Is it really possible to master a foreign language? Well, it surely is, but the more I think about it, the more I come to conclusion that it is only possible in two cases:
- if you stop using your native language
- if you use them both in the same, „doctoral” way, which is, let’s face it, rather impossible.
If we look at CEF levels, it turns out that C2 level, which is the highest, is widely associated with native fluency. This is only partial truth. Being native doesn’t mean being on C2 level and many English natives would fail CPE exam.
Many people use their native language simply on a high C1 advanced level, also known as "operational proficiency". This is enough for everyday communication and comprehension of regular texts and tasks.
I used to read a lot of books as a kid. I was able to read one thick book a day (let’s say about 800 pages more or less) and I finished my high school with the best possible note obtained in my native language. I considered myself rather a confident and sophisticated user of my language and when I decided to study it three years later, I got in university without a single problem.
However, this what I faced there, gave me a good humility lesson. We had to prepare for classes and that meant reading and understanding what we had read. At that point, hardly anyone in my group understood the texts we were given! So, why the hell?! We were all in our twenties, we'd been using our language for so many years and still nothing?!
Our skills changed with time. After just the first year, nobody seemed to have problems with the comprehension anymore. So what had changed? One thing is that our vocabulary expanded. That's true. But the other thing, even more important, is that our analytical and synthetic skills improved as well. Still, it took us about 25 years to master the language more or less and it still doesn’t mean that we know all the possible words. So how can anyone really master a foreign language in just 8 or 10 years? Not mentioning the situation when s/he still uses his or her native. It is simply impossible to have time for more than one.
Does this mean we should forget about mastering the foreign language? No! But I truly believe that obtaining C2 level in the foreign language is simply impossible without obtaining C2 level in your native language first.
Reading comprehension is always the same: you need to know some vocabulary but you need good analytical skills in the first place. You need to know how the language works, how a text works and how can you understand a foreign one if you don’t understand it in your native? You can know all the vocabulary and yet be unable to comprehend. Understanding single words is NOT comprehension. The latter is about getting ideas and many possible meanings, is about further elaborating on a given text and ideas of its author.
In fact, I dare say, making grammar mistakes while speaking is not that important as long as you make yourself understood. Mixing words, using weird tenses – this all happen in your native language too. Can stem from being in a hurry, having bad day, or other things. But being unable to understand or make yourself understood – this is a serious problem. And of course there are cases when a person knows the foreign language better than their native, but this is too often connected with letting your native one slide.
This is why I personally think bilingualism is overrated. It simply comes down to speaking two languages. But who said that it was about mastering the languages? If a child is bilingual does it mean that it speaks both languages at C2 level? Of course not! For the child B2 is high enough. It can build simple structures, understand simple lines and communicate with other people, also in a simple way. This is partially because its cognitive abilities are still developing and partially because of the vocabulary limits. Do we expect from the child to know technical terminology or to elaborate on Nietsche? Of course, this child will be probably able to use the language quite fluently, but this fluency would mean nothing more than confident usage, without faltering – but still inside the limited range of it.
I wrote that reading comprehension is about vocabulary, analysis and synthesis. What about speaking then (I’ve just partially answered this question while writing about bilingualism but let’s continue)?
For me, and many other people, the hardest thing in speaking English was that total emptiness in my head. A comment usually followed: "but I wouldn't know what to say about it even in my native language!" Well, this is also about being proficient, but in many cases the comment was simply not true.
Last time I tried to do a speaking task, I had the same problem again. The task's aim was to describe where a photographer was in each picture and what did it say about their attitude. And when I found myself in this absolute emptiness again, I thought: „hey you, you spent the blasted 5 years at uni, elaborating on topics on which you didn’t have the bloody idea and now you’re telling me you wouldn’t been able to describe these damn pictures?! Try it in your native language then first!” I took a deep breath and I tried… Suddenly, I saw the light as I started. My thoughts were flowing, I was able to speak about it, finding all possible connections to culture, history, literature, epoques, philosophy. I could talk like that for hours. Then I tried to repeat it in English and I had no problems with it, so it was not about any limits in the foreign language. It was simply about the psychological limit and lack of confidence or ideas. Of course, without a knowledge on humanities, I wouldn’t been probably able to make an extended speech on the topic but I just simply used the things I could use. I made them tools. I was able to do the task, to cross the barrier, even though I’m only an advanced speaker of English.
So, just to shortly restate my points:
- mastering your native language is the shortest way to master another language. You can’t master anything without skills that are not really connected with literacy. And how can you develop them if you don’t work on them in your first language?
- mastering is not about knowing words. You need also a general knowledge and the skills mentioned above. You have to possess something to tell about it, right? You can tell stories about unicorns and teddy bears but this would be not enough for sophisticated C2 (unless you put into use mythology, for instance, and make it more complicated than just a story for preschoolers).
- most problems with the language stem simply from other barriers, not strictly from your language level
- to check if you have problems with English or maybe it’s rather a general problem, try simply to do a task in your native language. This will tell you if your problems start there.