How to Get to an Intermediate and Advanced Level in a Foreign Language:
The Case for More Textbook Work
If you’re interested in another important method to help you get to advanced (past the never-ending intermediate stage), read this tutorial on graded readers.
So many students, including myself in more than one language, have found that the intermediate level doesn’t seem to come to an end. I remember my mum (also a professional English teacher) said to me that the reason is simple; most students find that they can do pretty much what they like once they get to the intermediate level. They spend so much time and effort getting to the intermediate level then when they are finally there, they can’t find the motivation to invest another thousand hours or so to reach an advanced level. Some even believe that making an effort to reach such a high level only brings in diminishing returns.
Mum had a point, and a good one. It is so difficult to find that second bout of energy to reach an advanced level that many people just give up. Here are my languages and my ability in them now*:
Chinese: BA, HSK6 (top level)
Spanish: B1 (Previously B2)
Classical Chinese: Intermediate
Italian: A1 (previously A2)
As you can see, I find it as hard as many others to reach an advanced stage of language learning. You can do most basic things such as order coffee, book a hotel, negotiate the price of a calligraphy lesson….. at intermediate. The amount of dedication and discipline required is just too much for MOST people. This is a terrible state of affairs as most of the juicy language is at the advanced level.
Another reason I think people don't reach the advanced stage in a foreign language is because novelty often wears off and the allure of another, exotic tongue whispers in your ear “こんにちは”, “नमस्कार” “γεια”! It happens a lot and this is my biggest issue with foreign languages. If you can think of other reasons, please post them in the comments.
This article is about using additional elementary/intermediate textbooks to help reach an advanced level or get to a solid intermediate level from an elementary one. Textbooks aren’t enough on their own, but they are a great resource for those who don’t know where to turn. In terms of my own experience, I’m hosting a Latin challenge here as I’m writing this that relies heavily on similar level textbooks to reinforce the vocabulary and language that I have learned at a similar stage. Ten years ago when I was studying abroad in China for my degree, I was moved up a year from year two to year three (there were two of us in the department who skipped a year). When I was put in a Chinese class with Koreans and Japanese, I was obviously way out of my league (man, Koreans and Japanese tend to study Chinese really well!). I despaired and decided to buy ALL the textbooks that I had come before me (about twelve, ranging from listening courses to newspaper readings). I did nothing else during spring break but work through these textbooks and came back among the top of the class.
Many people wrongly believe that there is no need to read textbooks that are the same level as one they have just finished. For example, they believe that as they have already finished Teach Yourself French (elementary), there is no need to read Colloquial French 1. This negative assumption is wrong as in language acquisition, just like a Latin teacher once told me, there is no such thing as “too easy”. 15 years ago I snubbed an elementary Italian class that was offered for free by a teaching colleague of mine, believing that it was too easy. She simply replied, “You can never learn too much lexis”.
Think about a native teacher saying something like this:
He went on a trip to England.
A native speaker, irrespective of education, is very likely to utter the following: He wen-on-a trip to England. Now imagine a learner of English. Are they able to imitate such phonological precision? Some may say this is impossible and then go on to cite the critical period hypothesis, but others (including myself) would affirm a confident "Yes"! The point is that even though the language of the above sentence is elementary, most students of English are unable to imitate it to a level that approximates a native speaker. I believe the fundamental difference is in exposure. The native speaker has uttered or been exposed to these words and phrases thousands and thousands of times, whereas the elementary student has only come across them a few times in an elementary textbook or two. Take the phrase ma soeur (my sister in French) and let’s make an assumption about how many times both the native speaker and the learner has been exposed to it during their lifetimes:
Native speaker (35 years old): 35,000 times
Student: 1-5 times
The student is confident that she knows the phrase as she’s successfully completed a basic textbook. Can you see the folly of such an assumption? If this student was me, I would pull out all the stops by applying intelligent methods across a series of similarly graded textbooks. What would my new tally be if I followed my own advice? How many times would I have been exposed to ma soeur? Let’s break it down with a back of the envelope calculation (For tutorials on how to use the methods mentioned in the table, click on the following: Shadow, Pace, Memorise, CI Clouds, Review):
So, after really ploughing through these additional textbooks, we have a new figure:
Native speaker (35 years old): 35,000 times
Let’s quickly look at what the table tells us:
1) Textbook: Pretty simple- these are titles of popular or very good textbooks at the elementary level. I recommend each and every one, but for different reasons.
2) Method: These are the methods I believe are most suited to the textbook in question. Of course, other options are available but these methods stand out (so much so that they are, like this one, Featured articles on this site).
3) No. of Hypothetical Occurrences:
A) Individual: How many instances of the phrase ma soeur appear in each textbook (twice in Assmil 1, once in Assimil 2, etc);
B) Cumulative: How many instances of ma soeur appear when we add the total number of appearances from each book. We can see that there is a sum total of 34 appearances from a total of nine books.
4) Repetitions: This entry gives a new number of instances of ma soeur after recommenced methods have been employed. For example, Assimil 1 has 2 instances of the phrase, but after Shadowing and Pacing, the new number of exposures will be 80. We eventually reach the impressive total of 745 appearances of the phrase.
I know the disparity is still huge, but after so many exposures of this phrase as well as the one or two thousand other words and phrases that feature regularly in your average textbook (hotel, my friends, family, etc), you’re going to have a very good foundation in that language. Language acquisition is data-driven, and the more meaningful exposures the learner comes into contact with during the course of her career, the better her ability in that language. Yes, there is some variation involved in natural ability (linguistic intelligence?), but there are millions of fluent speakers who didn’t make MENSA membership (just look around….).
So, what books should we consider using first? I’ve already mentioned my favourite textbooks, so I’ll first discuss each briefly. Unfortunately, this staple bundle of textbook titles is not available for every language, but for the most popular languages (French and Spanish, etc), they can usually be readily obtained. Let’s have a look at the availability of each textbook for several major languages:
(For a list of these resources and more, click on our Resources Page)
Unfortunately, not all languages are as easily marketable as most of those mentioned above. On the flip side, there are available pathways for other, more exotic, languages.
There are other amazing courses such as Berlitz and Pimsleur, and older versions of many textbooks which are sometimes even better than the modern versions. These can and should be sought after for additional practice.
Conclusion: Textbooks are wonderful resources for language learners. Successful language acquisition relies on exposure to a vast amount of meaningful linguistic input, the volume of which is simply impossible to obtain with one textbook alone. This is why it’s necessary to seek out similarly graded textbooks and lots of them for review.
Challenge: Try getting a few of these textbooks and working through a similar level. You’ll always pick up new things, but you’ll also solidify your knowledge of familiar items. Let us know how you get on!
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* I'm currently working hard on French and Latin and have promised myself not to attempt another language until I get to a solid B1 in each of my languages. It's hard.