The vast majority of language learners never escape the advanced beginner and lower intermediate levels in their target language (CEFR A2 and B1 levels). This plateau represents the first real hurdle to fluency and most students simply give up after floundering for a few months. Others continue studying but never make any real progress and seem eternally stuck at somewhere between a high B1 and a low B2, never really becoming conversationally fluent. My suggestion for breaking past this plateau is based on my studies for CILS, an Italian CEFR examination, and talking with other language learners. Like any good technique for breaking past a plateau, no matter if it’s language learning or weight lifting, it requires a highly-focused, concerted effort on the hardest aspect of the skill you wish to improve. In the case of a foreign language that is almost always writing. If you think your writing skills are at a decent level but you’re not yet conversationally fluent, I’m going to challenge you on the objective evaluation of your own abilities. Unless you’ve been working as a professional translator for years, it is highly unlikely that you write as well as you think you do.
Answer these questions honestly:
When you’re writing a text in your target language do you use a dictionary or spell checking program?
Do you look up conjugations that you are not certain of?
Do you use the Internet or any other resource to help you with idiomatic expressions or to translate a difficult phrase?
If you answered yes to any of those, then you are not as good as you think you are. The program I’ve developed will wean you off of those crutches and help you develop a productive base of grammar and vocabulary that will get you to the next level. You’ll be putting strategies like pre-study, task-based retrieval practice, spaced repetition, and generative learning to work for you.
This is a lot of work and is going to require a serious commitment to stick with it for at least two months if you’re trying to break through to a high B2 level. I’d double that for making the jump from B2 to C1 (4 months) and double it again (8 months) if you want to go from C1 to a strong C2. You can also assume that this work is going to be mostly in addition to any study and conversation lessons you are already doing. It’s not a replacement for your current studies, it’s a supplement.
In this article I’ll map out the process using B1 as a guide but if you look at the requirements for the written exams at the other levels, the modifications you need to make should be obvious. At the B1 level you will be expected to write a short but coherent text on a range of familiar topics within your field of interest or on fundamental topics such
- Family and friends; which may include an informal letter to a family member regarding family matters or any of the topics
- Travel and vacations; which may include aspects of Italian history and culture, visiting museums, methods of transportation, and other related topics
- Hobbies and interests including sports, literature, music, and movies/theater including descriptions or instructions of how a game or sport is played or the description of an imaginary match you attended
- Work and careers including how to write a CV, writing a formal letter inquiring about a job posting, a professional email to your boss, and other work-related writing tasks
The written portion of the exam may include multiple different tasks that could range from proof reading a text for common errors in spelling, grammar, or punctuation to a free writing assignment of the sort mentioned above. We are going to focus on free writing.
For free writing it needs to be stressed that you will only have pencil and paper for the examination so you must practice writing texts in this way without the help of any digital devices. You must also ensure that you have stayed reasonably within the 100 to 120-word limit. Obviously, fewer than 120 words might mean automatic failure of the section but writing far more than 120 words can lead to losing a precious point or two as well.
To pass the written exam with full marks you must meet the following criteria.
|Fully satisfies the demands of the task, with good expansion of the topic.||Grammar appropriate to level and mostly accurate.||Good range of vocabulary on general topics, accuracy is high.||Errors do not impede communication. Cohesive and coherent text appropriately using a full range of linguistic devices. Few if any punctuation errors.|
Practicing these types of writing tasks will also have a very positive feedback into your conversational abilities but to get that additional benefit you simply can’t overestimate the importance of forcing yourself to use just pen and paper with no digital crutches. This will require you to recall vocabulary and grammar yourself so that they are firmly integrated into your productive repertoire and not just passively understood when you hear them or read them. Repeated practice at accurate retrieval from your memory, not relying on a spell checker or the Internet, is the only way to achieve this. Doing this sort of retrieval practice in conversational lessons can be exceptionally hard as you just don’t have time to sit and think about your wording or about the grammatical aspect of the sentence you want to produce. But as you produce similar sentences on the page, the easier it will be to recall them in conversation. This is one of the fundamental differences between language acquisition and learning: emphasis on doing tasks in your target language rather than doing tasks about the target language.
Initially, producing a text without the help of a dictionary or the Internet might be too difficult for you, so I suggest that you find quality, native-produced examples of these genres of writing tasks and start off by using them as templates for writing your assignments on your computer. Study the resources so that you have a store of typical expressions and linguistic structures that native speakers use that you know by heart.
Do this for about two weeks with a bare minimum of three written texts per week. Type them out, send them to a tutor or submit them to a forum for correction, and then hand-write the corrected text in a notebook while comparing your un-edited text to the corrected text. Ask questions about the corrections if you don’t understand and search for common linguistic devices and patterns that you can memorize and use later. Pay attention to any spelling errors that you make repeatedly and correct them. If you have to, write out the words you find difficult 50 or 100 times; but fix basic errors quickly and at all costs. Once you have completed this for two weeks, switch to writing the texts by hand.
After making the transition to hand writing your texts, you need to start working with collocations and expressions. Collocations are combinations of words that native speakers frequently use in combination. A good example in English is hearty breakfast. In modern English, we hardly ever use the adjective hearty any more but when we do, it’s very frequently about meals. Another very common example is strong tea. A native speaker of English would likely never say powerful tea even though it’s grammatically possible. We’re also never going to say a car has a strong engine but we would say it has a powerful engine. Collocations and expressions don’t necessarily have any logic behind them and thus have to be learned by repeated exposure and use. Every language I’ve ever studied has a list of common idiomatic expressions somewhere on the Internet but collocations can be a little harder. If you can’t find an online collocation dictionary for your language, you’ll need to invest in a print edition. If you can’t find an online or print version, then you are going to have to use your own powers of observation. Mastering common collocations and knowing when and how to use expressions is a huge step to speaking like a native.
After you’ve picked your writing topic start thinking about the expressions and vocabulary that you expect you will need to know to write your text and learn them. Pay special attention to connecting words and expressions like however, even if, and in spite of. Give yourself about 20 minutes to sit down and write your text. Make sure you double space your text so that you can make readable corrections. Once you are done, take a short break and only after that should you come back and proof read your text. If you’re satisfied that you have cleaned up your rough draft, you can write out your final draft.
Yes, you read that correctly. After all this effort you are going to copy it onto a clean page to send to your tutor for correction. After you receive your corrections, you’ll write your text out a third time to ensure that you make the effort to actually review and understand the corrections that your tutor has made.
I’ll say it again, this is a lot of work and each week it might add 6 or 8 additional hours of study to your existing learning. That’s why you need to keep it limited to a specific period of time such as two or four months and not exceed the number of words expected at your target level. You’re simply not going to be able to sustain the effort indefinitely. But by forcing yourself to use unfamiliar structures and vocabulary in conjunction with structures and vocabulary you already know to produce new ideas, you aren’t just going to be learning. You’ll be taking this knowledge and forging it into a new skill that will result in an understanding of the language you didn’t have before and must, therefore, feedback into your other language skills like listening and speaking. There is simply no plateau that can withstand that kind of training.