The inverted pyramid

Language experts often compare levels of foreign language proficiency to that of an inverted pyramid.  As the image (based on the ACTFL proficiency scale) illustrates, at the beginning level (“Novice” in ACTFL terms) there is relatively little space.  It doesn’t take much effort to go from a Zero to a Novice.  A speaker at an elementary level (officially “Intermediate”) needs to know significantly more than the beginner.  As learners get into the Advanced and Superior levels of language proficiency, each new level represents a significant jump in the amount of things that a speaker must do. Progress from an Advanced to a Superior level takes a lot more work than progress from a Novice to an Intermediate.  Thus, the inverted pyramid.

I mention all of this because I find myself confronting this reality.  As I continue to review and practice German, Italian, and Chinese, I really am learning new forms, vocabulary is growing, and listening comprehension is improving. However, despite the fact that deep down things are progressing, a good part of me feels “stuck” in my level.  Some days it is discouraging.

So I want to remind myself (and others):

1.  Relax, paragraph-level tasks really are more difficult that sentence-level tasks.

2.  Relax, it really does take time to build more vocabulary, especially in languages that don’t have cognate forms.

3.  Relax, grammatical nuances take time to appreciate.

All of this reminds me of a Peanuts cartoon that I saw some 25 years ago.  Linus said something like, “We have not been able to answer all of your questions. Indeed, we have not been able to answer any of them completely.  In some ways we are just as confused as before.  However, we believe to be confused about things at a much higher level and about things that are much more important.

That totally applies to language learning.  When I try to speak German, for example, I still hesitate and bungle through just as badly as I used to, but part of it is because I am hesitating and bungling through higher-level tasks.  (BTW, when ACTFL testers perform proficiency exams, if the candidate starts to break down at a higher level, the tester returns to questions at a lower level to see if the candidate can also go back to performing the tasks correctly.)  Who knows that every so often we need to do the same thing with the foreign language that we are studying.  Go back down to some of the simpler tasks that we can perform.  Just try to come back up again soon.

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One Response to “The inverted pyramid”

  1. Tommy Says:

    I like the Peanuts reference to higher level “confusion”. For me this is really what self-aware learning is all about.

    Re the question of “space”, with the inverted pyramid, there is a continous 3D outer expansion through the superior levels, but in my experience, after a certain point there is less discovery of pure novelty and more introverted self-reflection, more self-contained uncovering and webbing and linking which can be built from novice-level raw information and tools, if properly selected. This is like Sherlock Holmes’ brain-attic model of deduction: we are limited, so to be able to make educated guesses and leaps, we must choose and keep only the right tools and means, and get rid of the clutter.

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