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Block 3: Language Level Fever


We're going to take a trip down memory lane for a second. I don't know how it was in your middle school or high school, but in my high school, EVERYONE had a label. If you wore converse and painted your nails black, you were a punk. If you played in the marching band, you were SUCH a nerd. If you played sports, you were a jock or a prep. If you wore converse, played in the marching band and also ran track and field, you were, well, confusing. Coming back to the present day, this "label fever" is literally everywhere. Humans are obsessed with putting other people into categories, as if a unique individual could fit perfectly into a box labelled, "American", or "Liberal", or "Hipster". I'm going to rant a bit today, just warning you. This same label fever is applied to learning languages. We define our language levels in little code words like A1, or B2, and the higher your letter and number, the better you are, right? ABSOLUTELY NOT. There is a time and a place for "language labels", just like there is a time and a place to be identified as an American, a Liberal or a Hipster. Let me explain.

 

When is a language level label useful?


Let's think about this for a second. I'm going to give you some real life examples, and then we'll apply it to language levels. I'm an American. I have an American passport, and have to tell the f*P=ing American government how much money I make, even though I make it and use it in another country. I live 99% of my life acting as if I were an Italian citizen. I speak Italian, I pay Italian taxes, I cook Italian food (quite well, if I do say so myself), and I know where Molise is. I identify a gazillion times more with European culture and lifestyle, and am not considering going back to the USA to live. I like to consider myself a citizen of the world, not just an American. My American label serves me absolutely no purpose, EXCEPT for when I want to go home to visit my mom. In that specific case, my American passport is very useful, I can just buy a ticket, hop on a plane, and answer some stupid questions in JFK when I land and then go and hang out with my mom for as long as I damn well please, and nobody can kick me out.


We can apply this same concept to the typical "A1-C2" language levels. 99% of the time, they are useless figures slapped onto your CV to try to impress your future asshole boss who probably can't even speak English. In reality, the day to day tasks that you need to carry out in English are not separated into levels. When you receive an email in English, it doesn't have a label on it that says, "adapt for B1 English speakers". You, regardless of your English level, have to open that email, understand it and respond to it. Maybe you are a wiz at deciphering emails and responding to them in English, but when you have to make a phone call, it's really difficult for you. Perhaps you can carry out a nearly flawless conversation in English, but when you have to write an email, you write like a first grader. You are not just one single English level. And the only time that having that official certification serves a purpose is when you need it to apply for school or university, or want to work in an international context. In this particular case, that certification is often your "plane ticket" to land (pun intended) your new position, because of the official selection process.


So please, please stop obsessing over having an official certification if you don't actually need it. These tests cost between 150€ and 200€, and did you know that it actually expires after 2 years?!?!?!?! You should be much more focused on what you actually can and need to do in English. Do you need English for work? How complicated are the things you have to do in English? Do you just want to know enough English to be able to travel comfortably? Do you hate watching dubbed movies and series and just want to be able to watch the original versions? We need to stop focusing on labels and start focusing more on what we can and cannot do in the language we are learning. If you can do everything that you need to do and are happy with your level, then great, keep doing what you're doing. If you struggle a bit with the tasks that you need to carry out, then invest in yourself and find a teacher or a self study program that fits your schedule and budget. Stop forking out hundreds of euros just to pass a test that isn't even a perfect demonstration of the English that you know. END OF STORY and end of my rant. But I will never stop ranting about this.

 

My language learning story, chapter 4


So, last week we saw the highest point of my Spanish learning story, and once I became Clarita, I just really started having fun speaking Spanish. This isn't perhaps the best approach, but I essentially rejected English in everything. I read in Spanish, watched series in Spanish and listened to Spanish music. I went out with Spanish people, and even with my bilingual friends, I generally opted for speaking in Spanish. I even had difficulty talking about certain topics in English, though this is quite normal when you learn another language. Anyways, my initial "1 year in Madrid" turned into 9, and to be honest, I could have stayed there forever. But, I had the chance to move to Rome, and well, who wouldn't jump at that chance? So, 9 years after I got off that plane speaking zero Spanish, I packed up my things, this time into my husbands Seat Ibiza, and we set off on a 3 day trip from Madrid to Rome. Back to square 1. Sure, Italian is sort of similar to Spanish, so that made the move a little less daunting, but by no means can you go and just speak Spanish to Italian people and expect to be understood. My language learning approach was much different than when I arrived to Spain. I was an adult that needed to get things done, like opening a bank account, getting my codice fiscale, getting a new phone number, setting up wifi at the new house so that I could study (I was studying an online teaching degree at the time) etc. etc. etc. We moved to Rome because of my husband's job, so of course he had to work and couldn't exactly go everywhere and do everything with me, so I was very quickly thrown out of my comfort zone and into the chaos that is Rome. I decided that the best thing to do to get a good base was do a quick Italian course, and I must say, that helped a lot. Learning a third language seemed a lot easier than learning a second, perhaps because my brain already had the "muscle memory". My full immersion (in administrative offices) and that month long course really kick started my Italian learning, but I made some important decisions along the way to make sure that I continued improving. I'll share those in next week's post, and maybe they can even give you some ideas on how to continue improving your English!

 

Glossary

  • to take a trip down memory lane: an informal expression to say, "let's remember..."

  • marching band: the band (group of musicians) that plays at American Football games

  • jock: someone who is involved in sports, and perhaps not very interested in intellectual activities (often stereotyped as, "all muscle, no brain").

  • prep: a term used to describe people from "well to do" (stereotyped snobby) families

  • track and field: the sport where you run around the track, jump over hurdles and also into sand pits

  • to rant: to speak passionately or angrily about a topic

  • if I do say so myself: an informal expression, often used to compliment one's abilities

  • gazillion: slang for A LOT

  • to hang out: an informal phrasal verb - to spend time with someone

  • slapped onto: an informal phrasal verb - to put something quickly and or carelessly onto something else

  • regardless of: without being affected or stopped by something else

  • a wiz: informal for someone who is very good at something

  • flawless: synonym for perfect

  • a first grader: a child in first elementary

  • to land [something]: a phrasal verb that means - to achieve something

  • to fork out: a phrasal verb that means - to spend a lot of money

  • to jump at the chance: a phrasal verb that means - to happily or excitedly take an opportunity

  • square 1: informal expression for, "the beginning"

  • daunting: synonym for "scary"

  • to be thrown out of: a phrasal verb that means - to be forcefully forced out of something

  • to kick start [something]: phrasal verb - to start something quickly


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