Are You Making Progress?
How do you know you are making progress when you are learning a language?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
- 1Real world task: I can order train tickets, but don’t know how to change the travel time on an existing ticket
- 2Gaps: 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?”)
- 3Practice 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.
- 4Practice 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.
- 5Record 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.
- 6Do 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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!