Reaching your utmost potential is the ultimate aim of body-building training, but starting with the right weight is the most important initial step to get stronger each day. If the training starts with a weight much heavier than you can lift, it will probably make the process a nightmare – not only for you but also for your trainer. Similarly, if your trainer gives you a 10lbs bar when you can already lift 30lbs, you will not discover the joy of the process at all.
The language learning process has similarities to weight training: just as it is important to prepare your body using the right weight, starting the language learning process at the right point is also essential. Starting at a higher level will make the process too challenging and it will also make the teacher’s job of reaching the learner problematic. Likewise, input below the learner’s level will not be constructive for them. Therefore, the most important initial step of the language-learning process is knowing where to start in order to provide “comprehensible input” for the learner, as suggested by Krashen (1985).
Although Mistar (2011) found self assessment to be a valid and reliable alternative tool, asking learners to evaluate their own proficiency level may not always reveal accurate results. Just like an enthusiastic weightlifter may think they can lift more than they can, a language learner may believe that their proficiency is higher – or lower – than it actually is. There are likely to be various reasons for this discrepancy. The cultural background of the learner is one of the main influential factors of inaccurate assessment. If learners have not been encouraged to evaluate their own learning throughout their previous education, they may not know how to do it. This unfamiliarity with the given task may result in unreliable data. For example, in some cultures learners are generally not encouraged to talk about their achievements. In Turkey, we do not talk about what “we can do”, as this goes against the cultural norms of modesty in our society. Instead, we expect other people to talk about our abilities and accomplishments – preferably when we are not around.
Another reason why self assessment may not be accurate is, again, related to cultural norms: learners having too low or too high expectations of themselves. If language learners are not educated in a culture that encourages them to be autonomous learners and to set goals for their own learning, they might feel insecure in determining what to expect as foreign language learners. That is why Japanese employers have more accurate estimates of proficiency levels, and Indians and Brazilians have more discrepancies between the actual level of proficiency and how it is perceived by the learners themselves.
With any task – including lifting weights and language learning! – it is important to have detailed criteria to correctly assess strengths and weaknesses. The Global Scale of English (GSE) is a remarkable tool that measures a learner’s proficiency via a granular structure. By identifying what they can already do – and what else they need to be able to achieve in order to progress to the next level – language learners can determine the right point at which to start their learning journey.
When students have clear goals in mind, they have a better picture of the road they will follow. Correspondingly, their teachers can have a better awareness of what their learners are already able to do. Thus, having a granular structure minimises any possible discrepancies in the assessment of learners’ proficiency and gives a more accurate indication of the starting point.
Using this type of granular framework will not only help us to place learners at the appropriate level, it will also affect each step and decision in the whole process. As stated by Beningo, de Jong and Moere (2017), language learning is a non-linear process that is affected by many unpredictable factors. How each individual improves will be affected by contextual and individual variables. That is why, the more concretely the process is presented to the learner and the teacher, the greater the chance of success. As Beningo, de Jong and Moere conclude, asking how long it takes to learn a language is a complicated question to answer due to the complexity of the various factors involved that we cannot always control. We can, however, determine our starting point accurately and optimise our potential – in both language learning and body-building training.
The Input Hypothesis. Issues and Implications. Stephen D Krashen, 1985
How long does it take to learn a language? Insights from research on language learning. V Beningo, J de Jong, A V Moere, 2017
A study of the validity and reliability of self assessment. Mistar, J, 2011.