Sunday, September 13, 2015

Moving Beyond the Intermediate Plateau

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages divides the linguistic skills acquired by language learners into six levels: A1 (beginner), A2 (elementary), B1 (intermediate), B2 (upper-intermediate), C1 (advanced) and C2 (proficient). Out of these six levels, A1 and A2 are reached relatively easily as so many language courses on the market are geared towards those who are just starting out; after all, that's where you find the biggest market segment. Even getting up to B1 or B2 shouldn't be too difficult if you go at it in a regular and methodical manner. However, once you've reached these intermediate levels - where you're able to handle the familiar everyday situations fairly well but find yourself on less firm ground when it comes to more serious matters - it may look like you've reached a plateau. You may not seem to be making much progress any more.

One major reason why you don't necessarily notice any more progress has to do with the nature of the language learning curve. The most common 3000 words of the English language are said to cover about 95% of common usage. While you're learning them in the initial stages, you're able to perceive rapid advancement. By contrast, the average active vocabulary of an adult native speaker is around 20,000 words while their passive vocabulary may be around 40,000. As all these extra words cover only about 5% of general usage, it's no wonder that you hardly notice any betterment, due to the diminishing returns, while you're learning them at the higher levels. What's more, advanced language studies involve picking up lots of new collocations (combinations of words generally used to express an idea) involving known words, which might not register at all in your mind as learning something new. 

What is common to most learners of English (or maybe any other language) at intermediate levels is some self-doubt about the knowledge and skills they already possess and, above all, a certain lack of clarity about how to go about improving their English to reach proficiency. In my experience of learning a few languages myself and helping others improve their language skills (aka teaching) over the years, I’ve found that this type of confusion is quite normal at these stages. 

You may get to the B1 or even B2 level with certain books and courses, but moving beyond that usually requires a lot of exposure to authentic usage. Care should be taken to follow good usage (which fortunately can be done today relatively easily with the help of various media like books, magazines, newspapers, websites, audio books, podcasts, radio or TV programmes, movies etc). A good understanding of finer nuances like context and register (that is, in what type of situations particular expressions and turns of phrase are appropriate) needs to be acquired. It’s important that you seek out material with modern usage because choosing books containing archaic (outdated) language popular in a bygone era - or written in an exceedingly complicated or academic style - may lead to frustration, however esteemed those books may be. (Studying such literature can safely be deferred until after you’ve acquired a confident command of modern usage, I presume.) If you seek instruction from a teacher, you’ve got to make sure that the teaching covers good contemporary usage at an advanced level, with all its complexities regarding collocations, idioms and so on.

Rather than learning individual word with their meanings, learning collocations (words that are generally used together to express an idea) is what you should focus on. In looking up new words or collocations, an advanced learners’ dictionary will come in handy as they provide various meanings of words in different contexts, together with the most common collocations and idioms containing those words. However, not every unknown word needs to be looked up if there are too many of them; the meaning of some can be assumed from context and this type of informed guessing (within reasonable limits, of course) is part and parcel of following usage. 

Spaced repetition (where you revise what you’ve studied at increasing intervals – in two days, then in one week etc.) has been suggested as a way to refresh memory. Techniques like shadowing (where you speak out loud what you’re listening to) and back translation (where you study something in English together with its effective translation in your mother tongue and then, after some time, try to translate it back from your language into English yourself to see how you fare) are promoted in famous language learning methods like Assimil, held in high esteem by many polyglots (those who have learned many languages).

Difficulty understanding native speakers from other countries occurs due to differences in the way words are pronounced as well as unfamiliar stress and intonation patterns. Colloquialisms and slang may add to the problem. Mainstream British, American and Australian accents are worth getting used to, but some regional accents may still be way off. The UK is notorious for having lots of regional accents and some African-American accents are also hard to follow; even their own countrymen sometimes have trouble following the speech of people from some other areas or ethnic groups. One way to get used to foreign accents is to watch movies and other videos with English subtitles (not subtitles in your mother tongue). That way you get the chance to read in real time what you’re listening to and you’ll find that it’s quite often just simple language spoken in a different way. Over time you’ll get better at capturing most of it without such aid. 

Every opportunity to practise what you’ve learned should be used because language skills, especially speech, depend largely on practice. Even speaking in English with your fellow students can make for good practice if there are no proficient speakers to talk to. Expressing yourself effectively in a second language becomes increasingly easier as you keep on getting exposed to good usage and practising what you’ve picked up.

Another vital point to remember is that regular learning - if possible done even for a short time every day - produces far better results than occasional long sessions of study. Regular exposure will go a long way towards helping you internalise the language.

(NB: This is not a definitive guide to language learning, but just a few observations and suggestions based on my experience.)

Image credit:
Brenda Annerl

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