When you’re used to being bad at something, it’s very easy to imagine you will always be bad at it and it can come as a shock when one day you realize that you aren’t this raw beginner anymore and that you actually have a pretty solid grasp on what you’re doing.
In French that moment didn’t really come until I arrived in Paris. I’d grown so used to thinking of myself as bad at French, a habit that stemmed from a less than spectacular French education in Middle and High School and continued by my habit of taking French classes that were above my level of comprehension at Smith. Basically, when I was one of the top students in the class, I knew that the instruction was bad, and later when the instruction was good, I was not one of the top students. So during orientation, when my friend asked me which language class I’d been sorted into, I replied that I didn’t know but was probably in the bottom class. As it turns out, I was in the upper class and I’d had the fifth highest TCF (Test de conaissance du Français) score in the program. Which was how I realized that my French didn’t suck anymore.
This week I had that moment in German. The teacher I’ve had since I started at FU is on vacation this month, and in addition to our new teacher, we’ve got a boatload of new students, my class of five has grown to about twenty and stayed there. And since we have so many new students, differences in understanding have become clear, when we read a passage I’m finishing first, I’m understanding more of the dialogues, and I’m best able to answer questions and articulate myself. My new teacher actually asked me if I felt comfortable moving up to the next class, which I will be doing on Monday.
That’s what really got me thinking, as of now, I’m studying German at the A2 level. If that means nothing to you, it basically means I’m an advanced beginner. The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages or CERF codifies levels of language ability, since the alternative of ‘advanced beginner’ means effectively nothing. At A2 for example, I should be able to in spoken interaction communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar topics and activities. I can handle very short social exchanges, even though I can’t usually understand enough to keep the conversation going myself.
But anyway, the next class up just started level B1, or intermediate. Meaning I’m speaking German at an intermediate level, and that I’m better at German now than I was at French when I started college. That’s a pretty big deal to me, I remember in my first French class at Smith that I couldn’t understand the professor if I wasn’t looking at her, and that I struggled to understand my first real book in French, which was an Astèrix comic book and not particularly challenging. But the important part of that memory is that I’ve been reading a real, no pictures, book in German for weeks now and it isn’t as hard as I remember the reading for that class being.
My goal for this summer was to get my German up to stuff to take a 300 level course wen I get back, and now that I’m a weekend away from starting B1, I actually feel like that is possible. Especially since that means I’ll probably get to the B2 level this summer, which was where my French was when I started in Paris.
There’s only one aspect of that that makes me anything less than excited, and it’s the fact that I’m not currently planning on taking any French classes next year. In Paris I had joked with friends that my German could get better than my French by graduation, and that seems like it actually could happen. I’m so used to French being my first foreign language, that I don’t want to let it lose it’s edge quite yet. Meaning that I might just be stupid enough to take some more classes next year, pass/fail of course because I’m not completely mad. If I do that, it would also be the second time that getting better at German made me refocus on French, oh well, at least I’m consistent.