Foreign Language Fluency, Acquisition Methods and Psychological Bias

Foreign Language Fluency, Acquisition Methods and Psychological Bias

One of my recent personal projects has been to work on improving my fluency levels in both French and German. I would say I’m conversational in both, with my German being a little better, but although I can speak in both languages I am by no means at mastery level in either of them, or even at fluency depending on the situation.

The criteria by which one judges a level of linguistic fluency is commonly measured in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which goes through six levels:

Common European Framework of Reference For Languages

 

A1 – Complete beginner. Familiar with very basic expressions and can understand simple questions.

A2 – Elementary level. Can communicate on a basic level with relatively familiar subject matter.

B1 – Threshold / intermediate. Can deal with most situations likely to arise when travelling.

B2 – Upper intermediate. Can interact with a level of linguistic proficiency that doesn’t hinder communication.

C1 – Advanced. Effective Operational Proficiency. Can express ideas fluently and can recognise subtle, implicit meanings. Usually able to work in the language.

C2 – Mastery. Can express oneself very fluently, and can easily understand almost everything that is being heard or read.


Right now the only language I have at C2 is my native tongue, English. I’m unsure as to exactly what levels my French and German are at, but I took a brief online test the other day to try to place my language skills at an approximate level, and it put both of them at A2 level, which was extremely irritating because I thought my German at least would have been B1. Granted, both languages have atrophied in recent years due to lack of any real usage, but it was still a bit of a kick in the teeth. I have no idea how accurate the online test was compared to taking a genuine exam with the Framework (which I do intend to do within the next few years) but I’m going to assume, in the meantime, that it’s accurate and on that basis I’m going to work on developing both of them.

One thing that I’ve been doing in the past week is to listen to podcasts in the target language. One that I’ve found that is extremely helpful in French is “Français Authentique”, which I stumbled across on YouTube whilst searching for language material. I’ll embed one below for your benefit:

One thing I noticed when I was in France was that I was unable to follow some of the conversation on French TV, especially at higher speeds – a problem I generally don’t have with German, so I decided to work on listening and understanding. So far, the Français Authentique podcast has been great – I listened to every single one of the “7 Règles de Français Authentique” (“7 Rules for Authentic French”) and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could understand 95% of the entire thing. The reader of the podcast speaks very clearly (and although a little slower than regular French, not noticeably so) and he makes a lot of very interesting points. Here are a few of the things I took away from it:

Use context to your advantage.

 

Even if you don’t understand every single word you come across, you almost always get a good idea of the meaning of an unknown phrase if you understand most of the context around it. For instance, if you heard the French equivalent of “He turned off the kitchen light, locked the front door and went up the escalier to bed”, then you’d probably have a pretty fair idea that escalier means “staircase”, even if you’d never heard it before in your life. As long as you’re listening attentively and paying attention (rather than letting the whole thing wash passively over you), this approach enables you to learn new phrases, grammar, vocabulary and slang without ever having to consult a dictionary or otherwise look something up – especially if you hear the phrase multiple times to cement its meaning.

Repetition, repetition, repetition.

 

By this, I don’t mean poring over endless verb tables and trying to learn them by rote, over and over again. Let’s use the “context” example above. If you hear an unknown word once, you might well gloss over it, barely noticing it. If you hear it twice, it will begin to register. By the third time you’ve heard it, it will begin to annoy you if you don’t know what it is, so at that point you learn the word. Now, if you’ve heard it three times already, chances are fair that you’ll be hearing it again, so this time, when the word rolls around again, you’ll be familiar as to its meaning and the repetition will begin to cement its way into your vocabulary on an almost unconscious level. The more you hear it, the less likely you will be to forget its meaning.

Use your “temps morts” (dead time) wisely.

 

A lot of people say that they just “don’t have the time” to learn a language, which in 99% of the cases is absolute nonsense. A great tip is to use your temps morts, which means that you can leverage time which would have otherwise been wasted by snatching back small moments throughout the day. A few examples: doing the washing up, boiling the kettle or even the good old porcelain throne – that unavoidable phenomenon where you’re guaranteed at least a few minutes per day to try to use the time wisely. If I’m doing the washing up, I will be doing something else with my time, such as listening to a podcast. You can often find small portions of time throughout the day, and if you reclaim these, you’ll be surprised how much time it can add up to by the end of the 24 hours.

Listen to – and learn – things that actually interest you.

 

One of the stereotypical benchmarks of fluency that gets thrown around in academic circles seems to be such criteria as “ability to discuss complex politics or debate philosphy in target language”. However, Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 Months makes an extremely good point when he says that very few people are able to successfully do that even in their own mother tongue, so why should that be the criteria by which you judge your foreign language learning? If that’s your thing, and it interests you, then by all means learn the specific, specialist vocabulary required to do so, but if not, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with focusing specifically on things that you enjoy. I’ve also heard it summarised as:

“If it doesn’t interest you in your own native tongue, it probably won’t interest you in a foreign language either.”

 

If you enjoy watching old kung fu movies, this will probably be far more beneficial to your Cantonese (if you approach it in the correct manner, that is) than studying dry academic texts or financial newspapers. Tim Ferriss famously used judo textbooks in order to vastly accelerate his progress in Japanese.

Some of my possessions from foreign countries

Whenever I visit a new country, I tend to pick up something in the language – a DVD, a book, a comic – which I will then be able to enjoy at the same time as improving my language skills. For instance, when I was last in France, I picked up both a Tintin comic in its original French and a French-language version of “Catch Me If You Can” (“Arrête-moi si tu peux”) which I will watch in French with French subtitles (not English ones, as I’ll tend to just read those without paying much attention to the French in the background).

I have also picked up versions of the Harry Potter books in both German and French, and a copy of Philip Pullman’s “Northern Lights” in German (unfortunately, the German translation is “Der Goldene Kompass” which of course is a translation of the American-modified name for the novel, “The Golden Compass” – which I personally think is completely unnecessary. The same applies to the dumbing-down of “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone” into “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”. Seriously, I’m sure Americans have heard of philosophers.)

Anyone who has ever watched Amélie would probably realise that being able to enjoy it entirely in the original French without subtitles would be a lot of fun – something I definitely aspire to even though by now I would be able to get the gist of the film, having seen it already with the subtitles. Similarly, there’s a great film in German called Lola Rennt (“Run, Lola, Run“) which is a brilliantly dark comedy that has three different outcomes. I can only imagine all the things I’m missing out on in hundreds of different languages by not being able to speak them!

A Weird Psychological Fluke

 

During this entire language re-acquisition phase of mine, I’ve been listening to a lot of French podcasts and the occasional German one, and it made me realise that there’s something weird that happens to me. When you begin to soak in the language and your level of understanding increases, I always feel that there will be enough odd words in there to give away the general gist to other people that don’t actually even speak the language – even if that really isn’t the case. For example, I’ve heard “der Tag” so often in German that it has the same level of comfort as my native English “the day“. This means, for some reason, that when I hear this, I really feel – again, even though this isn’t the case – that everyone else will hear it and understand the same thing as me.

This is because, in a strange kind of way, it’s difficult to hear something, understand it, and then realise that the person sitting next to you heard the exact same thing, but doesn’t in fact understand the meaning at all. Of course, on an intellectual level it makes perfect sense, but it’s only when you hear things that you yourself don’t understand that you really remember, on a primal level, that there are sounds that can be heard as complete gibberish too.

Of course, in real life, you can actually very often understand the odd word because they’re the same in multiple languages (a phenomenon known as “loan words” due to the fact that they have been “borrowed” from other languages). For example:

 

French – “un sandwich” = a sandwich.

German – “Delikatessen” – delicatessen.

Mandarin – “巧克力” (pronounced qiǎo kè lì [English approximation: chow ke lee] which is very, very similar to the English “chocolate”.)

Dutch – “de storm” = the storm.

 

It’s because of loan-words and the psychological imbalance mentioned above that I feel I would never be able to insult someone in a foreign language – even if they really didn’t speak it at all – because this strange cognitive bias would mean that I would feel as though they should be able to understand me, even if in actuality they had no idea what I was saying. Not that I’m complaining – this is definitely a good thing!

What about you?

What methods have you used to improve your fluency in a foreign language? Also, I would be interested to know if anyone has any resources for watching foreign TV shows or films online – sort of like a foreign-language Netflix, if that kind of thing exists. French and German are of particular interest to me right now, but I’d like to try that method for picking up fluency faster in new languages (the most likely one in the near future will be Dutch).

Drop me a comment below!