That’s it, I’m doing an advanced German exam in Berlin just about two months from now. There’s no turning back. I’m booked: test; flight; time off from the office.
When you’re trying to level up your skills, get into the zone, the zone of “proximal development”. In other words, the best thing is to stretch yourself, but not too much. In this post I explain how I settled on the next steps for my German. This brings into focus three general lessons for you, whether you’re an advanced learner or not so far along with your chosen language.
I’ve been wanting improve my German for a while, both as a career move and to help me deeper into German culture and, well, just because I love getting better at my languages.
To help me along, I’ve chosen German as the focus for the latest ninety-day Add 1 Challenge (No. 10).
If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know the Challenge from my previous experiences learning Basque in Add 1 Challenge Nos 4, 5 and 8. I shall be keeping up with Basque but, “off piste” so to speak (one physical class a week and half-hour skype conversation sessions three times a week).
I like the Challenge’s framework: you have to set your own clear goal to reach in three months’ time. You have to break that down into your bespoke regular commitment to study and practice, several times a week. You are accountable through recording on an accountability sheet that all the other participants can see and you have the support of all the other participants (fifty to one hundred or more) in an on-line discussion group.
By shooting clips of yourself speaking for two or three minutes on day 0, day 30 and day 60, you have something to remind you of your progress. You then record your final, 15-min conversation on day 90. Progress is, of course, most dramatic in the early stages. One of the challenges to motivation of upper-intermediate and advanced language learning is that progress is much less discernible to the “naked ear”.
Here’s my day 0 vid:
As with my most recent Basque Challenge, I’ve committed myself to studying German for thirty minutes, five times a week.
I have already know the “mastermind” sub-group of three participants from previous challenges. This not grouped according to language and my partners are Lydia (Russian) and Shana (Esperanto). The idea is that we take a special interest in each other’s progress. I have not, though, previously able to be in a “study group” of people studying the same language, because I was always the only student of Basque. This time it’s different. In my mastermind group are Laura and Luke. [Update: Maybe see you in next Add1Challenge? More details here: Add1Challenge and check out my reviews of the Challenge elsewhere on the site)].
Choosing the right level or “is there such a thing as too much objectivity?”
The “C” or “proficient user” level is the top-level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, one of the most widely used yardsticks for measuring linguistic progress.
“C” divides into two levels. The lower level is C1, also known as “effective operational proficiency” or “advanced”. The higher level is C2, “mastery” or “proficiency”.
Last February I had a formal assessment at the Goethe Institute in London. The assessor put me on the border between level B2 and C1 border overall. She also said that I was “even higher than this” for speaking.
The higher of the two CERF “independent user” “B” levels, B2 is known somewhat obscurely as “vantage” or, more clearly, as “upper intermediate”.
B2 is a high level, not to be sneezed at. It is typically the level that you have to prove if you want to study through the medium of a language at university level.
That said, I have to admit that I was initially disappointed with the result. I had been planning to do the C2 exam, not the C1 a few months after the assessment.
My pride was also hurt.
One reason for this is that I’m a vain b*st*rd 😉 .
Another, more objective, reason is that I have pretty extensive experience in German.
I began teaching myself the language seriously when I was a grad student. I worked through the “Teach Yourself” book before my extended period Germany, as an exchange student in Freiburg University. During those eight months I spoke only German in my daily life.
Two years later, I returned to Germany and did an eight week intermediate course at the Goethe Institut in Schwäbische Hall near Stuttgart. A few weeks later, I passed the language exam for matriculation at Heidelberg University (the Prüfung zum Nachweis deutscher Sprachkenntnisse, now called the Deutsche Sprachprüfung für den Hochschulzugang, which is about B2 level).
I then lived in Heidelberg, in effect only speaking German (though writing up my thesis using English) for two and a half years.
A further three years down the line, when I was a university history lecturer, I spent a further seven months secondment back in Heidelberg.
That’s a total of three and a half years intensive usage on the clock.
Rather than sulking “I wuz robbed”….it’s more productive to take a step back and look at the lesson’s we can learn from where I’m at with my German, in the light of the assessment.
Calm refection is a lot easier now that I’ve carefully disposed of the various body parts of that assessor.*
(* J O K E).
Lesson 1: Get to a consolidated upper intermediate level, and you’ve got it for life.
At this point, I feel duty bound to make a full disclosure: almost all of my German experience was on the “wrong” side of the year 2000.
No, dear reader, really.
I know that you – informed by my youthful appearance – will have assumed up to this point that I was a mere babe-in-arms in the oh-so-distant 1990s (there now, I did tell you I was vain….and my pre-assessment expectations may have also marked me down as delusional 🙂 ).
The passage of time means that my German is, inevitably, “rusty”.
In the month or so before my assessment, with an eye to on the test, I began listening radio in German for an average of maybe half an hour a day and also picked up a travelogue in German that I’d been reading on-and-off last year. That, though, was the only preparation I did. No grammar. Most significant of all no speaking practice.
After leaving Germany in 1999 I have been back maybe six times. Each time I spoke as much German as I could. But each visit was no more than a week.
In this light, my assessment result is actually very encouraging.
Let’s think about it again. The assessor said that my speaking was “above C1 level” even though I’d hardly spoken any German for about fifteen years.
On one of my visits back, a German friend said I sounded a bit like a native speaker who’d been out of the country for a very long time. I found this rather flattering.
On my brief return visits – and during the assessment – I was drawing on a deeply embedded skill, consolidated at a high level back in the mists of time.
Each time before I return to Germany, I am rather nervous before the trip that I will not be able to speak any more.
But hey, here’s the magic, even if you’re a bit rusty, start you using a well-embedded language again, you feel it spluttering back to life.
It’s as if your language brain was a pulsating piece of radioactivity. Its “half-life” really can be very long.
If your goal is beyond ordering a beer on an upcoming holiday and that’s it, ignore this advice.
- If you want to retain your new language skills long-term and don’t want your early results to melt away with the springtime sun, you need to get to a solid upper-intermediate level.
If you can bind the language deep into the fabric of your life and make it a part of your identity – sufficiently so that it feels like part of you is under attack when an assessor gives unwelcome feedback – you will have a sure-grip on your hard-won prize. For life.
Lesson 2: For mastery, you have to listen, read, speak and write. The “Four Knights” ride together.
My current strengths and weaknesses in German naturally reflect the experience I built up when I was actively using the language and what I’ve done since I left Germany.
My abilities are skewed towards the two receptive skills: understanding the spoken word and reading and one productive one: speaking. The second productive skill, writing, is pulling down one corner of the wonky plateau I now find myself on, even as some of the corners rise above C1.
I cannot complain about this position. It fairly reflects my experience up to now. You get good at what you do a lot of.
During my years in Germany I was speaking only German, except when I was teaching English or calling home. By the end of my main stint in the country, I understood almost everything (though I was also learning new things almost every day). My speech was getting richer all the time too.
My progress was helped by exposure to a vast amount of language as a passive consumer of a German radio, television and films.
As for reading: when in Germany I mainly read newspaper articles and found this progressively easier.
Then and now, I have always tried to read in focussed way, underlining new words but, during my time in the country, I had limited energy for reading in my “Freizeit” (free time). I had to read a lot in Russian and English during “prime time” as I wrote up my thesis.
Reading is the one German skill I’ve kept going since my time in German, but it’s only been simmering on the back burner. I’ve read only a handful of novels and history books over a decade.
I am now ramping up the reading big time.
During my time in Germany I was not really writing at all, beyond the odd post card or handwritten note (this was before the days of texts and the net). I wrote my thesis while I was in Germany but that was in English (for submission back home).
In the years since, my German writing has been limited to a few, brief emails or Facebook notes a year to friends there and (slightly) fuller notes inside Christmas cards (objects of much puzzlement to my German friends, I think).
It’s ok, of course, only to focus on those of the four skills that you need to reach your personal goals.
But if your goal involves sitting an exam which tests all four, then you have to reach the standard in each.
Exams or no, here’s the second point:
- if you need any one of the skills at the higher levels, the others will demand your attention.
At these heights, the challenge is using language across a vast spectrum (whether you’re interested in the topics or not) with a high level of accuracy.
Just like with your native language, in your foreign language it’s just not possible to get really good one of the four skills in isolation.
The “Four Knights” as Italian polyglot Luca Lampariello calls them, “ride together”.
Lesson 3: Set your own pace. Don’t be rushed. Don’t rush yourself.
Given my current German level one approach would have been to stretch myself all round and shoot for C2.
This, and more, is, after all, my ultimate destination.
But why the rush? What’s the problem if I don’t do the C2 exam this year? Truth is, I’m under no immediate time pressure to achieve anything at all with my German.
All around we are under pressure to achieve results as quickly as possible.
The online language learning community is not immune to the “instant results” Zeitgeist, as people set themselves ambitious targets and as inexperienced learners in particular naively bandy about B and C goals they are going to hit before breakfast in a way that sometimes shows a lack of appreciation of the real achievement of moving up one notch on the European scale, whether that’s from A1 to A2, A2 to B1 or higher.
I haven’t forgotten the adage “shoot for the moon”. I understand that by aiming high you could well end up further than you expected, even if you don’t get quite where you hoped.
But will quick hits become solid, lasting gains? Or will they shrivel and die, the roots too shallow?
I might pass C2 now, I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t feel like a C2 yet.
Maybe this partly reflects my own lack of confidence. Maybe, though, my “steady as she goes” nature is no bad thing.
I see a step by step approach as a matter of respect for the language. It’s a feeling that if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right.
So, I’ve applied to take the C1 exam. I am using the exam as a tool to help me refresh and consolidate my current reading, listening and speaking skills and to motivate me to practise and improve the finer points of grammar and my writing abilities. I am taking nothing for granted as I prepare to aim for a really solid pass.
There will be stress and strain. But there well be less than if I was stretching straight for C2. With a full-time job to hold down and other things on too, what you might call “calibrated ambition” makes sense for me.
In the next post, I’ll talk about what I’m doing across the four language skills.
Whatever level you’re at with your language learning, unless you have school or citizenship exams with inflexible dates, remember this:
- in your language learning you are not in a race against anyone but yourself. So savour the journey.
That’s what I’ve decided to do with project “Revive my German”.
Let’s see how it goes. Here’s to my passing C1 German. I’ll move forward to C2 next year…or later, if necessary. Here’s to you getting to the next staging post on your language learning journey as well.
There’s a lot to be said for methodically building your mastery.
Rome wasn’t build in a day.
Or, as the Germans might say: Gut Ding will Weile haben.
What do you think? Have you found yourself back at square one after stopping study before reaching an upper intermediate level? Do you find that weakness in one key skill is indirectly holding you back in others? Do you prefer to aim high in your language goals or take a cautious approach? Let us know in the comments section below.