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?

The Scales
CEFR (European)
ILR (USA, formerly known as FSI)

10 thoughts on “How good are you?

  1. Last month I went to a language institute in Spain. Afterwards they put me on B2, but I think I’m more of upper-B1. My speaking is pretty good for my level and both reading and listening are well developed I think, but my understanding of grammar just sucks at time.

    But yes, I do care how good I am. I strive get on a C1 level within the coming 3 – 4 years.

  2. I Don’t care that much if I don’t speak well. My focus is to be able to understand the spoken and written language. If I can make myself understood, that’s enough. I accept that I will always have an accent and that I may often say things using directly translated American phraseology. I do hope that my reading and listening reduces my anglicizing foreign languages.

    I have no idea and no intention of finding out where I rank, officially, in the various languages I’ve studied.

  3. to Polly; ha! It´s very much a personal thing, isn´t it? I realised that after seeing the different sorts of spanish that expats speak here. One person I spoke to said that in the nearly 20 years that she´s been here she´s never thought once about her pronunciation. Another person I know hardly ever went near a language classroom or a grammar book, but were generally held to speak “well”, meaning that they were able to do everything that they wanted to do and were happy. Chileans accepted their spanish even though the subjunctive was a dark room with no door.

    I was amused to find out that my German has dropped down to about a a2 (maybe a bit higher on comprehension) from years of neglect and my french is of unknown status as I can´t speak it for more than about 5 seconds before it turns into Spanish.

    More and more I am seeing that the numbers, while at one level useful to be able to be objective, are really not directly relevant to how at home you feel in the language.

  4. This is all very exciting, but I’d rather like to take an exam to test my level instead of trying to match the descriptors in the wikipedia table. At least when I took my CPE I knew I was at something of a C2 for English, but I never tried it for Italian, for example.
    Does anyone know of online tests which would give me an idea of where I am on the scale? Also, the CEFR is — understandably — very eurocentric in nature. I’d quite like to test my Mandarin formally, but besides the HSK, I’m not sure there’s a standardised test out there which takes all aspects of CEFR into consideration… thoughts?

  5. I had the feeling I was starting to be good in English when I was in England and could:
    a) answer my host family’s phone and pick a message for them.
    b) go to the pharmacy and explain the shop assistant that I needed a syrup for cough.
    c) understand most of the questions of a TV quiz show where they were speaking really fast.
    This might seem ridiculous, but it is the truth. It is these little goals that helped me become more confident with English…

  6. I care very much about how good I am… not in terms of levels or official certification or anything like that (mostly since it never occurred to me), but in terms of being able to speak fluidly and with as perfect an accent as I can muster. For me, sounding authentic is very important, I swell with pride when native speakers tell me they thought I was from Argentina, or that I was at the very least second-generation. So important, in fact, that any time I start a new language, I obsess over pronunciation before I even get too far into the grammar.

    Of course, the pronunciation I learned right away turned out to be about half-right, but I adjusted as I went along and learned to accept, for example, that the letter ‘S’ is the redheaded stepchild of Spanish phonology. But I digress.

    Learning a language for me is all about having access to a style of communication you hadn’t had access to before, whether it be in conversation, literature, music, whatever. I want to express myself as naturally as possible. So I’m definitely going to care a lot about how good I am.

  7. Great post, James!

    I certainly hope that the ability to teach Kantian epistemology in a foreign language never becomes an indicator of skill level! I’d be in trouble in any language.

    During my time in Spain, I used what is probably the most universally practiced method of self-evaluation when in another culture–the ability to communicate with attractive natives after having a couple of drinks. While some have claimed that imbibing the local sauces tends to make them voluble gabbers in their adopted tongue, my experience tells me that those folks are usually overestimating their abilities.

    In all seriousness, though, I think everyone cares at least on some level how well they communicate. Whether they’ve learned a foreign language for professional advancement, or to enjoy traveling to new locations, or even to conduct proper research on their favorite German philosophers, I think they care. As evidence, the company I work with gets many inquiries from corporations, government agencies, and individual language enthusiasts, all who share the desire to assess their language abilities or the abilities of their employees and agents on an objective scale.

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