Reaching Advanced Mid
The desired level of oral proficiency for graduating seniors is Advanced Mid (defined here). What follows are common challenges for students attempting to reach this level.
1. The challenges of description/narration in present, past, and future times:
The ability to give details and connect ideas into paragraph-length, organized discourse.
Sample Advanced description:
- “The guy who comes to get my neighbor every morning has a red truck with a powerful engine and extra-large tires. Probably because it’s so old, the engine makes a dreadful noise, like thunder, and wakes up the whole neighborhood.”
Compare with a typical Intermediate-level description:
- “A guy comes to get my neighbor every morning. He has a red car. It’s very big, with big tires. It’s very old too. It makes a lot of noise.”
The strings of short sentences that are the hallmark of Intermediate-level speech are no longer acceptable at the Advanced level.
– practice giving details (a skill that is as much cognitive as it is linguistic)
– increased active vocabulary about basic topics
– mastery of basic grammar, such as agreement of verbs with subjects and adjectives with nouns, verb conjugations, articles (definite vs. indefinite vs. partitive), etc.
– practice using connecting words, such as first, then, after that, on the other hand, because, since, especially, actually, however, etc.
– practice using complex sentence structures, with subordinate clauses (relative pronouns, conjunctions, present participles, etc.)
Narration/description in the past–one of the greatest difficulties of the French and Italian languages
– A lot of practice manipulating past tenses, i.e. passé composé (passato prossimo) vs. imparfait (imperfetto) vs. plus-que-parfait (trapassato prossimo o remoto).
– Practice telling stories in the past. Advanced-level story tellers have the ability to place events in context, carry out foregrounding and backgrounding, and integrate descriptive details in their narratives with good control of aspect.
2. The challenges of talking about current events
One of the requirements of Advanced-level proficiency is the ability to talk about current events or events of public interest, such as school reforms or the latest gridlock in Washington. This can be done in fairly broad and generic terms, but you have to know something about what’s happening in the world right now!
– Read news articles on the Internet, listen to radio and TV news broadcasts in the target language. This will enable you to acquire both the information and the vocabulary.
– Pick-up the New York Times, available (free of charge) at various campus locations every morning. Read the articles that interest you the most and practice talking about those events in the target language. Look up vocabulary as needed.
– Practice talking about current events with classmates, friends, etc.
Going beyond Advanced Mid
For those of you who are already Advanced Mid, the goal is Advanced High (which means the ability to perform at the Superior level more than half of the time) or even Superior. Those two levels are described here.
1. The challenges of supporting an opinion
“This covers not just expressing an opinion (e.g, Americans need to learn more about other countries…), but also supporting that opinion with substance and detail (e.g,…because they run the risk of becoming too insular, of misunderstanding other cultures and, worst of all, of misreading other people’s intents and insights. Without a global perspective, they may well lose their ability as a nation to dialogue meaningfully with others.) An opinion can be stated and explained at the Advanced level. At the Superior level, however, it is supported with broader and more sophisticated evidence that may well include personal references in anecdotal form, but always with the purpose of providing evidence to strengthen the point of view. Superior speakers are able to consider opposing sides of an issue, and respond to counter-arguments by introducing additional evidence or examples, pointing out flawed logic and unacceptable premises, and using reasoned argument.” (ACTFL OPI Tester Training Manual, Explanatory Notes p. 95)
– A structured approach to developing a reasoned argument.
If you don’t know where to start, consider this 5-step approach, suggested by Professor Thompson.
1.Define the issue (for example, mandatory healthcare insurance) and what it means to you.
2. Consider one side of the issue. Use examples from current events, history, literature, personal experience, etc, to support the argument.
3. Consider the other side(s) of the issue, with substance and detail.
4. Give your own opinion, explaining why you tend to agree with some pros or cons.
5. Conclude by linking your opinion to related topics of broad interest (for example, how mandatory healthcare insurance relates to social programs run by the state).
2. The challenges of making hypotheses
“The hypothetical is a proposal of the “what if” and “under what circumstances” rather than a statement of the “what is” of everyday reality. It involves supposition, conjecture and the consideration of competing possibilities. Properly speaking, the hypothetical rarely, if ever, exists in isolation. Rather, it springs naturally from the consideration of a topic already contextualized and anchored in supported opinion. A clichéd “what if” question about winning the lottery invites only an outcome statement as a response (I would buy a house) and forces attention on the form rather than the substance of the conjecture. On the other hand, a discussion on the morality of the lottery, for example, might lead a Superior speaker to continue the argument with a conjecture such as: You know, I really don’t believe I’d like to win a million dollars. Imagine what that might do to my lifestyle and relationships! I’m sure that my family would not agree on how to spend the money, which would create some friction, and my friends wouldn’t know how to react. I can’t see how things could ever be the same. And then, there is work—would I want to keep my current job?…” (Explanatory Notes p. 95)
– Practice manipulating the structures associated with hypothesis (if clauses, etc.)
– Practice thinking of alternatives, what could be or what could have been.
– Practice including hypothesis in every argument.
3. The challenges of dealing with abstractions
“The distinction between concrete and abstract refers not to the kinds of topics treated, but rather to the manner in which the speaker formulates, presents and elaborates on them. References to a speaker’s own experience and knowledge, are basically concrete: anecdotes, descriptions and explanations are the straightforward verbal representation of the concrete world of people, things, places and events. On the other hand, consideration of the same concrete world may lead to the more comprehensive and far-reaching (i.e abstract) discussion of “issues” or “problems” which, by definition, invite the consideration of the factual from a number of viewpoints. The abstract approach involves debate; it creates a polemic in which competing notions are entertained and championed; and, in so doing, it involves the use of language with suitably abstract formulations. For example, the question: How has industry affected this area? might elicit a straightforward, concrete response such as It has polluted our river and caused several fish kills. We can’t swim there any longer and we can’t even fish there the way we used to, from an Advanced speaker. However, a Superior speaker would conceive a response in more abstract terms, even if there is reference to concrete matters, for example: The waste dumped upstream has certainly polluted the area, and this is a definite cause for concern, even alarm. Now, we recognize that without those factories there would be less pollution, but there would be a great number of people out of work as well. You couldn’t expect employees, for example, to stand up against their own companies in support of the environment, because they would risk losing their jobs. Just the same, if these employees could be guaranteed that there would be no negative repercussions for speaking their minds, I’m sure that they would call for greater controls regarding disposal of waste products…” (Explanatory Notes pp. 91-92)
– Extensive reading of texts that contain abstractions (op-ed pieces, literary texts, etc.)
– Significant increase in vocabulary and structural accuracy
– Practice developing arguments (see above) about a variety of topics with extended discourse.
4. The challenges of extended discourse
“This term implies the extensive treatment of a topic. Superior speakers are not limited to a few simple remarks as commentary. […] They sustain an idea and develop it through complex utterances that are linked syntactically and thematically. They can take short linguistic detours for elaboration and illustration without losing the thrust of the idea and its development. Extended discourse is a communicative building process in both form and meaning. It requires control of discourse structure, cohesiveness, and linguistic facility in the functions of the Superior level.” (Explanatory notes p. 93)
– Things to say
– Interest in current events and issues associated with those events; extensive reading. Some studies suggest that reading aloud Superior-level texts at fluent speed can help with the development of extended discourse.
– Mapping out what can be said about various topics: make charts of pros and cons, or causes and effects, whatever the topic requires. Organize ideas that can be developed.
– Practice using complex language structures.
5. The challenges of accuracy
“Accuracy is revealed in patterns of strengths and weaknesses. A pattern of weakness or error becomes evident when, for example, a speaker consistently misproduces or omits the feature in question. For their part, Superior speakers control the fundamentals of grammar in such a way that there exists no pattern of errors in basic structures, as these are defined for the target language. (ex: number and gender agreement, basic word orders.) This allows the listener to attend primarily to the speaker’s content, and only when some non-native characteristic or significant error occurs is the listener’s attention drawn to the form of the utterance. [Explanatory Notes, p. 96]
– Systematic monitoring of patterns of errors
– Work on structures, vocabulary or pronunciation features that are causing those patterns of errors.
The best way to prepare for your OPI is to
– increase your exposure to authentic input (reading, listening, viewing);
– speak as much as you can, with classmates, friends, native speakers;
– practice having some of those conversations over the phone, since your official OPI will be a telephonic interview.
– focus on the functions you are targeting for full control, such as narration in the past, or supported opinion;
– force yourself to elaborate.
Chantal P. Thompson