Let us suppose that our reason and objective for studying a foreign language is to learn to speak. Since learning to speak is a complex skill, we should set step by step objectives. These objectives should be reasonable for the chosen foreign language, and for the amount of time being available to the learning process. In order to think of speaking ability in terms of stages, it may be useful to adopt the system and criteria used by the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) or to adopt the system developed for all US government agencies which is used at the Defense Language Institute (DLI). Each system is designed to evaluate foreign language learners speaking ability regardless of how, where, or for how long, they have studied a foreign language. The definition of proficiency level is applicable to any foreign language, although the amount of time to reach a given level varies widely from one foreign language to another one. These ratings are called stands for Speaking. They range in ACTFL from Novice to Educated Native Speaker, and at the Defense Language Institute ILR scale for Speaking from functional speaking ability at level 0+, to Educated Native Speaker at levels 4, 4+, and 5. Experience shows that it takes more time and effort to move from one level to the next level. The hierarchy of levels from level 0+ to level 5 can be found in an inverted pyramid. Trained in evaluating the level of Speaking language experts often compare levels of foreign language proficiency to that inverted pyramid. When we look at the image of this inverted pyramid, we can see that based on the ACTFL proficiency scale it illustrates, at the beginning level (“Novice” in ACTFL terms) there is relatively little space. It doesn’t take much effort to go from level Zero to level Novice. A speaker at an elementary level needs to know significantly more than the beginner. As learners get into Advanced and Superior levels of language proficiency, each new level represents a significant jump in the number of things that a speaker must be able to do. Progress from Advanced to a Superior level takes a lot more work than progress from a Novice to Intermediate. I mention all of this because I find myself confronting this reality. As I continue to review and practice new to me foreign languages I learn new forms, my vocabulary is growing, and my ability to comprehend listening improves. However, despite the fact that deep down things are progressing, a good part of me feels stuck in progress, and some days it feels discouraging.
So, I want to remind myself:
1. Relax! Paragraph-level tasks really are more difficult that sentence-level tasks.
2. Relax! It really does take time to build more vocabulary, especially in these languages that don’t have cognate forms.
3. Relax! Grammatical nuances take time to appreciate.
All of this reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon that I saw some 25 years ago. Linus said something like, “We have not been able to answer all of your questions. Indeed, we have not been able to answer any of them completely. In some ways we are just as confused as before. However, we believe to be confused about things at a much higher level and about things that are much more important.”