How do you measure your second language competence? For many of us, the goal is simple: to be able to converse with others, to understand what they are saying and to be able to express our own ideas. This is basically communicative competency.
In other words, my (initial) goal is not high level proficiency, to ‘sound like a native speaker,’ or to achieve a certain score on a proficiency test. What I am seeking is communicative competency: to be able to talk with my neighbors, friends, and colleagues. It’s all about communicating.
This competence certainly doesn’t happen overnight, so let’s take a step back and look at how we obtain competence in our acquisition of a second language. Here are a few suggestions to the stages we pass through in obtaining second language competence.
Right now, I would say that my level of competence falls here. I probably have at least 500 words in my Spanish vocabulary, but I’m still silent. I’m almost petrified to open my mouth for fear of what may come out and what I may “accidentally” say. I listen attentively, trying to glean words from native speakers in conversation, but I certainly don’t feel ready to get involved.
There is danger of staying in the silent stage too long, and quite frankly not a lot of progress can be made in your competence if you do. For me it has been the “safe” stage, but I need to step outside of my comfort zone and move on. [David’s recommended resource for moving beyond this stage is Conversation Countdown.]
I am approaching this stage of second language competence, and I would describe this stage as the one where you begin to put words together in very simple sentences. Many times it is a subject and verb, or perhaps just an adjective describing a noun, all in an attempt to begin the early stages of communication. It’s not surprising that once to this level of second language competency, you can really begin to grow in leaps and bounds with your proficiency. During this stage you might find it helpful to:
- Try asking yes or no questions
- Try to describe a picture or magazine page describing what you see
- Try reading simple books to add to your vocabulary
I find it helpful to have a Spanish/English dictionary nearby so I can look up words I’d like to add to my vocabulary. Adding words to your vocabulary will help move you to the next stage.
TALK IT OUT STAGE
As your vocabulary continues to grow, you emerge past the choppy speech patterns of the previous stage and are able to communicate in more complete sentences. You may still be learning the proper order of word usage, but that will come. Native speakers will oftentimes gently correct you, or at the very least understand what you are trying to communicate.
At this stage in your competence, you might find it helpful to read more content driven books. I have seen those that have both the new language and English translation available to help you. Try reading them out loud to boost your verbal skills as well. At this stage you are hungry for more, and there are many different options to help you past this stage.
GETTING THERE STAGE
With time you will be amazed at the complexity of the sentences you can put together. Before you know it, you’ve quietly graduated from the Talk It Out Stage. You may not even realize the transformation has happened, but your improvement in your understanding of what others are saying when speaking to you will be dramatic.
There will still be phrases that stump you, and situations that you find yourself in that cause you to pause and draw on your ever growing vocabulary. Don’t stop here. Continue to master the complexities of this second language. Continue practicing by speaking with native speakers, reading books, watching television.
You can also help others with their second language acquisition and that will solidify what you have previously learned. Second language competence builds over time, and it takes practice and perseverance.
YOU’VE ARRIVED STAGE
This is when your second language competence is considered “fluent”. Merriam Webster’s simple definition for this is “able to speak a language easily and very well.” I think that is what we are all striving for, and for our own reasons.
For me, other than being able to communicate in our new Mexican community, I want to teach piano to Mexican children and/or adults who are likely not able to speak English. I need to have the confidence and ease to teach them as I have done previously with American children in the United States. To be able to communicate with ease, naturally being able to think and speak in more than one language, is a great accomplishment. CONGRATULATIONS if you have reached this stage!
I’ll ask again, what is your second language competency? Is your goal communicative competency, high level proficiency, or something else? Maybe you haven’t even started to study a second language and wonder why you should. [If so, here are some great reasons.] We are all at different places along the road to becoming fluent, and I wish you success on your journey toward second language competence!