I just took my post-language program oral proficiency interview, and according to the results, I didn’t improve.
I scored a 10 out of 12 before I left, which signifies “advanced plus” proficiency, and I scored that same 10 three months later, after an intensive 9 to 10 hour a week program with some really great teachers and a lot of hard work.
But to be honest, I wasn’t disappointed by that number on the screen, because I know that it didn’t represent the strides I have made linguistically in the past three months.
To give a little background on why I was taking these tests, along with my Fulbright teaching grant, I also won a supplementary grant to study Russian for 10 hours a week for a minimum of three months. The program required me to take pre and post program oral proficiency interviews, which I was familiar with since I had to do the same before and after my Critical Language Scholarship in Vladimir. With CLS, we were given an interview on the ACTFL (American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages), and I felt I received a fair score both before and after, Intermediate High and Advanced Low, respectively. This time though, I was interview through ALTA, a different language service, and when I first took the test, I didn’t feel the results were accurate. I remember before taking the test that my goal was to shoot for an 8, which was the equivalent of ACTFL’s advanced low proficiency, the level I’d attained after CLS. If I got a 9, I’d be really stoked, since I’d spent a good part of the summer watching the Russian news, reading detective novels in Russian, and Skyping with a friend in Vladimir. The test itself went strangely. Unlike my two ACTFL OPIs for CLS, the woman on the other line seemed inexperienced and a bit flustered. Nervous, I started off speaking very fast and in a huff she told me “it will go better for you if you slow down!” Our conversation ranged from where I wanted to be in ten years to the environment to the three questions I would ask Barack Obama if I had a chance, and although I got my point across, I still felt like I was grasping for words and stuttering like a stuck record. When I got my test results back and I saw the 10, one part of me was excited, the other part perplexed. On the one hand, the results seemed to prove what my family and friends kept telling me (you are fluent, I know it!) to which every time I responded, “no, I am most definitely not.” When I got to Moscow, I definitely didn’t feel like a “10,” struggling to understand what the server at MacDonalds was saying and struggling to get past my shyness to do the simplest of things. No, I thought, that test couldn’t have been accurate.
Anyway, when I got to Elabuga and began my language program, although I technically had a high speaking level, in practice, I didn’t have the confidence I needed to function in public or at work. I avoided going to stores where I had to ask someone to get something off the shelf for me(these are everywhere in Russia) because I got so nervous I could barely stutter out simple words like black tea, let alone pytilitrovaya voda, the term for a five liter jug of water. For the first two months, there was a soundproof wall between me and the outside world, no matter what my test results said. And then, around the third month in, the fear that I had had when going to stores or interacting with others began to gradually melt away. I felt myself begin to ask for things in stores with more confidence, even if my requests and sentences were littered with mispronunciations and mistakes. I’ll never forget the euphoria of realizing that I could book a taxi for myself and that it would actually come, that as one of my favorite proverbs say, “my tongue could get me all the way to Kiev.” Before long, I was comfortably doing these things, as well as learning vocabulary and phrases that would help me in the Russian workplace. I felt my grammar getting better, my phrases flowing more freely, and I felt myself beginning to actually think in Russian. Although I’ve been to Russia many times, I had never before felt the confidence that I could actually get things done in the language, but this time, although it was unquantifiable, I knew had finally broken through this barrier.
When I got the results back this time, of course I was hoping for the 11, the “almost fluent” score, but I think I knew that if I rated myself, I would give myself a 10, which I never would have done back in August.
My whole life, I’ve tended to give too much weight to the grade, to the lifeless two dimensional mark, and in doing so, I’ve often missed the value in the process, in the subjective experiences that an A or an improvement on a twelve point scale can’t quantify. And for the first time in my life, I looked at that 10 and realized just how little of my journey it represented, that it couldn’t see the September girl scared to set foot in a store transformed to the January one who sometimes even strikes up conversations with cashiers. I looked at the score, laughed and thought, “to hell with it.” And maybe that’s the biggest achievement of all.