EYEFUL TOWER: Musings

On Linguistic Proficiency

by  Sam C. Chan
 

June 15, 2006

This article is a work-in-progress. Currently, it's only published as a footnote of another article. [NOTE: Over the last 2 months, there had been quite a bit of addition. While it is no longer a 1-table footnote for the Keren Ann article, it's still not in final polished form. Let's call it an interim draft copy.]
 

Chankardian Scale of Composite Linguistic Proficiency

Level Efforts Characteristics
10 Impeccable 100% Educated. Eloquent. Able to joke properly and naturally.
9 Excellent 65% Communicate perfectly fine. Cultural assimilation.
8 Very fluent 40% Free-of-accent Smooth. Healthy vocabulary.
7 Fairly fluent 25% Crossover point: natural vs. struggle/conscious efforts.
6 Almost fluent 15% Obvious accent but intelligible. Limited vocabulary.
5 Serviceable 10% Survivable as a foreigner without much limitations.
4 Almost Serviceable 5% Struggle a bit when ordering, asking directions, etc.
3 Barely Serviceable 3% Major difficulties/frustrations in daily life situations.
2 Rudimentary 1% Can construct simple broken phrases, read signs.
1 Almost non-existent 0.1% Only learnt a few phrases by heart.
0 Non-existent 0% Unable to communicate.

This scale is non-linear. The knowledge attained and efforts required for each ascending level increases exponentially. Note the huge gap between Excellent and Impeccable. Only about 1% of non-native speakers will ever achieve that top status. Contrast that to about 5% of native speakers. Obviously, these figures are assigned, to illustrate my viewpoints and hypotheses. They're not results of actual empirical researches.

Level Native Speakers 5-year experience 20-year experience
10 5% 0% 1%
9 95% 10% 90%
8 or below 0% 90% 9%

Sometimes the composite scale does not give an accurate (or even meaningful) indicator. Linguistic proficiency can be broken down into 4 areas: reading, writing, listening and speaking. For most people, they generally progress at roughly comparable paces. In some cases, a person could have significant disparity among these areas, due to special history and unique circumstances.

Period Reading Writing Listening Speaking Composite
1 month

1

0 1 0.2 0
3 months

2

1 2 1 1
6 months

3

2 2.5 2 2
1 year

4

2.5 3.5 3 3
2 years 5 3 4.5 4 4
5 years 6 4 ~ 5 5 ~ 6 4 ~ 6 5
10 years 7 ~ 9 5 ~ 8 6 ~ 8 5 ~ 7 6 ~ 8?
20 years 9 ~ 10 6 ~ 9.5 8 ~ 9 7 ~ 9 8 ~ 9.3?

My proficiency (actual & projected) in French (as example to illustrate disparity over time)

In my casual study, I observed several general points:

  • Listening is always easier than speaking. There're many who can understand partially but honestly are unable to respond. French speakers are often wrongly accused by Americans as "being so proud... they understand you, but refuse to talk to you in English..." That's simply a cynical and ignorant assumption.
  • Reading is always easier than writing, with the exception of blind persons, when  reading is hampered by logistical disadvantages.
  • Vocation & aptitude determine which pair (read/write or listen/speak) is easier.
  • If the alphabets/characters are different from those of your native language, then read/write is drastically more difficult than listen/speak. e.g. Americans learning Chinese/Japanese. In fact, most beginners give up learning the written form entirely, and resort to memorization of phonetic translations for verbal communications.
  • For most people, the ranking from easiest to hardest: Read, listen, speak & write.
  • The learning time required for each proficiency phase is on a non-linear scale. It increases roughly exponentially.
  • The first half of the time scale is pretty typical. Whereas the second half varies widely. It can be compressed by a factor of up to 4x, or expanded by up to 2x.
  • Actual time determined by: Level of immersion, age when starting to learn, teaching mode & techniques, student's efforts expended & resources available/allocated.
  • Top immersion factors: Emigration, extended stay or frequent visits, marriage (to a native speaker), job, local society usage (i.e. colonies).
Language Reading Writing Listening Speaking Composite
English

9.7

9.1 9.8 9.2 9.4
Cantonese

-

- 9.5 8 8.5
Mandarin

-

- 4 3 3
Traditional 4 2 - - 3
Simplified 3 1 - - 2
French

4

2.5 3.5 2.5 2.8

My current multi-lingual proficiency levels 

 
Language Reading Writing Listening Speaking Composite
English

7.7

7.1 10 9.5 9

The average American native-born speaker

 


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