Letting go of grades and levels
A tutoring client recently asked me how to structure his learning of Turkish. He reads language books, writes grammar exercises, and watches YouTube videos, but he worries that this is too scattered and messy. “I can’t tell if I am making progress.” I think this is a common concern in self-directed language learning – the concern that you are not making progress – because you don’t know how to measure the progress.
Language classrooms, on the other hand, love to measure your progress, even if the measurements have no relation to functioning outside the classroom. 100% on a test says you are succeeding. Level “8” says you are “high-intermediate”, whatever that means. The self-directed learner will sometimes long for these numbers, for this structure.
Be strong, self-directed learners! Resist arbitrary measurements. Make your own progress and measure it how you like.
How do I make progress?
One approach for self-directed learning that I have been working with is the “actual social situation” approach, let’s call it. I used this in Morocco to learn Moroccan Arabic. Twice a week I imagined the social situations I would actually encounter or had already encountered – buying bread at the bakery, making small talk about Maria’s cute baby, introducing my brother to my neighbour. I wrote out the words and sentences I would need to handle the situations. These words and phrases I carried to Fatima, my Arabic teacher, to be translated from French (she spoke no English) into Arabic. As we translated, we would practice pronunciation, discuss new words, and make jokes. Between classes, I would use this new Arabic while running into new situations, or more complex situations, which prompted the next sessions with Fatima.
How do I know I’m making progress?
With the “actual social situation” approach, I measured progress by how many new situations I could manage in Moroccan Arabic. Could I return bad oranges to the grocer? Could I buy a pane of glass to replace the one I broke in art class? Could I chat with the girl on the bus about why I came to Morocco? Could I make strange jokes about accidentally going to Mecca when I meant to go to the café (“maqhaa”). Progress! I suppose I could also have measured progress in the number of daily laughs.
How can you use this approach?
With my client, we walked through these steps:
- He imagined situations he would encounter back in Turkey and wrote a list of these situations, as specifically as possible (“Ordering English tea with milk, no sugar, from Didem, in the office” vs. “Ordering food and drink”)
- He wrote out a conversation that might accompany one of these situations (“Hi, Didem, how are you?”).
- We translated the conversation together and addressed language points along the way.
- We practiced the conversation.
- He made flashcards with new words or phrases that needed extra review.
In Turkey, he can continue to use this approach with a native speaker tutor or a friend. While away from Turkey, he can practice past situations, or get help from someone online or from a Turkish-speaker found on Craigslist or Meetup.com.
Whatever approach you choose – this is just one of an infinite number – I would suggest you make it one that gives you pleasure and continues to motivate you. If you are having fun, you are probably making progress.