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So, how to measure your language-learning progress in 2019?
I could write a book about this, there’s so much to say – perhaps one day I will.
But basically, there are plenty of ways, including things that may not have occurred to you.
Let’s organise them into two groups, with the help of a metaphor.
Think of looking at something through a telescope.
Do it right and things will seem bigger, so closer.
Turn the telescope around and look through the ‘wrong’ end, though…
Suddenly everything seems smaller and further away!
Look at your language-learning close up and you’ll see things one way.
How many right answers did you get in that exercise, for example?
How easily did you remember the conjugation of that irregular verb?
How often do you make the same mistake with the gender of a noun, or in the choice of the correct article?
Such an approach to feedback is typical in teaching situations, as well as in apps such as Duolingo.
The ‘close up’ viewpoint doesn’t have to be of the ‘right/wrong’ type – there are plenty of other ways to get an objective view of progress besides test scores.
You could, for example, measure time-taken to complete something, or time spent studying, or the number of pages studied, or how many online lessons you’ve done.
Unless I’m doing something massively wrong, it’s a reasonable assumption that a hundred hours of online lessons equals significant progress.
That said, feedback doesn’t need to be numerical to be useful.
How do you FEEL about your learning, for example?
And how does that compare to how you felt last week, or last month, or last year?
In business there’s something called the purchasing managers’ index (or something like that), which relies on survey data (will you be investing or not next quarter?) to measure the mood of the market.
Feelings/intentions = data, too.
Beware though, both objective and subjective feedback metrics can give you a false view of your progress.
You’ve maintained your ‘streak’ for, what, over a year now (some of you will know what I’m talking about).
That’s an objective metric – how frequently you study, how rarely you miss a session.
It may have no bearing, though, on whether you can actually speak or understand the language.
Effort or time spent are a reasonable proxy for results achieved, most of the time.
But not always.
And for a good example of how subjective metrics can be equally misleading?
Any language teacher will tell you how advanced learners are always moaning that they can’t understand ‘anything’ when they watch a film in the language they’re studying.
Which is certainly not true.
It merely shows how the students’ expectations (that they could, potentially, understand the film as easily as when watching a film in their mother tongue) are out of wack with reality.
So, let’s look at a practical example, and brainstorm some ways to measure progress.
By the way, it’s likely that you’ll need to pick different metrics for each aspect of your learning.
Here I’ve chosen reading, simply because it’s something I’m currently doing a lot of.
Any of these metrics might help you measure progress building reading skills:
- how many articles/words you read a day, or a week (objective measure)
- how quickly you read an article of a given type, or length (objective measure)
- how often you stop to look up a word, or have to go back and read something again (objective measure)
- on a scale from 1-10 how ‘difficult > easy’ an article of a given type felt (subjective measure)
- how happy/unhappy, motivated/demotivated, interested/bored you felt at the beginning/end of your reading session (subjective measures)
- how many days each week you read NOTHING in the language you’re learning (objective measure)
- how many different types of reading material you use each day/week i.e. different newspapers, websites, novels, etc. (objective measure)
If you’re the type who likes targets, you could set some:
“I’ll read at least one article a day, look up no more than three words while reading, and when I finish, record the ‘perceived difficulty’ on a scale of one to ten.
Oh, and I’ll write down the time I take to complete each article, and the number of words, and the time taken per hundred words.
And I’ll put it all in a spreadsheet, which’ll automatically calculate my progress…”
Setting targets and measuring outcomes can give a satisfying feeling of being in control, something which is often lacking otherwise, language-learning being a very uncertain process.
But anyway, now let’s flip the telescope around and look at the big picture, as if from a long way away.
A typical tool is the CEFR self-assessment grid (.pdf).
Look at line 2, which deals with reading.
I can see through my own telescope a very small me just starting out with Swedish two years ago, at which point I could NOT do the things in the A1 box of the grid.
Whereas today’s me is standing by the B1 grid with a triumpant grin.
And this year’s goal would be to take one step to the right and feel equally confident about the B2 descriptor.
Other ways to measure your progress ‘from a distance’, that is to say, not at a micro level – exercise by exercise, lesson by lesson – could include:
- the obvious one – working up through courses, classes or course books in ascending levels, from easier to harder
- taking exams or tests, say once a year, or more frequently, so as to get credible information about your progress
- using the grading information accompanying materials on a website like OnlineItalianClub.com
- studying with ‘easy readers’ or similar, working from easier to harder. N.b. Length is a good proxy for the difficulty of an article. And speed does the same job when it comes to listening. If it’s long, or fast, it’ll probably be harder!
Personally I’m using a combination of ‘quantity’ metrics and ‘milestone’ metrics.
I measure my progress according to how often I read articles or listen to the radio, for how many hours, how many days a week, how many online lessons I take, and so on.
While at the same time keeping an eye on the CEFR descriptors, backed up with the occasional use of test or exam material for each target level.
What about you?