When Excellent Is Not Good Enough…

Some of my students have reached excellence in their spoken English. They are basically autonomous, able to read novels in English, able to follow dialog in a movie, able to carry on a conversation and express their ideas coherently. Yet they feel frustrated about their ability and insist that they still make mistakes.

Well, yes. I speak fluent French; my written and oral levels allowed me to pass the very selective agrégation. Yet I still make mistakes, mistakes that I hear myself make as soon as they come out of my mouth. It’s the New Year and lots of people are wishing me “Bonne Année”. More than once I heard myself reply that I hoped “la nouvelle an” would be good for them too. Sic and Ugh. I know that while Année is feminine, An is masculine, and everyone says “le Nouvel An”. It’s the kind of mistake that makes friends and my children grin, but it’s embarrassing because many people would assume that a person making such a mistake may be illiterate. It’s the kind of mistake a native speaker would never make.

Should I dump ashes on my head and weep? Am I a complete failure and a hypocrite? Should I hand in my aggregation since I am so unworthy? Well, I don’t think I will. What I will do is make up sentences in my head using “le nouvel an”, as a kind of self-inflicted comprehensible input. And every time I hear the expression I will focus on it and repeat it to myself, so that my naughty tongue will never again be tempted to stray and stick in a feminine article.

We often talk about “reaching a level”, but learning a language is never level. It’s a slope and it can be slippery. Many people, once they become competent, confident speakers, stop striving and may make very little further progress, even if they live in the country for years. They’ve hit their comfort zone and see no reason to struggle to improve.

Others, like my students, want to improve, but are not sure how to go about it. They doubt that watching more movies and reading more books will help. I’m certain that it will, but their progress will be gradual, so gradual that they themselves may not be aware of any improvement.

I suggest that they focus on one or two mistakes that they often make and give themselves large doses of “Comprehensible Input”. If they are uncertain of the grammar involved, they can look it up. Then when they are sure they have the correct expression, they should use it repeatedly every chance they get and invent dialogs in their minds using it. Use it “ad nauseum” until it’s so deeply ingrained that they’ll never make the mistake again.

If they focus on one or two mistakes at a time, they’ll gradually eliminate them and will find that they’ve climbed a bit higher up the slope.

I also suggest that they read great writers who use the language skillfully. This is the highest quality comprehensible input and will produce the best possible output. Read for pleasure, but read authors who reflect the level you wish to attain. Our Output is a mirror of what we have received as Input. If a student wants to produce elegant and grammatically correct language, he must expose himself to elegant and grammatically correct writers and speakers.

So excuse me now. I’m going to reread À la recherche du temps perdu.

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