“Proficiency” is the recognized term in language-teaching circles, for close to native-speaker excellence. It’s the level above “advanced”.
What are the factors that show you might have reached such a level? Well, in terms of exam-marking criteria, they are quite simple to define:
You consistently show that you are in complete control of grammar structures, even those really tricky ones, even those ones that native speakers get caught up on, or get lazy with. For once you have the advantage over the native speaker, because you have actively studied the rules rather than merely knowing them through life-long osmosis!
You have a wide vocabulary, often using the more interesting synonymous words for everyday things. The garden is not big and nice, but vast and enchanting…
Your accent needs to be clear and comprehensible; it does not need to be flawless. Don’t sweat it! If one day you pass for a native speaker, good for you! That is the Holy Grail of language study, but to attain this, you will need to be blessed with skills of mimicry, as much as actual language knowledge.
And then there are the cultural reference points. This usually looks after itself. If you are sufficiently interested in a country to want to study its language, the chances are high that you will know a few things about its culture: a bit about the history, the most famous people who have lived and died there, who the current Prime Minister is…
In addition to these generally accepted “plates” that the budding linguist has to “keep spinning”, I have my own little boxes to tick in this regard.
Have you started to dream in that language?
Do you really understand the humour? By that, I do not mean that you might have been able to learn, parrot fashion, a few jokes to recite, but that you really ‘get’ the comedy, even if the same gag wouldn’t be funny in your own language. This could be to do with the word-play, or possibly depend on a deep knowledge of the culture, as mentioned above.
Have you ever tried to write creatively in your target language? It’s hard enough to write prose, or especially poetry in one’s mother tongue, but weighing up the sounds and subtle meanings of words in a foreign voice, that is next-level ability.
Finally, playing word-based games. Speaking from my own experience: I consider my level of German vocabulary to be pretty good, and I like to think I am a half-decent Scrabble player, but… when combining the two, I felt like a young child again!
So, what am I saying? If you want to become “really good” at a foreign language, the best way is to go and live there, preferably in a small village for five years, cutting all ties with your home country. Bit extreme? The next best way is to become the most obsessive consumer of all things in whichever language you have chosen: Switch all your phone settings; listen to the news; read trashy magazines as well as (or instead of) classics of literature; ask for the original-language menu when visiting your new favourite restaurant, and insist on speaking to the wait-staff in their language, talk to yourself around the house in your target language. And so on...
If you would like the added motivation of a group of like-minded people to learn alongside, why not sign up for one of our courses. We offer a range of classes in French, German, Spanish, and Italian – in the classroom or online, from beginner to advanced. Japanese and Mandarin are also available on request, as are various other languages, if and when the demand arises.
Andrew Wenger and the SameSky languages team