WHAT DOES IT MEAN TO "LEARN" A LANGUAGE?

Photo by Kaplan International Colleges
Photo by Kaplan International Colleges

We ended the last issue by saying that learning another language meant learning the dictionary, the grammar, and the sound system of the language in order to be able to properly encode and decode messages.

Let's develop this idea further. Let's say that you speak English and want to learn Chinese. (Linguists would say that your L1 is English and your L2 is Chinese.) If you are a beginner, then you can easily put your thoughts into English and you can also understand things said to you in English, but you can't put your thoughts into Chinese or understand anything said to you in it either.

As you study and learn Chinese--and this newsletter will provide you with many ideas and tips for doing this effectively--over time your ability to put your thoughts into Chinese and to understand things said to you in Chinese will improve. This will happen because you will have a better grasp of the Chinese dictionary, grammar, and sound system. You won't always produce «perfect» Chinese, but if a Chinese speaker can come even close to figuring out your message, you've communicated in Chinese--be happy. And of course you won't always completely understand the idea the Chinese speaker is trying to convey, either. However, as your ability to use and understand Chinese grows (linguists call this «communicative competence»), so will your «knowledge» of Chinese. But at what point can you say that you «speak» Chinese?

Saying «I speak English» or «I know Chinese» means different things to different people depending upon their cultural background and personality. Because of this, several systems of language ability measurement have been made, such as International Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, formerly but still popularly known as the Foreign Institute Service (FSI) scale.
The FSI scale contains six levels of language learning proficiency. Which level are you at in the language(s) you are studying?

Level 0 — NO PROFICIENCY IN THE LANGUAGE
You're starting from scratch…

Level 1 — ELEMENTARY PROFICIENCY
You can order meals, be polite, ask and answer very simple questions about very familiar topics, tell time, and other simple tasks. You have many errors in pronunciation.

Level 2 — LIMITED WORKING PROFICIENCY
You can use the language in most basic social situations and can handle basic work requirements. You can talk about current events, yourself, and your family. You have a definite foreign accent.

Level 3 — PROFESSIONAL WORKING PROFICIENCY
You can use the language in most social and work situations, both formal or informal. You can understand most speech at normal rate and have a large vocabulary to draw from. You still have an accent but it's not a distraction to your listener.

Level 4 — FULL PROFESSIONAL PROFICIENCY
You can use the language accurately and precisely in almost all language environments. You can informally interpret to and from the language. You rarely make pronunciation or grammar mistakes.

Level 5 — NATIVE OR BILINGUAL PROFICIENCY
You speak like an educated native speaker, including using relevant cultural references and idioms. (This level is usually obtained only by children.)

It's also possible to be a 3+, a 2-, etc. Note that it takes much longer to advance from level to level as you progress. You may get from level 0 to level 1 in twelve weeks but take four years to get from level 3 to level 4. In addition, the relative difference between your L1 and your L2 and also your language learning environment will also affect the amount of time it takes to progress. Also note that these definitions need to be modified if you are studying a «dead» language such as Latin, ancient Greek, or Sanscrit.

So what does it mean to say you «speak» a language? Personally I would say I speak a language if I am at FSI level 3 in that language--anything lower and I would just say that I am learning it. What's more important is to regularly assess your progress, keep doing what works, modify what doesn't, and never give up.

In issue #1 we discussed needs and desires. In issue #2 we discussed ultimate responsibility. In issue #3 we gave a basic overview of language, and then in this issue we added to that by describing the process of language learning and ways to measure progress over time.

Enough foundation! Next time we'll have a practicality kick-off and list the ten most important things you need to be doing to get from where you are now to where you want to go in your language learning.

by Reid Wilson

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