when it’s hard to assess your level

By skyblueteapot.

I was talking the other night with a respected and experienced LingQ member, who, if she hasn’t actually written the book on LingQ, has certainly translated most of it. She was talking with some feeling about those students who had set their level wrong on their profile page.

“Well,,,” I countered meekly.

The Senior Member didn’t think this was much of a defense.

“There are descriptions of each level, aren’t there? You simply pick the one which corresponds to your abilities. What’s hard about that?”

What indeed. Doubtless there are enlightened countries in which self-evaluation skills are taught in schools. It would be cheering to think that they are being taught in schools in Britain now.  They certainly weren’t taught in twentieth century Britian. As far as we were concerned, there were four ability levels in, say, the French language:

1.     “I’m not terribly good at French.”

 Corresponds to “No Knowledge” up  to “Beginner 2”.

This person may have an O-level in French; nevertheless he believes themself to be completely incompetent and will not speak a word of French unless actually tortured.

2.     “I have an A-Level in French”

Corresponds to Intermediate 1 (if failed) or 2 (if passed).

This person will speak French if pushed and may even read simple novels in French.

3.     “I did my degree in French, actually”

Corresponds to Advanced 1 to Advanced 2. This is a near-native speaker of French, who almost certainly is a diplomat, a teacher or a professional who does a lot of business in France. A very rare beast indeed.

I have an O-level in French, something a little bit higher in German and no qualification in Russian, which would make me Beginner 2, Intermediate 1 and Beginner 1 respectively. But how accurate are these labels? And have I progressed? How do you tell if you come from a culture where linguistic incompetence is the norm and self-depreciation considered as good manners?

I would like to deliver some words of wisdom now, but unfortunately I don’t have any. I can merely offer some suggestions, which may or may not be helpful.  If you disagree, or have better advice to offer, please feel very free to comment on this article.

1.     Start with the level descriptions

You may be quite accurate at assessing your own level, in which case, job done!

2.     Look at your number of known words

The little cartoon of Steve (hey! Where’s it gone?) used to say “The number of known words is the best indicator of your proficiency”. This is convenient as LingQ tracks your known words for you, and shows you your rate of learning by week, month and year.

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple. LingQ only knows the words that you have told it you know. You may have written your doctoral dissertation in Spanish, but unless you inport in to LingQ and mark it as “all words known”, then LingQ doesn’t know you know those words. Furthermore, in Russian LingQ will count the same word in all its case, gender and number variations as different words. It would be nice if would could agree on an estimate of the number of “known” words you ought to have in each language at each level. We could argue about it on the LingQ forum for months.

Furthermore, a wide passive vocabulary is only critical in the earlier stages. Once you are at Intermediate 2, learning another 20 000 words is probably less critical than learning to pronounce the letter “r” correctly.

3.     Look at the percentage of unknown words in new lessons

Look at the “my level” lessons in the library. Do they look about right for you? They are selected based on your proficiency level, so if you have set it wrong you will get lessons offered you which are far too easy or far too hard.

Ideally the lessons that you study will have about 20% unknown words. LingQ calculates the number of words in each lesson which are unknown to you to help you choose lessons. It is more complicated than that, however. LingQ will count numbers, proper names and foreign words as unknown words, which will bump up the  “new word” count. Furthermore, in a case-based language such as Russian, the same word may appear in up to twelve different forms, each of which LingQ will consider as a new word. As a result, you may have to mentally reduce both your “known words” count and the percentage of unknown words in each new lesson.

4.     Track the number of hours you have spent learning the language

Unless you have devised an extremely bad way of learning a new language, there is a correlation between the number of hours spent listening to understandable material and your proficiency. An English-speaker learning French will need to listen to some 400 hours of French before they become fluent (Intermediate 1). Chinese will take the same student about 1 000 hours to become fluent, because it is much less similar to English. To go from fluency to proficiency (Advanced 1) takes the same time again.

Steve Kaufmann became fluent in Mandarin Chinese in 9 months, working at it full-time. 40 hours a week for 40 weeks makes….1 600 hours. That sounds about right to me.  The LingQ statistics on your profile page assumes you are spending some 7 hours a week on learning each language. That would make about 400 hours a year, which corresponds to an improvement of two levels in French or one level in Chinese. If you are learning two or more languages at once, or you lead a busy life, it could take you a year to progress a stage, from Beginner 1 to Beginner 2 to Intermediate 1 to Intermediate 2.

Once you get to intermediate 2, however,  it becomes trickier. At this stage you are may feel comfortable speaking in your target language. You won’t have gained accuracy and fluency and idiom and a wide vocabulary until you reach Advanced 1, and to get there you must commit yourself to working on your weak areas. It is perfectly possible to stay at Intermediate 2 for years, spending hours a week listening to the language, without ever getting your word order right or learning correct spellings.

5.     Ask your tutors’ opinion

Some tutors will regularly give your their assessment of your language skills and explain what evidence they are basing that assessment on.  Others will give you their opinion only if asked, and some might not commit themselves at all.  Different tutors should give you the same assessment; if not then you may end up even more puzzled.

6.     Do an on-line language test

This are by their nature flawed and narrow in range. However they are freely available and free.

7.     Join some group discussions

Broadly speaking, if you can hold your own in an Intermediate 2 discussion, then you are at least at Intermediate 2. If you are comfortable chatting with Advanced 1 students, you are probably also at Advanced 1. This is a very blunt instrument however. Other students are likely to have mis-assessed their level, and a discussion that the tutor had intended as Intermediate 1 may drift off into deeper waters. If you join a discussion and you feel yourself sinking, talk to the tutor about it afterwards. There may be a good reason why you struggled to follow the discussion other than that you are not terribly good.

8.     Sign up for a course

Courses are designed to provide a more structure for students, and part of that structure is to study material at your level. There were plans to offer students certificates at the end of courses.  I haven’t heard whether they are in place yet, but if you want a piece of paper to hang on your wall and impress your boss, I encourage you to enquire about them.

9.     Don’t worry about it!

For most purposes on LingQ it doesn’t matter if you have selected the right level or not. You can pick any lesson in the library and join any discussion, regardless of level. If you don’t like a lesson, you pick another one. If you don’t feel comfortable in a certain group then you won’t join them again. If you are truly enjoying learning for its own sake, and really feel no need to evaluate your progress or compare yourself against others, then I recommend you set your level to Intermediate 1 in all languages and go and put the kettle on.



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