What is Fluency?

Are you fluent? It’s a pretty simple question. The answers are more than subjective. To a non-language learner there seems to be the consensus that this question is a definitive yes or no. So not true. Everybody has their own interpretation of what fluency is and while there is a switch in all of us that can flick on or off when we reach our interpretation of fluency, it’s not easily defined across the board. Yes, we can look at something like CEFR or ILR scales (both in the Language Proficiency Scales post) but they’re still open to subjective analysis. For me, fluency is a matter of being able to speak freely about any subject I’m interested in. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not too concerned with accuracy and accept that making mistakes is the norm… Many native speakers make mistakes quite often if you listen closely. I take for granted that I will also be able to read and write with ease, and obviously, if I can speak, then listening is also thrown in. But why only subjects I’m interested it? Well, because if it’s a subject I’m not particularly interested in, then I’m not likely to want to contribute to the conversation at this stage anyway. The different between fluency and advanced fluency is being able to contribute meaningfully in conversations that don’t particularly interest me. And perhaps more importantly, an overall accuracy and nuance in my usage. I can only do this in English… and it will take me a long time to reach this level in any other language I feel. Somewhat interestingly, I read on I Kinda Like Languages recently, that Kato Lomb – the Hungarian polyglot – devised a simple test to check your profiency in any language. There are 4 categories with 4 words in each. Category 1 words are worth 1 point each, Category 2 are 2 points each, Category 3 are 3, and 4 are 4. I’m a little uncertain on how to actually determine your language level, but I guess the closer you are to the 40 point max, then the more of a superstar you are. Anyway, the words… Category 1: the moon, to buy, wide, free Category 2: a blow, to enjoy, suddenly, grateful Category 3: a straw, to promote, rigidly, significant Category 4: brass, to browse, obstinately, enthusiastic I see this as being quite useful for assessing your knowledge of a language. Not for necessarily assessing fluency per se, but still…...

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Study Methods: Power of the Schedule

Planning your time and using it effectively, this is how we learn a language successfully. It’s not exactly that complicated but it is something that a lot of people neglect. To use the exercise analogy, it’s better to do a little a lot than a lot a little. Meaning… 15 mins a day for a total of 105 minutes per week is probably going to be a lot more effective than 105 minutes one day a week. Personally, I like 20-25 minute blocks of study as I find this optimal for me. My wife finds 40 minute blocks suit her learning a lot better. Each to their own… experiment with what works best for you and above all else, just be consistent. Even 5 minutes a day reviewing vocabulary is better than nothing! The main idea of this post isn’t just about consistency though, it’s about planning. The majority of people complain about not having enough time to study consistently and this is why they don’t succeed to their full potential. Your best bet for success is to make a plan and stick with. If you’re one of these people that struggle to study after work or at the end of the day because you’re exhausted, get up 30 minutes earlier and get out your learning material. Idealistically, I love studying in the morning because I can theoretically do nothing for the rest of the day and feel like I have accomplished something. Unfortunately, I learn more efficiently in the evening… so it takes more motivation on my part to stick with an evening schedule. Alas, poor me… If you are someone that honestly has no time for a schedule…. ahuh, right!! …then you should have a look at the Borrowing Time article. You’ll get some ideas of how to squeeze more out of your day. But above else… just make a plan and be consistent with your learning. A small commitment everyday will get you there in the end a la Tortoise and the...

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Study Materials: The Dictionary Debate

Everyone owns one.. at least one. Or at the very least, has access to one. People that don’t even study languages own one. Dictionary play a pretty major role in the lives of people of all ages. They’re set a standard for us to follow… sometimes we disagree, and sometimes we all get along. So how can language learners make the most of them? I’ll steer clear of the descriptive elements and this will be more prescriptive… No, I’m not telling you that you have to follow it, but these are just some ideas that I’ve had from both my own learning and also from observing my students during class. Paper versus electronic: I love paper books and much prefer them to reading on a screen, that is, with the exception of the dictionary. I much prefer electronic dictionaries. By electronic I mean the portable, dedicated, electronic dictionary and not the web-based dictionary, which I also dislike reading but will use if I really need to. It’s all about personal preference here and relatively straight forward. However, in the class, I prefer my students to have a paper dictionary; they’re less distracting and kids don’t rely on them as much as they do the electronic variety because they actually have to read words (shocking I know!) to find what they are looking for. In any case, weigh up the pros and cons of each and make a decision Bilingual Dictionaries: Fantastic for early learners where they don’t have a base strong enough in the target language to decode the meaning. Very easy to use and make it quick to understand a concept. The problems are that they often lack example sentences, so usage can be a little askew from an over-reliance on them. Also, students need to realise that they should cross-check the vocabulary both ways (both ‘to target language’ and ‘from target language’). This will alleviate some of the issues with usage out of context, but not all… nothing is perfect. Another concern, a minor one… batteries die. But c’est la vie right. Monolingual Dictionaries: Once a learner has a strong base in a language they should, in my opinion, be moving to a monolingual dictionary. This isn’t necessary the fastest way to find the meaning, but it has the highest overall benefit to the learner. They have something to work from and they have to read and decode the meaning in the target language. More exposure equals more learning right? Plus, moving away from an over-reliance of the bilingual dictionary and using it as a crutch can actually hinder learning. Although, there are obviously going to be times when the learner...

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Using L2 for L3

Just some thoughts on learning a foreign language through another learned language. If English is your L1, many people only attempt to learn another language through English. And that’s fair enough, but it might not be the most practical if you have other tools at your disposal. Professor Arguelles strongly suggests people that dream of being a polyglot learn French and German. With English, French and German at your disposal there is a wealth of material available for the language learner. The same could also be true for Japanese and Chinese, and to a lesser extent, Korean. But this is the argument for using a L2 because of materials access and availability. How about using your L2 to learn L3… or L3 to learn L4 even? Sometimes it is just more practical and efficient. If you’re an English speaker that has studied Spanish to a high level for instance, would it make more sense to learn Portuguese or Italian through English, or to learn them through Spanish? My vote would be Spanish because of all of those similarities in grammar and vocabulary. My own personal example is for using Korean as  tool for studying Japanese, again, due to grammatical similarities and the large cross-over in vocabulary due to the Chinese influence. It’s not just a matter of making it easier for yourself though, there are other things to consider. Like what things? Well, in using your L2 to learn L3 you’re going to appreciate the finer details of your L2. You will effectively be learning your L2 in more depth by studying your L3. These are things I have found with my own studies. Through elementary level Japanese study I consolidated and clarified things in Korean I already knew but didn’t really know. You may learn things you never knew, you may have a few a-ha moments when you finally understand something that you have been using but didn’t really know the why behind it, or you may just find it more time-efficient because of the similarities. There are of course negatives that include misunderstandings of explanation and what-not, but you do always have the dictionary option to cross-check anything you’re not certain of. But basically, what I’m mainly talking about is using a language that is similar to one you are learning to lessen the burden. It doesn’t have to stop there though. Professor Arguelles’ suggestion of learning French or German first is a valid one. Even if these languages aren’t similar to the one you are studying, due to the quality of materials available they may still be the best option. I know a number of people that have learned English and now use it learn...

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Study Materials: LingQ

First in the series of looking at study materials is going to be LingQ. LingQ is the brainchild of Steve Kaufmann. Steve speaks a number of languages very well and the site is very much a mirror of his own preferred learning style, by self-admission. In short, if you can’t be bothered reading what I say about LingQ… visit, sign-up (it’s free), and try it out. It’s not going to be a waste of time… so enjoy the offerings in English, Spanish, Italian, French, Portuguese, German, Swedish, Russian, Chinese and Japanese… and soon to come it looks like Korean. In long, I’ll say a bit more but I should start with a disclaimer saying that I don’t use LingQ to it’s full potential. I only use a few features of the site as I have my own learning style that works for me, and if it ain’t broke as they say. Anyway, I’m happy to use LingQ as a supplement to my own methods. Let’s start with the bad… I find LingQ a little slow at times; probably due to the high user number. I find LingQ a little cumbersome to navigate and use at times, but that’s probably due to my familiarity with the system. It’s online, so website downtime can mean learning downtime (although many things are available offline if you download them). Plus I’ve never seen LingQ down. A server crash could kill your learning database….. so could a harddrive crash at home…. or a small fire 😉 Now, let’s get on with the serious stuff. What is at LingQ… umm, what is at LingQ that I use: Texts, lots of multi-levelled, good quality texts. Audio, lots of multi-levelled, good quality audio. Confidence building graphs that tell you how much you have read, listened, etc. There are also a few other things at LingQ that I don’t make use of, such as: A form of flashcard system (the cards are called LingQs I believe… I could be wrong) – I prefer Anki as I can take it anywhere and it’s what I’m used to using. Tutoring service where you can speak with natives of your target language and receive a report detailing corrections – I use Skype conversations and if I want my speaking corrected I record the conversation to go over with a tutor or language exchange later. Have your writing corrected with a report – I use other sites such as Lang-8 for this. I’ve probably missed a few things, but like I say, I only use LingQ for a few features; it’s a supplement to my learning, not my entire learning. And as an added note, I...

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Confidence: Gaining and Maintaining

Speaking a language that isn’t your own requires a lot of confidence. Taking that first plunge into the proverbial deep end of conversation with a native of the language is something that can’t really be rushed in my opinion. Yes, there are arguments that output is critical to building this communicative confidence, but where do you get the language from to actually perform? Well.. that would be input. Even if you believe what you’re working on is output with conversation, the language of the so-called native speaker is acting as input for you, the learner. But enough about output and input, an article on this will come shortly since it’s a current debate that won’t go away.. besides I’m pretty much on the fence, albeit almost falling over that fence to land on the input side of things… but anyway… gaining confidence. As an experienced language learner, I’ve made a fool of myself enough times to realise that it isn’t the end of the world. This is the issue that new learners need to come to terms with. Until a language learner can understand and accept that talking like a child is fully acceptable, then confidence in speaking will not come. In my opinion, it’s only after experiencing both the positives and negatives of attempting to speak that your confidence can grow. For instance, we can all live in a bubble of positive praise for attempting to speak and you will build confidence… faux confidence. It’s only after suffering from a negative experience and being willing to come back from it can our confidence grow and develop into something that is a serious weapon for our language learning. Misunderstandings, failed communication, embarrassment and even ridicule… now these can build confidence for me as a learner. At the time it may not seem like it since you’re enduring the humiliation of realising you ARE a child again, but once you can see past this and understand that the world as you know it has not crumbled around a la the Mayan prophecy, then life goes on. You can work on the parts that halted your conversation and come back and try again… equipped with new weapons. The problems for the new learner is that they are not likely to have experienced this many times and may take a backward step from the experience. But here’s the simple advice… DON’T! It’s hard to adhere to, but seriously, if you can see past the immediate situation and look at it with hindsight… think of all that you succeeded in during that “failed” conversation. It may be that you got their attention with...

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