pages in the grammar book” (the counting based approach), switch to a proficiency-based approach. The important point is to remain focused on increasing what you can do with the language a bit at a time.

Structure a learning session like this:

  • Think of a real life task that is a bit harder than something you currently can do.
  • Work out where the gaps are in your knowledge, such as some missing vocabulary, or idioms, or relevant bits of grammar.
  • Practice the scenario many times on your own, filling the gaps in your knowledge with the identified vocabulary, idioms, and grammar.
  • Vary the scenario to simulate varying real-life outcomes.
  • Record the scenarios on audio or video to simulate some real world stress, and to enable you to review them later.
  • Where possible, carry out the scenarios with a native speaker, either face to face or over Skype. Of course, best of all is if you can use them in real life situations, but if not tutors or friends are a good substitute.

For example:

  • 1
    Real world task: I can order train tickets, but don’t know how to change the travel time on an existing ticket
  • 2
    Gaps: Not sure how to talk about the past (“I bought these yesterday”) nor the vocabulary and idioms relating to changing things (“Is it possible to change these?”, “Is there a fee for that?”)
  • 3
    Practice the scenario: Playing both roles, simulate asking to change the travel time on your ticket, and being given a new ticket with the time changed as requested.
  • 4
    Practice variations: Simulate the scenario being done: in person; over the phone; with a fee involved; with the time change being refused; and so on. This will reveal extra knowledge gaps, leading to several iterations of the scenarios.
  • 5
    Record a video: Having practised the various scenarios several times until you are quite comfortable with them, practice them again on video. You don’t need to share the video with anybody (although you can if you wish). The purpose is to create a little bit of healthy stress that will prepare you for real world encounters. One valuable tip here is to look yourself in the eye on the video, as you are recording, just as you would look people in the eye in real life. If you wish, you can review the video later on, to provide immediate feedback on how you did, and help you uncover areas you need to improve on.
  • 6
    Do it for real: Try to find a friendly native speaker, and carry out as many of the ticket change scenarios as possible. This will do three things: it will highlight new and real gaps (for later practice); it will give you experience speaking to an actual person; it will help activate passive vocabulary.

Active and Passive Vocabulary

Above, we saw that one important advantage of focusing on progressively increasing proficiency is that it helps activate passive vocabulary. When you are learning a foreign language, there are words you can use (active vocabulary) and words that you recognise (passive vocabulary). Reading, listening, and studying word lists will help increase your passive vocabulary, so you will recognise those words when you read them or hear them again. However, it won’t do much to increase your active vocabulary. That’s fine for people whose only goal is to be able to read a language, but most of us also want to be able to speak the language we are learning.

The harsh reality is that it doesn’t matter how many words you know passively if you keep stuttering and fumbling for words when you speak. This makes the conversation unpleasant for you and for the person you are speaking with, and both will be keen to end the conversation as soon as possible. As a result, many language learners avoid speaking, due to fear of making mistakes and looking foolish. They fall back into a cycle of forever building their passive vocabulary, without ever being able to actually say anything.


Understanding the Other Person

One common worry about speaking early on in language learning is that we won’t be able to understand what is being said back to us. It is a great point, but in practice it is only a minor concern, for three reasons:

  1. People will adapt their speech to match the level of proficiency that they can tell you are ready for. When a friendly native speaker realises you are still learning their language, they will use simpler words and phrases, tone down complicated cultural references, and so on, to help the conversation be successful for both of you. As your proficiency increases, you will notice that native speakers will themselves start using a more advanced level of language to match your own.
  2. Most conversations aren’t about sophisticated topics, but about everyday things. Although we may eventually want to be proficient enough to talk about advanced intellectual topics, there is no reason we can’t have lots of practical conversations along the way. Buying things in shops, talking to strangers about the weather, asking about people’s family, and so on, are all “can do” abilities you can develop early on, and both you and the other person will be using simple and manageable vocabulary during such conversations. Once you have experience with everyday conversations, your confidence will get a boost, your general conversational ability will have developed, and you will be better prepared for more advanced conversations than if you had remained silent the whole time.
  3. You can always stop the other person and say, “I am sorry, but I didn’t quite understand what you said, could you rephrase it please?” Our ego can make it hard to say this at first, because we all want to impress other people, but being humble and honest when learning a foreign language is a great way to get started with speaking. Hopefully, you aren’t only out to impress the native speaker with your language brilliance, nor to fool people into mistaking your for a native speaker. If those goals are important to you then they may indeed come in time as your proficiency increases. For the most part, though, a successful conversation isn’t about impressing the other person, but about communicating your message and building rapport.

Written by Anthony Lauder

Anthony Lauder is a brit currently living in Prague and a friend of mine. I started watching his videos about language learning a few years ago and what has always struck me about Anthony is his intelligence, kindness, humour and knowledge. I stayed at his place when I was in Prague in April 2016 and we had a fantastic time together. Check his YouTube Channel, it is a real treasure trove for language learners! This is the first part of a two part guest post written by Anthony about fluency and how to achieve it. It is a great article, I truly hope you enjoy it!

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  • Anthony Lauder is such a nice man and so intelligent!. The article is superb, thank you for sharing your wisdom with us.

    Looking forward to the second part.

  • Great advice, exactly what I was looking for. Would it be possible to share a list of scenarios which turned out to be particularly useful? Maybe something following a progressive order from beginner to advanced?

  • Thanks for your advices. They are great 🙂
    I especially like the part about increasing proficiency. It will help me a lot in future learning.

  • It’s a very interesting article to talk about. Thank you for every single word. I have to say that this way is killing me because I don’t like learning grammar rules, logically you will not think about every sigle word before talking so it’s not an efficient way to teach english or evn any other language.
    This is what i have for this article. And thank you one more time

  • No one who knows me will be surprised that I disagree with most of this. Following the order in which the argument is presented here;

    1) Traditional language instruction didn’t focus on counting words, but on teaching grammar and correct production of the language, based on the grammar principles that were taught. This was frustrating to many learners.
    2) Unlike the classroom environment, the online environment makes it possible to count how many words the learner knows, at least passively. LingQ does this for example. The writer suggests that people who know tens of thousands of words passively still speak with pauses and difficulty. Of course they do, if they haven’t spoken a lot. In order to speak well, we need to speak a lot. However, the person who focuses on speaking without building up a large vocabulary will have a very limited range, both in terms of comprehension and what they are able to say. The person with a large passive vocabulary will quickly catch up in their speaking ability once they focus more on speaking.
    3) CEFR measures all four skills and it is obvious that the higher levels, B2 and above require a substantial passive vocabulary.
    4) Scenarios like mailing a letter etc. are often unnatural and might well be irrelevant or of no interest to the learner. Usually the canned scenario bears little resemblance to what happens in real life. In any case, if a learner has a wide vocabulary and has read widely and listened a lot, the special words need at the post office are easily learned.
    5) A focus on words does not mean “reading the next 5 pages of a grammar book” but engaging with interesting (to the learner) content.
    6) A large passive vocabulary doesn’t ensure that you can use these words, but without them you won’t understand much. Whenever you start to speak you will struggle, and so what? The greater your vocabulary the less you will struggle and the more confident you will be.
    7) Native speakers may adapt their speech to accommodate a less than fluent speaker, and we can always ask the native speaker to stop and repeat, but is that a meaningful goal? Of course it all depends on our situation. If we live where the language is spoken we are out there using it from day one. If we study elsewhere, it may well be more practical and more meaningful to engage with things of interest to us, reading listening, watching movies etc, building up our potential in the language so that when he have more opportunity to use the language, we can activate our knowledge and achieve a genuine level of fluency.

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