Understanding Language Levels Comparatively

A rare case of talking about 'level checks' and not referring to audio.

There are a number of knowledgeable, interesting voices on the internet that offer advice on language learning.  I follow several of them and enjoy hearing their takes on different things.  Often times they present interesting ideas and techniques, and I have taken a large amount of inspiration from a number of those voices—most notably Stephen Krashen, one of the founding voices for the Input Hypothesis, the scientific model of language learning I base my study methods around, but any list would be complete without mentioning Steve Kaufmann or Olly Richards, who are both prolific online voices and also incredibly inspiring to watch.

Something interesting I find about all three of these voices is how they seem to be on the reluctant side to use the term “polyglot,” despite it being the standardized term the internet’s settled on for discussing language learning, operating under the banner of “the polyglot community.”  Which, fair enough, I get why they shy away, that name can come off as kind of pompous, but one of the reasons why voices like Steve Kaufmann and Olly Richards are so inspiring is because they can talk the talk, when talking the talk means using multiple languages.  It’s cool to see, and backs them up pretty well, because clearly something must be working for them, you know?

And as much as I can be a choir that they’re preaching to, there is something I find myself mentally at odds with and circle back to in my thoughts on a regular basis in comparison to them, which is trying to judge my level of language skill in Spanish compared to their subjective descriptions of levels of competency in a language.

Okay, so what I mean by that is, when someone refers to a beginner, intermediate, or advanced level, what exactly do they mean?  Many default to the CEFR definitions of A1 to C2, but even then, those levels themselves are subjectively defined up until the point someone takes a test for CEFR certification, something most people don’t really bother doing since it costs money and there’s no reason for it outside of some job requirements.  Maybe on occasion someone in the “polyglot community” might take it upon themselves to go for the CEFR certification in order to discuss the tests in depth, or to signify some level of personal skill in it, but for the average language learner who is following them for inspiration—someone like me, in other words—there is an awful lot of guesswork involved.

I’ve spent a long time making guesses, a couple of years now in fact, and I’m always left wondering where my lines in the sand are compared to theirs.  I’ve spent a lot of time assessing myself conservatively in that regard and assuming on details about different levels that, even if something sounded like it described me, I was probably a little bit below that and just missing some context on the next level up.  However, as time has gone on, I’ve been beginning to suspect that the opposite is becoming more and more true.

Obviously, my speaking ability is set at the bottom rung, because it’s largely undefined (which has been fine for me, I’ll worry about speaking practice when I get to it and am expecting a rather shallow learning curve, based on the research I’ve read), but my other skills are things that I have a ton of practice doing.  I know the sorts of books I can read, or the shows I can watch, and I know what to expect in terms of comprehensibility.   I am, for all intents and purposes, satisfied with my reading comprehension level in terms of the scope of this project—I have room for improvement, but I can and have read any and every style of book in Spanish that I would care to, so the bulk “learning” is done, it’s all down to the refinement that would come with years of experience.  My listening comprehension isn’t to the same level of satisfaction for me yet, but it is getting there.  I can understand a lot of things and am struggling to follow media less and less often.  My writing skill is lagging alongside my speaking, but I honestly think the thing that would help the former the most is when I bust through on the latter one of these days.  It’s all getting there, bit by bit.

Now, in saying all this, what level does all this put me at, compared to the levels that people like Steve Kaufmann describe as their goals?  To use him as a specific example, he’s talked a lot about spending the early going heavily devoted to just input and only working on output once he was ready.  He’s a more outgoing person than I am, so being ready would naturally come earlier, but he’s talked through his methods and goalposts about comprehension skills many times, including in a video earlier this week, describing the early going as just getting used to processing the “noise” of a new language, slowly building toward the top-end goal of being able to pick up and understand “most” of authentic content.

Now, that phrase of understanding “most” of authentic content you pick up, that’s a good description of my goal for being satisfied with my listening comprehension level.  I don’t expect to be able to know every word that I could possibly come across, in a movie or in speech with a real person, that’s the learning curve of years of lived-in experience, not something in the scope of this project.  Hell, I don’t expect that with English.  That said, it can also very easily describe my current listening comprehension.  Or, indeed, it could describe my listening comprehension from almost an entire year ago.

Jumping back a year and looking at the blogs then, I was in the middle of watching Little Witch Academia and Violet Evergarden.  Both shows that I loved, and watched without the aid of subtitles or any prior experience of watching them in English.  I followed them both, was charmed and emotionally touched by both, and experienced both as whole, personal experiences.  Now, both animated shows that were produced in Japanese first and then dubbed into Spanish, granted.  And in my experience dubs are easier to understand than live-voiced Spanish thanks to the cadence of delivery and type of sound recording.  Additionally, in the case of Little Witch Academia, arguments could be made that the target age demographic made it children’s media and thus of a lower comprehension level.  Which is a fair enough argument to make, as I recall having an easier time following it compared to Violet Evergarden.  But again in saying that, I did follow most of it.

This is, I think, one of the low-key “tricks” to the whole internet polyglot thing, when you get right down to it.  I wouldn’t then have described my listening comprehension as developed enough to be considered fluent, nor would I now in hindsight, but in the realm of internet polyglots, it is “good enough.”  And I don’t say that as a call-out, or even a negative thing.  There might have been a horrible breakdown and disconnect between trying to listen to something dubbed compared to something spoken by a real person, but at the end of the day, you can get someone to slow down and speak like a voice actor if you try, and while there are struggles, there is real room to have authentic, personal experiences with the language.  It truly is good enough if that’s what your goal is in the language.  It’s just never been my goal with Spanish, something I’ve been clear about from the start, so it’s an angle I’ve struggled to fully consider.

All of this maybe means that I’ve waited for far longer than was really necessary before working on speaking practice, but I think we all already knew that was true, anyway.  I’m sure I’ll get to it one of these days.

Anyway, let’s take a look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 1/28

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 5% of El Mundo Según Garp, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Arte Divierte, 1 episode of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, 1 episode of Ducktales, 1 episode of Mundo N, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 1/29

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 3% of El Mundo Según Garp, 4% of Mago Aprendiz ~100 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 2 episodes of Kiwillius, 1 episode of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 1/30

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 5% of Mago Aprendiz, ~80 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Ducktales, 1 episode of Kiwillius, 1 episode of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 1/31

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 6% of Mago Aprendiz, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Kiwillius, 1 episode of La Zona Cero, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 2/01

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: .5 cases of Ghosts of Miami, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Ducktales, 1 episode of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, 1 episode of Seis Manos, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 2/02

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 4% of Mago Aprendiz, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Kiwillius, 1 episode of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, 1 episode of Ducktales, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~90 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 2/03

  • Duolingo: 20 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 6% of Mago Aprendiz, ~90 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Kiwillius, 1 episode of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts, 1 episode of Bojack Horseman, ~60 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 140 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 1/3 books, 570 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 9 YouTube episodes and 15 tv episodes, 480 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 17 hours 30 minutes

The good weeks keep on rolling.  This new schedule definitely seems to be settling in for the long-term with me, especially considering that this here tax season is the busy part of the year for my job.  My level of responsibilities may grow and change over the coming months, but this seems like a pretty good litmus test on what all I can manage.

I finished El Mundo Según Garp this week, which I very much enjoyed, if to a lesser extent than other books I’ve read by John Irving.  It was good, and it had a lot of great ideas in it, but I gotta admit that I’m more of a genre girl at heart and was missing having a bunch of stuff happen in a book.  I’m following up the back to back foray into classic lit with Mago Aprendiz by Raymond Feist, the beginning of the Riftwar Cycle, which is a high fantasy series I’ve been curious about for a while.  My genre girl buttons are being thoroughly poked by it, which is a nice change of pace.

I also kept on with the rejuvenated focus on tv series this week, continuing Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and Ducktales, both of which are very enjoyable.  Then to top things off, the finale of Bojack Horseman came out this week and I started in on that.  I’m going to be melancholic once I get to the end of that series, which I don’t think would be an overstatement to claim as being one of the best television shows ever made.

I also picked up Ghosts of Miami again this weekend.  I really like the game and want to finish it, but I have some trouble coordinating time for gaming with the rest of my life.  Last weekend I was pretty wrapped up in El Mundo Según Garp, too, so it fell by the wayside.  I’m sure I’ll play through all of it eventually.

Since this week also wrapped up January, let’s take a look at the month as a whole.

  • Total Duolingo: 620 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 11 tv episodes, 45 youtube videos, and 14 podcasts, 1,990 minutes
  • Total reading: 1 and 1/3 whole books and 2 video game cases read, 2,790 minutes
  • Total writing: 1100 words written, 150 minutes
  • Total Speaking: reading out loud, 720 minutes
  • Total Time: 79 hours 40 minutes

And here’s the breakdown for money spent.

  • Mago Aprendiz, Fiction, Ebook, Amazon, $8.65
  • Netflix Subscription Standard HD Plan, Television and Movie Streaming, $10.99 per month, $10.99
  • Disney+ Subscription with Hulu and ESPN+, Television and Movie Streaming, $12.99 per month, $12.99
  • Amount Spent on Fiction Books: $8.65
  • Amount Spent on Services: $23.98
  • Total Spent: $32.63

Back in the real swing of things again.  It’s been a pretty good month, especially after my schedule got squared away and I started having a higher abundance of time available for reading again.  Things are starting to look a smidge like they did last year, when I shifted my focus onto heavy reading.  I have a feeling February is going to be about the same as this, though slightly lower thanks to the shorter number of days.  We’ll see though.

In the world of writing, I finally broke my streak of not writing any fiction … it’s just been slightly bumpy going building back into that habit.  Over the month, I wrote 9,705 words for blogs, and 2,997 words of fiction.  Much better than zero, but nothing fantastic as of yet.  I’m still working on making it a real routine again, my schedule allows for writing time if I push for it, but it does still require that pushing.  I’ll get back on the horse all the way one of these days.

Going into February, I’m going to be trying my hardest to get the rest of the way onto that writing horse, because it’s the last real bugbear in my routine anymore.  I’m also stuck in a horrifying holding pattern on a medical thing, but I can be patient on that, and it will clear up eventually, so the only thing I have direct control over is the writing.  As soon as I get that ball rolling downhill, things are gonna be great.  Maybe I’ll have to actually do that talking thing next, just to have something to do.  Ew.

Anyway, that’ll do for this one, onwards and upwards into February.  TTFN.

6 thoughts on “Understanding Language Levels Comparatively

  1. Great post! What is your method for when you read a book, but you don’t understand many of the words its saying? Do you buy a book at your skill level? Or maybe highlight words and research the meanings later?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ve tried to aim to match my language level with the books I’ve read, and I read with a level of tolerance for “not getting it,” only looking up words when absolutely necessary to follow what’s going on, but otherwise being okay with a little bit of “noise” from words I don’t fully understand. If on the off-chance the book I’ve picked has been too far above my language level to read comfortably—usually resulting in me needing to look words up too often to get invested in the story or even follow what’s going on —I’ll set it down, read something easier, and come back to it later. It’s been a while since I’ve had to do that, as my reading level in Spanish is high enough that I’m comfortably reading anything I pick up. There is still some tolerance for noise when reading, and I do look up the odd word now and then, but I’m confident I could read basically anything. It took a lot of books and a lot of ramping up to get to that point, though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you ever listened to Matt vs. Japan? I like Kaufmann and Luca and Olly Richards and all those polyglots a lot, but I like Matt vs. Japan’s videos the most since I think he’s a bit more insightful and I like that he’s not interested in being a polyglot. He just wants to master Japanese.

    He has a recent video about not being able to understand native speakers that I found very illuminating: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_LIz-Wbt4us
    Because of that video I’ve been changing gears and trying to get away from materials I can understand (dubbed anime, YouTubers who speak clearly) and I’m trying to just process tons of hours of all the material that makes me feel like I suck at Spanish. I’m on season 2 of El Chapo on Netflix and holy shit, I’m shocked by how much I’m struggling with it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have watched a bit of Matt vs Japan. Hadn’t watched that specific video yet (in truth, while I do watch content from a lot of the internet language people, I do it rarely these days, because a lot of it gets really repetitive as they go through the same ideas over and over again). It’s a good video and I mostly agree with his take on the subject, though I admit I question the utility of listening to material that’s TOO high above a current level.

      Pushing is definitely valuable, and a lot of what I listen to rides close to the top of my real range of comprehension, but that top range is still MOSTLY comprehensible to me, not in Matt’s description of only understanding a small amount of it. I’ve tried to use really high level listening stuff as part of my listening practice in the past, and found myself frustrated and unengaged from the material. I can tolerate a certain amount of static when listening to stuff, but too much and I stop really listening at all. Like, yeah, Matt’s right, listening is a passive activity compared to swimming, but I think if you have sound playing but aren’t paying attention to it, you might as well not be listening to it at all. Pushing and practicing those boundaries is certainly a must, but I’d say that the personal interest level in the stuff you’re listening to far outweighs the challenge of the material in terms of how much of an impact it has on your skills.


  3. That’s true about how all the language experts essentially just repeat themselves. I’ll listen to Kaufmann from time to time simply because it reminds me on I’m on the right track, but I already know what he’s going to say (consume lots of content and the language will come, the more you stay with the language the more you develop your ability to notice, etc).

    The Matt vs. Japan video I linked is basically about how much language changes from what it’s “supposed” to sound like to how it’s actually spoken and that you have to incorporate tons of listening to native speakers to get past that issue. He gives a lot of examples of how in English, when certain words are used in pairs, the pronunciation changes. “Could have” becomes “coulda.” “Don’t you” becomes “donchu.” And how other words will add sounds or take away sounds.

    As I’ve been watching El Chapo I’ve noticed this a lot more. Para acá sometimes is just pa’cá. In an episode last night a woman said “no sé si pueda aguantar” but the last two words were really hard for me to follow. Had to turn on the subtitles for a second before I realized that she was saying it more like “pueda guantar” and and was dropping the first a of the word. Anyway, I’m enjoying the show, even though I’m working through it much more slowly than other material. Part of it is curiosity–season 1 was hard to understand, season 2 seems easier, will I have an ear for the show by the end of season 3? And if I switch over to another show like Narcos will my listening be better there as well or I will have to retrain my ear for all those new actors?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I do see the value in pushing through really difficult material. I’ve had similar issues with understanding—or even being able to notice—elisions in Spanish, and I’m pretty sure the only way it’s gotten better has been bulk practice, and you’re not going to get practice at noticing/understanding elisions just watching clearly enunciated voice over work or whatever. I try to keep at least a portion of my daily listening practice as stuff coming from authentic, originally in Spanish content from people at the upper end of my comprehension level, even if at the moment I’ve been distracted by relatively easy to understand cartoons that I’m trying to finish, because there is definitely value in that struggle.

      Where I don’t see as much value is when something is TOO opaque, to where I have to rewind and relisten regularly through something’s run time, or turn on the subtitles multiple times just to follow conversations. At that point I start getting frustrated and bored with the material, and ultimately stop listening to it actively. Some people will swear by letting the “sounds of the language wash over you” as still being a worthwhile activity, but I think that’s bunk and would much rather push myself through something that’s maybe less of a challenge if it means actually engaging with it.


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