Why is this interesting? - The Language Learning Edition

On language, learning, and what it means to be fluent

Colin here. I’ve generally been a so-so student when it comes to languages. Thanks to my tendency to hop around from German to Czech (hard!) to French to Spanish, I’m left with only one in a passable state (Spanish). In an attempt to rectify that, I’ve been learning to speak and read Arabic for the past year-and-a-half. Part of the appeal is that it’s widely spoken globally and another part is, well, that it’s really difficult. Aside from the range of dialects, the completely different alphabet leaves me without the regular crutches of Romance languages. While the experience has come with heavy doses of humility, some progress has been made, and I can chat some pleasantries with an Omani cab driver or a Lebanese expat in New York. 

Given my personal struggle to get to a basic level of speaking and comprehension, I was intrigued to read a detailed piece from the BBC about how language fluency is assessed. My self-definition was always you’re fluent if you can have a philosophical conversation in a nightclub (trust me, it happens), but, not surprisingly, there’s a much more detailed framework. The Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of References (CEFR) for Languages groups language learners into concrete proficiency levels:

A1: Capabilities range include basic introductions and answering questions about personal details provided the listener speaks slowly and is willing to cooperate.

A2: Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her past, environment and matters related to his/her immediate needs and perform routine tasks requiring basic exchanges of information.

B1: Can deal with most daily life situations in the country where the language is spoken. Can describe experiences, dreams and ambitions and give brief reasons for opinions and goals.

B2: Can understand the themes of complex texts on both concrete and abstract topics and will have achieved a degree of fluency and spontaneity, which makes interaction with native speakers possible without significant strain for either party.

C1: Can understand a wide range of longer texts and recognise subtleties and implicit meaning; producing clear, well-structured and detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2: Can understand virtually everything heard or read, expressing themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, while differentiating finer shades of meaning even in highly complex situations.

Why is this interesting? 

We all know there’s a distance between making yourself understood in a language that you’ve spoken for a long time and actually being native-level fluent. The author of the piece, having lived in Italy and spoken the language for a long time, overheard a receptionist call her “that foreigner who doesn’t speak Italian,” causing ire. But these stated levels offer a clue and some building blocks that were previously just subjective (at least to me). 

Part of the problem is how we were taught. We’ve all sat through that middle school language class where, before being given any tangible delight in speaking, we were bombarded with papers bleeding with red ink from correction marks and complicated conjugations of advanced verb formats we weren’t going to use anytime soon. It was a good way to take the joy out of learning. But, just as when I say a short phrase to a cab driver in Arabic, when you give a student that small spark that reveals the magic of speaking another language, the game is changed. 

The good news is some classes and methods of instruction have become less draconian. Duolingo, the free learning app is using a software approach to teaching people language and has strategies to specifically counteract when where students often fall short. The app has been built based on cognitive science and psychology research. Everything from A/B testing, to smartly “scheduling practice for words and concepts right when you are on the verge of forgetting them,” based on the idea of the decay rate of memory. It is a constantly adaptive, fluid methodology, personalized to the individual. A far cry from your textbook approach of old. 

They also released a series of very solid podcasts, which basically recite really interesting stories and narratives in intermediate-level language, spoken at a reasonable pace. You feel like you’re learning something of interest, but in another language. There is both that magic spark and a practicality that is meaningful. 

Learning a new language is unique. It’s not rote memorization, it’s actually melding together nuance, cultural implications, and tone while trying to get to what the author describes as “flawless, native-like accuracy and syntax.” It is often an impossibly long path, but as with many things, the process (and pain) of doing it often opens other doors and can be a growth mechanism in itself. And the more we learn about the path to fluency and its component parts, with systems and processes redesigned for pleasure and emotional wins, and less about penalties, the easier it will be. (CJN

Cartoon of the Day:

From this week’s New Yorker. If you live in any major American city you should be able to appreciate this one. (NRB)

Quick links:

Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)