How Do You Self-Evaluate Your Language Learning?

How do you know what level you’re at in a language you’re learning or that you speak?

Yes, you could take tests, but what if the language you’re speaking is from a developing country or has no standard written form? What then?

For one, in the United States I evaluate myself readily and I call myself fluent if I can do the following things:

  • Speak about my life with ease without awkward pauses for fifteen minutes or longer
  • Understand a good mixture of songs, radio broadcasts, TV shows and YouTube without issue
  • Can sight-read articles with relative ease
  • Have a convincing accent to MOST people. (Some Israelis think I sound like a “Sabra” but not all)
  • Have cultural resonance in some capacity.

Interestingly the most important component is the 5th one. Allow me to explain what it is: my heritage is Ashkenazi Jewish (Hungarian + Russian Empire) and Swedish / American blend (the American side having largely Irish / German / English / Scottish). I have connections to languages like Hebrew, Swedish and Yiddish because of my heritage.

But something inside me is also amused by Vanuatu and, despite the fact that I have no ancestry from there and have had no family members that travelled there, I see Ni-Vanuatu culture as something that calls to me, for some odd reason. Because of that, I listen to Bislama-language radio very often as well as Ni-Vanuatu music (which often features guest stars from Vanuatu’s cultural siblings, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands).

Anyhow, another thing I do is I also attend language events. This is in order to evaluate my progress as consistently good as well as detect any issues that my vocabulary may have. Granted this tends to serve the most popular languages like Spanish the most often but every now and then I get chances to use languages like Yiddish, Norwegian, Hungarian and Burmese. If I leave thinking that I may need to work on something related to grammar, general flow or word choice, then I’ll have to work on it.

Another thing I do is, on weekends or on days in which I have completely free, I will set aside four to six hours to rehearse each language, usually through hearing (because what you hear translates to your speaking style in any language. Keep in mind that active listening is NOT an absolute substitute for actually speaking. If you’re learning a rarer language and have no access to native speakers, you NEED to use your MOUTH! Even by yourself or with recording software!)

Right now I’m noticing that I’m focusing more on my fluent languages than newer ones for a number of reasons. Part of me is considering putting huge swathes of my beginner languages on the cutting block right now, actually.

If I understand absolutely everything (as is the case, for example, with languages like Bislama and Danish) then I will mark them down as “very good”. If I have some kinks in understanding them (as is the case with languages like something like Burmese or Polish) then I’ll focus more on them when I’m using Anki in the subway system during my commute (or when choosing which music I have to listen to when walking or in a crowded subway car). If I understand very little (which I realize for a language like Kiribati where I’m almost at the intermediate plateau with) then I will mark it down with an emphatic “NEEDS WORK”. I’ll write up a memo as to where my weaknesses are and determine a solution catered to it specifically.

Keep in mind that this is a continuous process. I’m fluent in Bislama but that doesn’t mean that I can neglect it for years on end and expect to be dropped in rural Vanuatu and expect to be speaking Bislama perfectly. I used to be good at Russian but I neglected it during my time in Poland and after several years I could barely answer any basic questions. I’m still not that good at it anymore.

I’m willing to move languages both up and down on my fluency ladder. What is C2 on my website is being able to understand virtually EVERYTHING and speak without floundering when I’m at my best.

Keep in mind that if I’m in a debilitating situation (jetlagged, starved) then it’s not going to be a reflection of my truest capabilities. That’s another thing to keep in mind because sometimes I dwell on “messing up” at events like Mundo Lingo, or I get vexed when I hear ignorant comments about my languages or my language choice (as, sadly, happens often there. I’m seriously starting to re-evaluate if people who speak multiple languages really ARE more open-minded. No doubt language hobbyists are, however).

Anyhow, the most important thing to realize is that every language you learn throughout your life is a process.  There is always something new to discover and you have to savor every step of the journey, even if you falter.

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DETERMINATION.

Do You Need the Presence of Native Speakers in Your Life to Learn a Language?

I should definitely begin by saying two things:

  • The presence of native speakers in your target language can only do good things, except if they are monumentally discouraging you to learn their language (which almost all of them are not).
  • You absolutely DO need to hear native speaker VOICES in order to learn a language, what this article is about is whether you actually need human beings.

I considered not writing this article, but given that there are so many people that rule out languages they want to learn because they worry they won’t encounter native speakers anywhere, I thought this needed to be written.

In a significant amount of the languages that I speak fluently, I have never conversed with a native speaker of the language. Let’s count them:

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I HAVE used with Native Speakers:

 

English, Swedish, Danish, Norwegian, Yiddish, Hebrew, Finnish, German, Spanish, Breton(!), Irish, Icelandic, Greenlandic (phone conversations only), Polish, French, Welsh, Ukrainian, Russian, Northern Sami (!!!!), Myanmar / Burmese, Tajik, Slovak, Vietnamese, Gujarati, Tamil

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have NOT used with native speakers:

 

Pijin, Bislama, Cornish (okay, that one time with the guy who spoke a few words, but he wasn’t a native), Scottish Gaelic (okay, same situation as Cornish, but he spoke more than a few words), Guarani, Tahitian, Mossi (although I met a possible native speaker once but before I knew this language existed), Tongan, Rapa Nui, Palauan, Kiribati / Gilbertese, Bileez Kriol

 

Languages on my list (not all of them good) that I have used with other speakers of the language, but NOT natives:

 

Tok Pisin, Faroese, Lao, Trinidadian Creole (second-generation people with roots in various Caribbean nations, this situation is unbearably complicated!)

 

And this list becomes even more iffy when you take into account that, in some areas, it matters that you are a FLUENT speaker rather than a native. This is especially the case for Creole Languages, that function as mini-Global Languages in the areas that they are spoken (which explains why in places like Papua New Guinea Tok Pisin is more widely spoken than Standard English. This is true wherever Creoles are spoken, in my understanding).

To write for Finnish Wikipedia, it is pretty much required that you be a native speaker or have your work edited by one (same for English or many other languages, actually). However, for Tok Pisin Wikipedia, it is just required that you are fluent, you don’t need Tok Pisin to be your native language.

And now to return back to the topic at hand!

You CAN learn a language very well or even to fluency without ever having encountered a native speaker in your target language ever. (I’ve done it several times.)

That said, I should issue warnings and pieces of advice in the event that you’d like to undertake this route. But sometimes this route is necessary. Maybe you really want to learn a language that you just can’t get exposed to except through the Internet. I highly encourage that route, as long as you keep the following in mind:

 

  • Listen Intently to the Way that Native Speakers Talk!

 

You may be able to learn a language without encountering any real-life native speakers, but you WILL have to encounter VIRTUAL native speakers at one point (e.g. your target language spoken on the radio, used in movies or in other forms of online media). To that end, you’ll need to listen intently:

How do the people who speak this language formulate their vowels? How do they deal with syllable stress? How are various consonants (such as r or t or the equivalent) pronounced differently than in languages you already know well? What accents that you recognize resemble the one you are listening to?

The best thing to do is to imitate the voices you hear. In some cases you may have some learner audio. In the event that you don’t, you can almost ALWAYS find samples of the language online (spoken or sung or what-have-you) and imitate that by repeating the syllables one after the other.

You learned your first language with mimicry, and don’t be afraid to learn your 2nd or even your 19th with mimicry as well.

 

  • Practice Conversations with Yourself

 

I can walk into almost any language exchange in the world and find an opportunity to give a stump speech about myself in a language like Spanish. At least where I am, I don’t have that luxury for Bislama or Breton.

So what did I do?

I practiced talking to myself as if I were introducing myself to someone. You can even have a little dialogue in your head, but this is not recommended unless you are under very dire circumstances (e.g. stuck in a job where you cannot talk unless you absolutely must). Write down words that serve as gaps in your vocabulary and look them up later.

To find out if your sentences are correct, compare them to what you can find in your textbooks or online (or, in the case of the rarest languages, Bible translations, which also exist for too many other languages to list, literally everywhere).

Feel free to also bounce off sentences in the language you are learning off of like-minded friends. Ask them to do the same if they are learning…well, any language at all, to be honest.

 

  • Double Your Exposure with Media for Languages that You Don’t Rehearse in Conversation as Often

 

If you want to become conversant in this language, good news: there certainly is a way. But you need to listen to your language even more intently and with increasing frequency.

When I was learning Tok Pisin and Greenlandic in the elementary stages, I acquired a LOT of musical tracks in both languages and had them crowd my SIM-Card. The practice I wasn’t getting at polyglot events was made up for with exposure to the language I had during my commute or just while walking down the street.

You’d be surprised about how much passive vocabulary you can really acquire from this (you’re going to have to look at dictionaries from time-to-time and see how many words are vaguely familiar with the “Oh! I remember hearing that word in a song once!” flavor).

You may not have exposure to native speakers to hone your accent, but you do have recordings, and they can be as equally useful. (And besides, a lot of people don’t really imitate native speakers that well anyway or put a lot of effort into accent development unless they have to. This laziness is just how humanity is most of the time).

 

  • Record Yourself!

 

Absolutely essential. And if you have the courage to put your recordings of you speaking your target language on a video site, all the more power to you. And you can even find Reddit communities where your target language is spoken and they can give you feedback a lot of the time. That’s how I became world-famous all over Palau!

If you can compare your recordings to that of native speakers, either talking or singing, that is even better!

  • If you find close-up videos of native speakers talking, imitate their mouth movements.

 

I don’t think that requires much further explanation.

 

  • Having trouble with a sound you don’t know? Find guides. Or just fake the sound until something like it comes to you.

 

You may want to learn a language with that guttural q or click sounds but don’t know how to pronounce it. Guides will help you, even if you can’t find native speakers who can.

Or another thing you could do is somehow try to find the mouth-movements that closely mimic them. You’d be surprised to learn that you can actually train your mouth to learn new sounds well into your adulthood and for the rest of your life!

I’ve coached singers to sing in Greenlandic and they managed the hardest sounds of the language (q and ll and rr) with great ease once I told them what to do with their mouth. Even if you can’t find a native speaker, you can find a guide somewhere because a lot of these sounds are more common in languages throughout the world than you think (Those sounds I just mentioned in Greenlandic are not unique to the language at all, appearing in dozens if not hundreds of others!)

  • In the Event of a Tonal Language, Rehearse Tones with Ruthless Imitation in the Same Way as (1)

 

People who want to try to say that tonal languages are not suitable for self-study are lying. It may indeed be HARDER, but with enough training your love will conquer all.

The key is to repeat very often. Very, very often. Like a piano piece you have to memorize for a recital. This is essential.

 

Conclusion:

 

Learning a language without any native speakers to talk to in-person is a challenge, but it definitely is possible with discipline. A lot of people say “I need native speakers to talk to and to help me develop my accent”.

That might have been true in earlier days, but nowadays recordings from speakers of your favorite language are more accessible than ever! So the primary issues would be (1) expose yourself to the language very, very often and (2) imitate the language very, very often and (3) record yourself to see how you measure up for native speakers.

And who knows? Maybe you will actually encounter a native speaker of your dream language one day, even if others are telling you that the chances of meeting one are “almost none”!

Don’t believe the haterz. You deserve the life you want!

yerushalayim