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I attended a workshop on the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview. The test ranks a speaker within four categories Novice, Intermediate, Advanced and Superior. We learned how to conduct the interview and gradually challenge the person with more difficult questions. It seems that proficiency in language, according to this assessment is tightly associated with certain cognitive capacities that come with critical education in general.

This is a summary of how I think about the strategy behind the test:

1-      Where, When, Who and What type of questions. These have finite and possibility short to the point answers. These questions inquire about tangibles, their existence and establish whether or not the person could possibly be more than a novice.

2-      How questions. These are open-ended questions that illicit a description-type of answers that describe scenes, feelings, events, processes and so forth. This is also a inquiry into the person’s ability to speak in the different time modes (past, present and future) and see if they could “tell a story”.

3-      Contrast questions. Here is where the critical thinking component starts to emerge. Contrast questions require from the speaker to compare and contrast two different things (usually an elaboration an answer to the previous How question). In this case, the person is suppose to chose on their own, which aspects are worthy of description. So it is essentially and elaboration of the how question, except that the interviewee is now the one electing what should be described in order to develop a meaningful comparison. If the interviewee is able to perform up to this stage, she has secured her rank as an Intermediate and the interviewer will then explore whether or not she is Advanced. This is done using the:

4-      Why questions. These are questions that require the speaker to investigate the causes behind a certain phenomenon.  So, if a How question was “tell me who you spend your free-time” and the interviewee brought up watching movies, which elicited a contrast question such as “what are some of the differences between American movies and movies from your country” and if the interviewee brought up the issue of violence, then a Why question could be like: “Some people think that violence should be limited in movies, but others say that it’s form of expression that should be defended, what do you think?” The reason this is a “Why question” is because an appropriate answer involves an answer that starts off by exploring why each party holds that position, before weighing them and adopting a certain position and defending it. Depending on how well one does this, in terms of grammatical correctness and coherent thought process, an interviewee could be either Advanced or Superior.

This rubric made me think that perhaps Why questions are the end of the line when it comes to speech and communication in general. It’s the end of the lines because the search of reasons or causes is unproductive. An exhaustive process would include listing causes, deconstructing them and proving them banal, thought experiments to support opinions, attempts to reconcile apparent contradictions in opposing positions, deflating the whole issue, or persuading and convincing, which only succeeds if the other part is unwilling to resume the deflation or deconstruction of the opinion and so forth.

It seems that communication builds up starting from describing what is there; what is, to describing what ought to be. Language is effective in describing what is. Language alone is crippled when it comes to describing what ought to be. Usually, I think, it should be coupled with material force that allow one to say, thus it shall be.  Nevertheless, I find language to be important in shaping the world according to what ought to be (granted it differs among people). When immersed in the Why phase, language is not a step-by-step rational process. Rather it’s like whipping cream, you keep on stirring until it rises. The back and forth, the tug-a-war, the this not that, comme ci comme ca, et cetera, eventually leads to something rising, something tangible. This product could either be an agreement, or an altered perspective or something new that is now added into the bowl, which did not exist before.

To be a Superior speaker (according to ACTFL) involves being able to use language to its limits, where language no longer serves as tangible medium of communication, but as a force. This force does not necessarily bring into being what the speaker intended. Rather, the force that results from language allows liquid milk to turn into cream. In other words, superior speakers do not use language as a vehicle to communicate facts and truths, but are able to use it, in conversation (with self or others) to create new facts and truths … to create new phenomena.

Let me develop this last thought before a) scrutinizing it and b) forgetting this next point. If an elementary level student writes a poem, is he synthesizing something new? Not necessarily. I’m thinking about a poem that describes nature or emotions. That’s mere description. To create, one must bring out something new. This new creation would be the product of words and meanings colliding together. An example of this is when protesters in Tahrir Square debate and argue what to do before eventually reaching a decision. A decision was created right there as a result of the use of language. Even when along, one could “think something through” to reach a conclusion. Superior use of language involves reaching conclusions using language.

What is a conclusion? It is a sort of mental equilibrium. A balance achieved from starting thoughts or arguments. Language is a tool to reach equilibrium … sense of comfort and minimal pain. Conclusions could be mere justification and acceptance of what is.

What is happiness?

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