Real Second Language Fluency: Moving from beginner through the essential “Threshold” conversational level
The foremost concern of many beginning language learners is conversational fluency.
Consequently, educators are approached by students with questions such as: “how can I take what I have learned on paper and apply it to real-life situations?” Similar concerns are how to go beyond using simple phrases to describing experiences and ambitions and briefly give reasons and explanations for opinions and plans in the target language?
The ideal reply to such inquiries is both simple and complex simultaneously.
Simple, because the answer ultimately boils down to the old adage, “practice makes perfect,” and complex because of the multitude of methodological approaches educators utilize to facilitate SLA. Language learners who are familiar with the Common European Frame of Reference know that the transition between the elementary level (A2) and the beginning intermediate threshold conversational level (B1) is challenging, and that vocabulary drills and grammar exercises are limited in achieving the desired results.
Time, Methodology, and Expectations
The length of time required to achieve threshold level competence depends on various factors: the amount of hours per week that a student is willing and able to apply toward his or her goals, the student’s personality, and the student’s access to educational resources and other language learners.
Comprehensible input, frequent aural repetitions of targeted material in the development of stories primarily in the target language, and maintaining student interest are requisite when implementing the interactive language learning approaches espoused by SLA theorists such as Stephen Krashen and Blaine Ray.
Krashen cites low anxiety and high motivation as factors that positively affect SLA. He maintains that second language learners acquire a command of the language via the communicative act itself, not from formal aspects alone. Ray takes a similar approach toward SLA, emphasizing the production of language itself, and advocating the use of storytelling and creative dramatization in the classroom.
Assuming the effective utilization of these approaches, reaching threshold level competence can realistically take anywhere from 3-6 months to a year or more.
However, if an individual has had previous exposure with the target language, the time required to attain and/or surpass the threshold level could be substantially lessened. This is due to the phenomena referred to as recall in memory: the mental process of retrieving information from the past.
The key to success in bridging the gap between A2 and B1 level competence lies in forming realistic expectations. Students often give up too soon, falsely believing they must master many of the formal aspects of the language before they are able to communicate effectively.
When language learners continue to communicate freely in an interactive environment, knowledge of the formal aspects will come naturally. Taking too much time off is another pitfall, given that language learners tend to forget learned information.
This leads to decreased self-confidence and increased anxiety. The only way to mitigate this problem is to regard second-language acquisition as a continuous process.
The benefits of achieving the threshold level of competence are most evident when using the language in unfamiliar situations. These include visiting a foreign country or conversing with a native speaker of the target language. Conversations become multifaceted, allowing learners to navigate around unexpected inquiries and problems, making the communicative process more positive.
Learners acquire the ability to take initiative in discourse, giving them the opportunity to take conversations in new directions, and communicate about the causes and concerns that interest them in diverse settings.
This rewards learners by feeling accomplished and empowered, ready to take on greater challenges personally, professionally, and socially, and to travel more independently.