How good are you?
Today we have another guest post from James in Santiago, Chile.
There comes a stage in every language when you start asking yourself how good you are. Yes, it’s fun to play around learning the Basque verb system or to be able to speak enough to get by as a tourist in 10 different languages, but when you have to use a language day in and day out the question whether people can actually *really* understand what you are saying and just how “foreign” you sound does become more pressing: there is a big difference between ordering a skinny latte and teaching Kantian epistemology. People are normally very generous with foreigners who are trying to learn their language: “hablas perfecto”, “you speak amazing English” (mentally we add “for someone who has just been learning for a year and has never left Latvia”)
The truth is we rarely are able to assess ourselves correctly and tend routinely to over or underestimate how good we are. I’m an underestimator because I teach humanities at tertiary level and have a perfectionist streak, so I tend to put myself a level below what my teacher thinks. About a year ago (May or June 2007) I did a self assessment on the CEFR and thought that I was a middling C1. I got my teacher at the time (a Chilean who had been working with me for over 6 months) to assess me using the CEFR criteria and she said that she would describe me as a C2. I went to Guatemala in February 2008 to study more and placed myself at a 4 on the ILR scale. My Guatemalan teacher, who has 20 years experience and is one of the best I’ve had in my 20 years of language learning, put that I was a 5 on my language certificate (a 5.1 to be exact which is the lowest level in the highest category). I still don’t agree with him, which is irrational: he is the native speaker language professional and we had over 80 hours of 1-2-1 contact when I was feeling ill from altitude sickness (i.e. he saw me at my worst for a prolonged period) so he should know. But, without a trace of false modesty, I still think I’m an ILR 4.
Of course, at one level scales and numbers mean nothing: we all have a level at which we are happy with and what it’s called is irrelevant, for some it’s “higher”, for others not: artificial levels don’t actually tell us anything or make us feel any better. Some people couldn’t care less if the grammar or pronunciation is right as long as people get the point, others care so much that they barely open their mouths.
So do you care how “good” you are?