In the wee hours of the morning, he stumbles home thinking, “Wow! My Chinese is so good, that I am able to maintain friendships with Chinese people who don’t speak English.” And, “I am able to maintain a Chinese conversation all night.
This is the point where most people decide they don’t need “book learning” anymore. They use phrases like, “real life,” or “on the streets” and see these situations as better than learning in school.
In my opinion, this guy didn’t have a conversation. A conversation goes in two directions. I ask. You answer. The other guy interjects. You ask. I answer. We all become interested in the topic, and that leads to more questions, answers, anecdotes, stories, parallel subjects, segues…. A conversation is a living, breathing thing. It grows. It develops. It moves. Five drunken Chinese guys, focusing all of their attention on you, asking banal questions about your family and origins is not a conversation. If you were to transcribe one of your Chinese conversations and compare it to an average coffee or beer drinking session with your native speaker friends, you would see that they don’t even compare.
To further illustrate the difference between BICS and CALP, I remember an American soldier, stationed in the village where my friends and I were attending university, in Germany. The soldier considered himself fluent because he was able to talk to his uneducated German wife and her family, when he visited their pig farm. When I heard him speak German at a party, I cringed. What he referred to as German was not standard, academic language, but dialect. It is important to note that German dialects vary dramatically from the standard, High-German. The dialects have terrible grammar and can’t even be written. Basically, he talked like a hillbilly. Germans with such a heavy dialect would be required to pass German exams in order to begin studying at the university.
His vocabulary was also shockingly small. He lacked proper verbs for anything. He just used “make,” to express his needs and desires. Instead of saying, “take off the lid,” he would say, “make it open.” Instead of repair, he would say, “make it good again,” and so on. This was exactly the type of trap university-students were taught to avoid. A typical exercise in the university setting would be a list of fifty activities which you wish to express, but you were forbidden to use the word “make.” You had to know the actual, proper verb for each action.
While striving to reach academic competency, a student will pass through this stage of development. He will be able to say everything he wants. He can express nearly any concept, tell a story, or relate the day’s events, but he doesn’t know any of the correct vocabulary, instead, he is describing. For example, when I was sick in the hospital in China, I needed to tell my doctor that I was dehydrated. I didn’t know the Chinese word, so instead, I said, in Chinese, “I went to the bathroom twenty times last night, and now there is no water in my body.” I didn’t know how to say, “fever.” So, I said, “Inside my body is hot.”
Yes, I got the point across, but it sounded like an eight year-old or the least educated redneck in the universe, rather than like an educated adult. What if you went to the hospital, in your hometown, and the doctor informed you, “Inside your chest have something big grow. We must cut.” You would probably demand a different doctor, or even another hospital.
This level of proficiency is dangerous, because academic learners can get sidetracked into believing they are already fluent, or that they can break off their studies and will just “pick up” the rest of the language. This is completely untrue, and was part of the reason why I left the temple when I did.
The thing that separates an uneducated native speaker from an educated one is formal study and tons and tons of reading. The same goes for the academic language learner. When he reaches this point of fluency, it is time to go back to school.
And so, I invented my language learning theory, “Immersion Sandwich and a Side of Rice.” To become fluent, academically fluent:
1. First develop a vocabulary of one thousand to fifteen hundred words, and basic grammar through formal study.
2. Next, arrange a total immersion. BUT, make sure you are actually immersed and not just living abroad.
3. Last, you need to go back to school. Learn to read, write and do academic study. Use educated native speakers as your models. Read 100 books in your chosen language, and you will be fluent.