Language learners want so badly to quantify their progress. I’ve experienced this, and I still do experience it. The pressure is real, and it’s hard to escape in a culture where it’s in vogue to acquire measurable skills that lead to something useful.
I’ve got my gripes with this utility-only mentality. People shy away from certain academic subjects, because they’re “useless.” People shy away from learning certain languages because they’re “useless.” It’s hard to remind myself that money and accolades are not the only things that justify time spent learning a thing. In fact, learning hardly needs to be justified at all.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to quantify learning a language. In school, we take tests and we get grades, but I think we all recognize that those don’t prove we know something. Many of us have passed grade school language classes only to find we can’t use the language whatsoever.
So, we try to quantify in different ways. One way is by measuring a person’s ability to use active skills, meaning speaking and writing. We do this because colloquial language describes the languages a person knows by using the word “speaks.” “S/he speaks x languages.” People who aren’t involved in language learning tend to fall back on this word, too. It seems like, if you can’t speak or write in the language, if no one can assess your output, then how can anyone trust that you’ve learned anything at all?
We need to question these kinds of assumptions, right down to the root of quantifying learning. This isn’t school; what matters is how well you manage in the situations you choose to encounter. There are no grades, no exams, no graduations. You choose your goals, and you choose how you want to accomplish those goals. And that’s that.
Awhile ago on the How To Learn Any Language forum, I read a post that made me question how I think about learning languages. Someone was asking how they could activate their passive skills. They were mostly concerned with speaking, I think. They were living in their home country, and didn’t really have any offline ways of finding native speakers. After several answers about language exchange partners and solitary speaking practice suggestions, someone (I can’t remember who! Sorry for the lack of attribution!) suggested that, if they have no reason to speak, why speak?
This probably wasn’t the kind of answer the person was looking for, but it made me think differently, at least. I used to think of “learning a language” as a complete thing. Obviously you keep learning your entire life, but after a certain point, you’ve learned the language, right? To me, this involved all four skills: listening and reading, writing and speaking. With my first L2, French, I diligently followed these assumptions. Listening and reading were easy enough, since those were accessible outside Francophone countries. Writing was somewhat accessible with Lang-8, and for speaking, I found a consistent exchange partner online. We Skyped regularly for a couple of years. I could say that I “speak” French.
It was easy enough to stay motivated to practice writing and speaking. I was taking French classes at the time, so I practiced both to avoid embarrassment in the classroom. Additionally, I had half-baked plans to go to grad school in France, so learning to speak was important to me to reach that goal (which fell by the wayside…).
However, with Spanish, those incentives didn’t exist. I was trying to include all four skills with Spanish as I had with French, even though I was happiest when reading and listening, and I had to force myself to seek out writing and speaking opportunities. When I read that forum post, I questioned all of that. I didn’t have any need to speak or write in Spanish, and moreover, I didn’t really want to. My Spanish-language world was made up of books, radio, and TV. Those were the resources I sought out, and that was the stuff I wanted to understand. I had no plans to travel and speak Spanish, so I questioned why I placed so much value on speaking and writing.
Active skills are not even completely divorced from passive skills. They all feed into each other– if you have flawless comprehension, you will be able to speak, even if it takes a bit of practice to get your muscles to do the right thing. If you focus on listening and reading, it will only take a bit of time for you to “activate” your language, should you ever want to in the future.
It’s easy to place too much importance on speaking and writing. After all, speaking and writing provide opportunities for performance. Those are the ways we can prove we know a language. But language learning can be an unwieldy task– we progress by leaps and bounds only to plateau for a weeks on end. Active and passive skills will never be completely equal. You’ll grow like a lanky teenager only to have everything even out with time. Trust in the process, use the language how you want to, and adjust as new opportunities arise!