Language Learning: Why Is It So Difficult To Progress From Conversational To Advanced?

A person has studied a foreign language. The person describes their daily routine in that language. They talk about past events. They discuss their hopes for the future, their fears.

The conversation turns to a favourite topic: food and drink. Sport follows. Film. Television. An art exhibition. The person describe symptoms and allergies.

They can even provide simple political arguments or state their religious beliefs (or lack of).

Fluent? Maybe. Maybe not.

The standard described above roughly corresponds to B1 of the Common Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR). A good Higher GCSE. Able to cope alone in a region where the language is spoken. Potentially fluent but not quite.

For whatever reason, once a student has reached B1, they find the next step – B2 (can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity) – almost impossible.

The leap between B1 and B2 seems huge, compared to the transition from A2 to B1, and the student can often feel they are wasting their time.

I can hold conversations in French and German (in Past, Present and Future), but I regularly experience frustration at my limited vocabulary in both languages and my lack of mastery of abstract concepts. Basic Russian conversation continues to prove a challenge.

There are no easy answers to the problem of how to progress from B1, other than further practice and determination, along with a grudging respect for the humble B1 standard, which entails about 4,000 words, anyway.

A person stranded in a country where the language is spoken would certainly survive with 4,000 words. But further study is always good.

Just a few of my thoughts.

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Czerny, Powerful Stuff

Recently, I got a bit of a scare. I woke up to a bout of vertigo, caused by a viral infection as a result of the unusually hot and muggy summer.

Obviously, I didn’t feel like playing the piano for a few days, so I took a break.

At around this time, I discovered that the fourth and fifth fingers of my right hand had stopped functioning at their normal level.

They lacked strength now and I found executing musical trills and piano passages requiring precision difficult to bring off correctly.

What had happened?

Admittedly, I feared a debilitating medical condition. After all, the combination of light-headedness from the vertigo and the weakened fingers would create worry for most people.

Worse, each time I typed at the computer, I became aware of the less than perfect finger strength.

The solution?

For years, I have used Czerny short exercises for piano to build up technical expertise, preferring them to scales and arpeggios.

Concerned, I worked on several of the Czerny exercises, noting when the finger work suffered. Always the fourth and fifth fingers and always the right hand.

Finally, I discovered the root of the problem.

For some reason, I had begun curling the little finger during the previous few weeks. Each time I did, I compromised the usual level of agility, thus giving the impression of the fingers not working.

I remedied the problem, and my playing is back to normal, but occasional traces of the vertigo remain, hopefully not for long.

Till next time.

Don’t Know What To Write? Write Anything

I’ve reached that stage again. A form of writer’s block combined with tiredness.

Should I start a new novel? Polish an existing one? I have no idea of what to do next.

Stepping back from novel writing (including short story writing) might be the right thing for now. A bit of a break. (But not from everything).

Writers can still improve their skills away from a current large scale project. Blogs. Poetry. Collecting one’s thoughts on paper or digitally. Letter writing. Email exchanges. Essays.

These all demand a certain level of articulation and may trigger inspiration for a story project at a future stage.

I think it’s a case of take a well earned break, but don’t give up.

In the meantime, I’m polishing my piano repertoire and brushing up on my foreign language studies.

Till next time.

The Pathetique, Beethoven, And Some Thoughts

Today, I returned to Beethoven’s eighth piano sonata, commonly known as The Pathetique. I performed the sonata in 2012, and I have often thought about returning to it.

A stunning work, yet relatively simple in terms of interpretation, unlike in the later sonatas where the player has to adopt an almost spiritual approach at times.

The first movement requires neat breaks and precision (as opposed to rubato), though I value the use of the pedal as an aid to increasing the drama where needed.

Technique, therefore, plays an integral role. Wrist movement, in particular.

I spent a while on the exposition in the first movement, then looked at the second and third movements where, I feel, occasional hints of rubato mad add greater subtlety, especially in some of the slower passages.

I also think the third movement should begin gracefully before building up to greater levels of tension.

Just a few of my thoughts.

Below are my reflections on the Pathetique taken from my sister blog mypianobio:

An eventful eighteen months. I dug out the manuscript of my second novel Secrets, reset the story in Lancashire, changed the narrative from third person to first, and concentrated on the male protagonist. The same literary agent who’d considered a previous novel Dark Whispers read the first hundred pages of Secrets and asked to see the remainder of the novel, describing the sample she’d read as gripping.

The Pathetique by Beethoven

At around this time, I learnt Beethoven’s piano sonata, The Pathetique. The dramatic opening reminded me of the opening in Secrets, and still does. The protagonist making his way up Whaley Hill in Lancashire in the November chill and fog, searching for the man he’d helped put behind bars sixteen years earlier. The angry, almost violent, chords that answer the pathos of the melody in the Pathetique. The build up of rain, the promise of a storm on Whaley Hill. The continuing intensity of emotion in the Pathetique as lyrical despair alternates with irate harmonies and powerful pauses.

The Marvels Of Technology

Life without smartphones and the internet. Impossible? I would agree.

Initially, I disliked (or maybe distrusted) the technological march of new gadgets, upgrades and uploads, seeing it as potentially addictive, intrusive, and a distraction from life in the real world.

I think some of these concerns still hold true. However, like many things, technology has its advantages and disadvantages. Much depends on the person.

In the last few years, I’ve relied on PCs and Android devices for writing books, putting a musical CD together, posting articles on the internet, shopping for bargains on Amazon, and developing my foreign language schools through various language apps.

I couldn’t imagine going back to life as it was before then.

In 2017, I discovered a new benefit to surfing the internet. Music in PDF form. Trained musicians can download sheet music on their devices, free of charge, as long as the score falls under the Creative Commons License and does not breach copyright.

Yesterday, I downloaded Beethoven’s Pathetique sonata for piano and I intend to relearn it soon. I’ve also downloaded some extensive language learning materials available free of charge from Live Lingua.

Occasionally, I feel a twinge of guilt for obtaining free downloads; an echo of morality, perhaps, concerning the notion that a person shouldn’t get a product – albeit, a virtual product – for free.

However, I only download material that falls under the Creative Commons License and the material is purely for educational purposes – and thus, for a noble cause.

Till next time.

An Afternoon Soiree?

Tomorrow, I will give a soiree-like piano recital for some friends in a private home. Technically, the event cannot be described as a soiree, as it will take place in the afternoon. What then? A soiree de l’apres-midi, maybe?

I will play the Moonlight Sonata by Beethoven (complete), along with some Schubert, Brahms, Liszt and Scott Joplin.

I particularly enjoy the Hungarian Dances by Brahms. Brahms composed the dances both for orchestra and for two-piano duets, but I (like others) have adapted several of the dances for solo piano.

I also enjoy ending recitals with the nineteenth Hungarian Rhapsody by Liszt, his final. The work contains a number of haunting themes and motives before trotting off into a quicker section that concludes with bravura-type double octaves, reminiscent of his earlier rhapsodies.

Till tomorrow then.

Novel Writing, Getting The Story

This summer, I found an old (nearly abandoned) novel I’d written, read and made notes, revised accordingly, reread, then did further revision.

In particular, I wanted to cut the word count by about 15, 000 words, in order to submit to a publishing house that states an upper word count limit in its current submissions information.

Generally, writers hope to increase word count.

By contrast, I found that the reduction in words encouraged me to look more closely at the story and to root out writing that added nothing to the plot or characters (thus slowing down the story).

I feel that even if the project doesn’t get accepted by the publishing house in question, the exercise was still worth doing, especially in connection to future writing plans.

At the very least, it gave me insight into pace and how readers can easily lose interest when the pace slackens.

I haven’t yet submitted the amended novel, as I need to check through the manuscript for errors, but I intend to send it off before the relevant deadline, either during autumn or during winter.

Till next time.

A Phone Upgrade – How Necessary? (And Other Things Technical)

Next week, my phone contract ends. When that happens, I’ll sign another contact and get an upgrade phone. No problem, the cashier assured me when I went in to enquire recently.

The whole thing got me thinking about technology and the developments that have taken place over a period of twenty years.

Although I don’t agree with the sentiment, ‘We all managed perfectly well without mobile phones and the internet,’ I do wonder whether consumers have become spoilt when it comes to the technology, eagerly awaiting the latest gadget, as if it were a new toy.

Certainly, I value my smartphone and rely on it for internet usage throughout the day, especially in regards to checking the times of public transport or for keeping in touch with people.

However, I have concerns over both the constant demands placed on the consumer to upgrade (a sort of, ‘it’s never enough. You have to have more’) and the steady influx of incoming sensory information in the form of alerts, ring/media tones and adverts.

Hardware and software.

Imagine the following...middle of the day….complex situation…you sit down to write an email or text, unsure of how you’ll word it when a succession of alerts come up, all announcing themselves audibly and all intensely irritating and jarring at that moment. To add to the bombardment of information, another sign pops up saying words to the effect of, ‘do you love our app? Write a Review and rate our app.’ Would you?

In particular, I wonder whether the persistent incoming information could evoke the stress response in people, storing up the potential for periods of intense stress and numerous stress-related medical conditions over time.

Also, the more people depend on handheld devices, the less they can do with the information in terms of editing, layout and compatibility with other platforms.

IT originally centred around the ability to manipulate information, but to manipulate information adequately, a person needs bigger screen.

Despite these concerns I couldn’t envisage life without technology and the internet. I just wish developers would slow down sometimes and that people could enjoy creating worthwhile content instead of getting distracted by constant alerts, adverts and apps.

Just a few of my thoughts.

The Humble Music Degree, Many Skills

Music graduates, like degree holders in other subjects, often experience difficulty in gaining employment, regardless of whether they wish to work in a music-related career or try something different.

Yet, many music graduates do not regret making the decision to study music at degree level.

A music degree combines several learning approaches, both academic and practical, and these may help music graduates in various other lines of work, now or in the future.

A person doing a music degree will normally study at least one musical instrument (or voice) to a high standard, although students may opt to study composition, or combine the two.

All students continue developing some level of ear training; this is extremely helpful for foreign language learning (as I’ve discovered for myself).

The academic side of the degree involves intense analytical training in a wide repertoire of works, alongside a separate study of twentieth-century music.

Some of the analysis requires an understanding of mathematics, and discussions on aesthetics and an understanding of twentieth- century general history play an integral role in the later stages of the training.

My own music degree finals consisted of:

hosting a recital of my own compositions, submitting a 12,000-word dissertation on Music Psychology, sitting a three-hour examination on twentieth-century music, providing a technical analysis of a work over a period of eight hours, and submitting a folio of compositions to the examiners.

As one can see, the humble music degree is exacting, requiring all sorts of skills that ought to help graduates as they take their places in the workplace. Or simply for pleasure.

Just a few of my thoughts.