It is a classic when it comes to filling out the curriculum. "Languages: English, Level: medium-high". It is also a somewhat optimistic statement about the level of English spoken in Spain. If we had to note our domain of what has become the lingua franca, we Spaniards evaluated ourselves with a 2.67 out of 5, the approved scraping, according to the Cambridge Monitor study. And if we compare ourselves with other countries, Spain is ranked 32 (out of 88) in terms of English proficiency, according to the English Proficiency index developed by EF. The survey, which serves as a reference for governments around the world, places us in the block of countries with medium level. To dry. Reality, however, tries to push us towards the next step: while in the educational system it begins to spread the concept of bilingualismIn the job offers, an advanced command of English is required. But how can you make that leap?
More and more students are entering this territory. In the Official Language Schools, for example, students enrolled in the two highest levels of English almost tripled between 2014 and 2017 (from 7,202 to 19,528); they are the only groups that grow in number of enrolled. For who has proposed to improve his English and overcome (finally) the intermediate level, the experts point out three keys: two obvious-effort and time-and another much more abstract, which consists of being aware of what it means to speak English in an advanced way. "It's about reaching a level of ease and a range of scope in terms of the subjects and contexts in which one can operate," summarizes Simon Thorley, responsible for English courses for adults of the British Council. "It's a combination of ease, rank, formality, control and accuracy."
The goal is to communicate more complex ideas, but to do it more easily. Or, in the more technical terminology, move from levels B to a C. This is how the boundary delimits the Common European Framework of Reference, which is the basic tool that defines the different levels in the learning of a foreign language.
In this way, who for example has an English B2 he must be able, for example, to talk about various topics, both concrete and abstract, justify opinions and have a conversation with a native. To scale up to a C1 (what the Framework calls the effective operational domain) or even to a C2 (mastery), a much higher level of sophistication is required. "It's a qualitative and mental change," says Montse Sàbat, head of studies at the Official School of Languages of Barcelona-Drassanes. "With a B2 you can handle yourself in all situations, better or worse, but you're capable, in C1 it's not just about that pragmatic aspect of being able to communicate, but about doing it better".
The first basic concept to understand what this change of mentality with respect to language consists in is that of precision. What is required is to be aware, for example, that saying "I'm tired" ("I'm tired") is not the same as saying "I'm exhausted" ("I'm exhausted"), although both options are correct . "You know exactly the word you have to use in every situation and at every moment," sums up David Bradshaw, responsible for evaluating Cambridge Assessment English for Spain and Portugal.
It is about learning to master the different registers of the language and to maintain that precision in any situation, whether you are making a joke in an informal chat with friends or if what you need is to write a report to deliver at work. At the lower levels (A1, A2, B1), students move in a much narrower circle that is usually limited to the personal sphere and to an informal register. As you move towards the mastery of the language, what is required is to expand that range. "At the highest levels, we mainly use a formal, formal or very formal use, but always very, very precise," adds Bradshaw.
It is not enough, however, to be exact. That precision must flow naturally. The pauses that one makes when speaking in English should no longer be to think about how to build a sentence or try to remember that word you need, but to elaborate more complex ideas. "As of B2, it is assumed that you already know how to build language without too much effort.The cognitive burden is now on searching for ideas.The question is not how to say something, but what to say," explains Bradshaw. You also have to learn to read between the lines, to handle the double meanings of language, to capture the nuances in what others tell you and to know how to use them when we speak.
To achieve that fluency it is essential to expand the vocabulary. "A student of B2 can know between 5,000 and 10,000 words, but in C1 you must know more than 10,000", says Simon Williamson, pedagogical coordinator of the academies Berlitz. That is, however, one of the main obstacles on the way to an advanced command of English. The students start from a base, that of the B2, which already allows them to function practically in any situation. A kind of comfort zone in which it is hard to work the motivation to go further. Above all because it is complicated to incorporate new words and expressions, more precise but of a more sporadic use, and also to do it in such a way that they can be used naturally when the situation requires it.
"The big challenge of moving from B2 to C1 is to realize that you need those words," explains Bradshaw. "In many cases you have them in the passive vocabulary, you recognize them or they sound to you, but you do not use them, you have to find yourself in situations where you force yourself to use them, not necessarily on a day-to-day basis, if we always talk in C1 or C2 we would be insufferable, but you must have that new record in the bedroom for when you need it. "
200 hours of study
Experts say that the jump to an advanced level is not such, but rather a continuity. But the more you progress, the slower the evolution. It is also harder to appreciate. And to draw the border to know when one has arrived at the advanced territory is practically impossible. "The most difficult thing for the student is to perceive that he / she is achieving it, a student's own awareness is necessary so that he / she realizes that he / she uses a broader vocabulary, understands texts without having to go to the dictionary …", exemplifies Camila Martínez Torres, responsible for the English product for adults of Oxford University Press in Spain.
For Olivia Rodríguez, who began studying English at school and before high school had already reached C1, the turning point was to realize that she had begun to think in English. "The range of vocabulary you start to access allows you to express yourself more clearly, little by little you get more comfortable with the use of language and that makes it easier for you to start thinking in English," he explains.
The process is, however, very gradual. And at advanced levels, it is not enough to crush the grammar or learn more vocabulary. It is necessary to work other skills, which often escape the merely linguistic. In the School of Languages of Barcelona-Drassanes, for example, the students of the groups of C1 -there are already 250 enrolled, although six years ago there were no classes for this level- work their English in debates about the freedom of expression or the health system. "Other skills come into play: argumentative, expository, critical thinking … which are sometimes in the mother tongue and sometimes not," says Montse Sàbat.
"They also influence discipline, personal organization, good planning and mood, if you want to take a degree to accredit your level, it is necessary to prepare those non-cognitive skills", adds David Palencia, professor at Daway English, which lists the three most common exams to certify a C1 in English: the Cambridge Advanced, the TOEFL and the IELTS.
How much time does it take to pass the intermediate level and begin to handle English in an advanced way? The experts assure that it is complicated to quantify, since it depends on what one takes advantage of the classes, but also of the contact with the language that is had outside the classroom. The consensus is, however, in about 200 hours of dedication if you start from a B2, the equivalent of an academic year. "But it's very important that the student knows where he is, what he has to do and how he has to do it," warns Simon Thorley of the British Council. "The most trained and informed students are the ones who progress more quickly."