Measuring Language Ability in Levels is Flawed


tape-403591_1280Beginner. Intermediate. Advanced. Three of the most common words used in language assessment and three of the most misleading and unhelpful words, too. The truth is, the conception of “levels” in language training is inherently flawed.

What does “beginner” mean? What about “advanced”? You may be able to read Baudelaire fluently without being able to order a sandwich. What level are you at in French? Depending on the test you take, you might be pre-beginner or advanced. The conception of a single, linear progression through language from one stage, to another, to a third and final simply does not work because language is neither structured in a way to accommodate such a system, nor is it used in a way that clearly separates “beginner” material from “advanced.”

On a grammatical level, for example, the subjunctive is often considered a part of “advanced” grammar. In a Romance language, however, it may be used every third or fourth sentence in a conversation. Based on its frequency of use, shouldn't this be “beginner”? Even less frequently used tenses are still heard every day. How can these be anything other than foundational?

Suppose you master German grammar to be able to read scholarly articles and you develop the vocabulary to read all the articles you need on Germanic linguistics. You may be completely unable to hold any form of conversation, have no knowledge of greetings, goodbyes, or body language; yet you spend hours of time comfortably reading what most would consider to be “advanced” German.

There is also an assumption that we agree on what constitutes “beginner” vs. “advanced,” but this is not necessarily the case. If you go through all the audio lessons for Michel Thomas's Egyptian Arabic program, you will progress from beginner through the so-called advanced level. In none of these lessons will you learn how to conjugate a verb. You can progress all the way through the advanced level and still not even know how to create a simple verbal sentence — something absolutely foundational. While you can learn a good bit of introductory material for Egyptain Arabic from the Michel Thomas tapes, you will not even complete what elsewhere would be considered a basic level. This can create a false sense of accomplishment and lead to disillusionment and despair.

Instead of looking at language in terms of levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced), and instead of looking at it through its forms of expression (listening, speaking, reading, writing), it is far more effective to view language training in terms of the intended application for the learner. Once the application and target ability are clearly defined, training can be structured on the basis of three elements:

  1. the type of fluency required
  2. the components of language itself
  3. the level of learning required ranging from understanding to fluency.

As defined in our recently launched free course in Time Management for Language Learning, total fluency in a language is actually comprised of complete knowledge of three elements:

  1. structural language
  2. ritual language
  3. cultural language

Depending on the application desired, one will need to focus more on one of these elements than on others. Let's look at an example.

If I ask, “What level of French do you want?”, a common response is, “I don't need to be completely fluent, but I'd like to have the basics. Enough to get by.”

If, instead, I ask, “Why do you want to learn French? What do you want to do with the language?”, I will get a more useful response. “My family goes on a skiing vacation to the French alps every year and I'd like to be able to make my way around and speak to French people I meet on the slopes, in the lodge, and in the surrounding towns.” This is a target we can work with.

Suppose you work in oil and gas. Your “basic” language will include terms like, oil, gas, rig, barrel, etc. You will almost certainly have no need for words or expressions related to skiing.

To be able to “get by” on the mountain in the Alps will actually require a significant amount of structural knowledge. Beyond purely ritualized interactions like saying hello or asking for directions, actual conversations involving a “plastic” ability in a language will require full structural knowledge. As mentioned previously, so-called advanced tenses and moods like the subjunctive are actually used with great frequency in everyday speech. You will need to not only be able to recognize these forms, but also produce them yourself. Your learning requirement might look like the following:

  1. Structure - Full familiarity with all structural elements, active production of all main patterns and essential irregular verbs. Unnecessary to master all irregular verbs or exceptions to gender rules in nouns.
  2. Ritual - Excellent ritual ability required with respect to greetings, asking directions, ordering food and drink, taking meals together, and potentially emergency language (asking for help, medical / injury language).
  3. Application language (subset of ritual language) - Vocabulary related to skiing will be essential, everything from the types and parts of skiing equipment to the names of various maneuvers and locations on the slope.
  4. Cultural knowledge - Limited cultural knowledge will be required, included essential body language, common cultural courtesies, as well as knowledge of skiing practices in France. Some knowledge of French sport will probably help in starting and maintaining conversations. Knowledge of French film and literature is not essential.

For the person vacationing in France, these targets can be met quickly and efficiently by focusing on the right material and exercises. Empowered with a fluency that is limited to the slopes of the Alps, the learner can — if desired — use this platform as a base upon which to build a more complete knowledge of French. Being able to perform brilliantly in French on the mountain, however, does not in any way guarantee decent scores on a French examination. In fact, this person may still test at a “basic” level, while one who tests at an “advanced” level may simultaneously be completely ineffective in navigating a skiing environment.

The concept of levels is convenient for the purpose of standardization and testing, which is essential for quality assurance (and is also a lucrative business). If you want to deliver training that is really effective — even at scale — it will be tailored almost down to the individual level. For individual learners, understanding personal targets in terms of applications as opposed to levels is invaluable, and enables learners to be successful by focusing on the most relevant material.

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