What Does it Mean to be an Advanced Language Learner?

In the last month we’ve been working with a French tutor. I got the tutor mostly for my husband Don who is a relative beginner, but thought I’d give myself an hour with the tutor in between his two hour-long lessons. This also has the advantage of giving him a break instead of a two hour onslaught. Although I speak and understand French well enough to muddle through most situations I lack practice and desperately need to work on advanced conversation skills. Unfortunately, what I find even more difficult than French is explaining what “advanced conversation skills” means. I’ve debated this topic countless times with fellow students and colleagues as well as my language teachers and students whom I was teaching. Most people believe that advanced language learning involves more literary themes such as poetry and scholarly works, or lofty topics such as world politics or ecology. These are what you would study in your native language at a college level and I certainly don’t want to suggest that this is not a worthy goal for those so inclined. It’s just not for me. My idea of advanced language is mastering the intricacies of the language we use every day to communicate with the people around us and complete daily tasks whether it’s at home, work, local shops and businesses or as a tourist.

Developing the communication skills necessary to function in everyday life is called communicative language learning and in recent decades it has become the rage, or least the main talking point at most language immersion schools. As such, most schools nowadays start with communicative lessons at the beginning and sometime intermediate level. When you arrive at the advance stages, however, suddenly you are thrown into a world of 19th century French poetry (I’m not kidding this has actually happened) or political debates. The problem is, non-native speakers who don’t have consistent contact with native speakers in everyday situations, myself included, often lack some of the more subtle communication skills, coming across as too harsh, maladroit or simply as making odd word choices. I’ve seen many advanced English learners have difficulty putting together a reply to a simple lunch invitation. Many learners are unaware of how they sound and consider their language skills perfectly adequate, or they may think it is an insult to study basic conversation when they are clearly advanced speakers. Some many even want to keep their “foreignness” and not risk sounding “too American” for instance.

The second problem is that generally, as long as you are understood, you are not given the feedback that suggests what you said was not totally appropriate. Case in point: I was at the market buying cheese and the woman asked me if I wanted a little bag. I responded, “Non merci, Je l’ai.” It wasn’t until I was driving home that I realized that what I said was actually “I have it”, which is not the appropriate response in either English or French. It should be “J’en ai un” (I have one). A small detail, but for me this is an important difference between an advanced speaker and someone who just gets by in the language. Most people think that this is the sort of thing that you just pick up, and I would agree that there are some talented ears who are able to pick up and effectively mimic what they hear. But many learners actually learn little more than what they are specifically taught, which is often just good enough to avoid the negative feedback that comes with miscommunication. If I had for instance said something totally inappropriate or incomprehensible I would have gotten negative feedback and the chance to correct my mistake. Because I was understood there was no correction.

So this is what I want to try to conquer in my year in France. I want to sound more French and use language appropriate for a given situation. This takes work and practice, specifically on conversation skills and vocabulary, but even though I’ve explained the above story to my tutor he remains intent on giving me a lecture on French wine when what I really want is to develop the conversational skills necessary to intelligently buy a bottle of wine. Not the same thing at all.

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