Over the next few posts I will talk a little bit about testing. How effective are the existing language tests for English? How do we know what our skill level is in another language? How can other people best judge our skill level? Is our own subjective evaluation enough? Is it possible to standardize the evaluation of language skills? What are the advantages and disadvantages of doing so?
I do not know much about tests for other languages since I have not taken any language tests since I did my British Foreign Service Exam for Mandarin Chinese in 1969. Not taking tests has not prevented my from becoming fluent in a number of languages since then. Not having passed any tests in Japanese, Spanish, Swedish or German does not prevent me from conducting business in these languages . These are all languages that I studied very hard on my own after the age of 25. I did it using my principles but without the tremendous advantages of modern technology, like the resources of the Internet, MP3 players, and on line dictionaries etc.. I know what my level is in these languages even without taking a test. I know what I need to do to improve further.
I am studying Korean now, and what is holding me back is not the lack of tests, but rather the lack of interesting content. I am tired of reading and listening to text book content in Korea and this really affects my motivation.
For English there is no shortage of standardized tests. TOEFL and TOEIC are perhaps the best known. Many people achieve high scores in these tests and cannot communicate properly in English. Millions of people, especially in Asia, put more effort into learning the tricks of how to pass these tests, than into learning English itself. In the long run they are the losers. Their English often does not reach the level required for professional communication. Here in Vancouver our schools have many international students who cannot write a proper essay or report without the help of an editor or tutor. Once they graduate form our indulgent universities and colleges they face a rude awakening in the workplace.
Yet schools and employers want some measurable standards of the English competence of students and employees. What is the solution? More on this later.
I also want to talk more about the psychological dimensions of language learning. What are the mental blocks that inhibit language learning? How can we best overcome them? It is not enough to learn efficiently, it is also important to be able to use what we learn efficiently.
Language is behaviour. In addition to the words and phrases that we must learn, we need to cultivate the behaviour of the speakers of a new language. Yet we are conditioned to many behaviour patterns that inhibit us. How can we overcome these ingrained behaviour patterns? More on this later.
Another subject I will talk on is the greater difficulty experienced by language learners from unrelated language groups. French speakers learning Chinese, or Korean speakers learning English, or English speakers learning Russian, all face somewhat different problems. Obviously a Spanish speaker will learn Italian more easily than a Swedish person, or at least should, and in fact in most cases this is true. But there are exceptions. Many Cantonese speakers never learn to speak Mandarin as well as some English speakers. Why? What should be the strategies for foreign language learners from similar language groups? What should be the strategies for learners who come from very different language groups? This and much more will be discussed on this blog in the upcoming posts. I welcome your comments.