Linguistics

Language Proficiency Q&A: Language Immersion & More

Reader questions, part three!  Here we talk about the later stages of the language learning process – what C1 fluency means, some of the pros and cons of immersion programs, how to teach using these methods, etc.

Q: How long does it take to reach C1 traditionally (in school)?  Did you reach C1 before or after immersion at Middlebury?

A: No idea! I took 5 years of Russian in school and maybe reached A2.  I think most people have the same experience.  At the Austrian school I teach at, students have half of their classes taught in English for 8 years, and at the end of it, some of them are near C1.

I only reached C1 in French and German after a period of immersion at Middlebury.  German took two 7-week sessions, and I developed these methods (in part) in an attempt to get as much as I could out of my one 7-week French session, since I didn’t have the time to go twice.  Turns out I reached C1 in French using these methods and finishing it off with the single session at Middlebury.

Q:How does the Middlebury program compare to going to the target country? Middlebury seems a bit pricey, and perhaps an exchange might be a more efficient use of time/money…what are your thoughts?

A: The difficulty with target country immersion is that everyone speaks English and it’s hard to maintain the rigorous no English commitment that you need on your own.  But yeah, Middlebury’s very expensive if you don’t get financial aid (they have great financial aid if you apply by December).  Also you don’t get the cultural exposure at Middlebury that helps you fall in love with the language.  There are plusses and minuses on both sides – you’ll learn more *language* at Middlebury…you’ll learn more cultural stuff in the country.

Q: Do you teach using these methods?  If so, how?  Aren’t they mostly for self-study?

A: I do!  I’ve found the best use of a teacher’s time is in training good learning methodologies and then providing as immersive an environment as possible within which they can practice and learn new words.  If the classes are small enough, I make it a computer class and teach them how to use Anki.  If not, I help them practice the skill of navigating around words they don’t know until they’ve come up with a good explanation of the word they want, at which point I give it to them; it helps retain the word permanently and teaches that word in connection with other words in the target language.  I’ve found some of the best teacher-student conversations involve walking through a frequency list, finding the holes in a student’s (or a class’s) vocabulary, and figuring out ways to define those words using words they already know.  We’ll usually discover 3-4 additional new words for every word on the frequency list.  If someone in the class already knows the missing word, I’ll have them try and explain it to the other students and help when necessary.

Q: What do you think about translating from your native language to the target language?

A:I think it’s problematic and should be avoided when possible.  You’ll often make awkward constructions that might be technically correct but don’t really match up with what people say.  When writing an essay, sometimes you’ll need to get a few new words and constructions translated from your native language.  If you get these corrected and they turn out to be appropriate words, then it’s key that you relearn them in the context of your target language, so you can replace the translation with something more meaningful.

Q: When you reach C1 fluency, can you watch TV, listen to radio and talk to natives with no/little difficulty?

A: Conversations are easiest.  Listening comprehension like TV and radio (at least for me) tends to lag a bit behind, and needs its own practice (mostly, lots of TV).  C1 isn’t perfect – you’re not going to reach native-like fluency without a significantly larger time investment.  If I were to focus on one language for my life, then I think I could do it in 2-5 years, depending on just how fluent I wanted to get, but I’m happy as soon as I can communicate what I want to communicate without much of a problem, and that’s what you get at C1.  If I can more or less get what’s in my head into the head of someone else using their language, and understand what they’re trying to communicate, and I don’t have to worry much about grammar or translation, then I’m pretty content with my level.

Q: Is it detrimental to begin learning a 2nd or 3rd language without first achieving a certain level of proficiency in the 1st? If so, what proficiency should I reach before moving on to the next language? 

A: Languages benefit most from intensive work over a decent amount of time.  I wouldn’t put less than 3-5 months into one language at a time before moving on to the next one.  If your end goal is fluency in these, I’d try to stick with each one as long as possible; if you don’t have a chance to solidify your work with an immersion experience, then you can set a goal of being able to comfortably read a couple of books or something before moving on.

Q: Now that you have several languages under your belt, how do you maintain them?  If you’re ONLY using Russian for complete immersion this year in your target language, won’t your French, German, etc. wilt without use? 

A: They do wilt a bit, but I’ve found that they all come back more or less within a few minutes of exposure (and become pretty solid within a few days).  I think the old “I learned Spanish in high school but forgot it” phenomenon is more a symptom of never really learning it in a meaningful way.  I learned Russian in high school, and nothing but the phonetics and a smattering of words stayed with me.  With German, I took a year break after my first immersion and my German was *better* than it had been a year earlier.  I think these things get pretty deep into your head when you learn them properly.

That being said, it’s difficult to switch between them rapidly, and I imagine that’s a matter of practice.  At this point, German and English don’t suffer from rapid switching, and if I had someone to speak French with regularly, I imagine I’d be able to learn to switch into and out of French more readily.  After Russian, I may take a year to consolidate the languages I know and see if I can train myself to switch between them more readily.  Then I’ll have more data on the topic! 🙂

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