For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, quarreling ceases.
For anyone engaged in the process of language acquisition, some gauge of progress is a helpful motivator to keep going, especially when one is still in the high anxiety stages. While beginner, intermediate, advanced, and fluent are nice categories, they are also pretty vague and interpreted by different institutions in different ways. How about this scale of progression: daily life competence, relationship competence, discourse competence, native competence (p.225).
All of these competencies build on one another and yet each of them also begins development from the very early stages of learning. For example, from the first time a language student learns to write a sentence, they have begun developing “discourse competence,” yet appreciation of local poetry may not come until extremely advanced stages. Or, after a few meetings with a language coach the student is beginning to pick up on a number of relational cues but will likely not master them for years to come.
So, let’s give these four competencies a little more flesh:
Daily Life Competence: “Good pronunciation skills should be developed early...it is difficult to change the bad habits you have learned” (p.231). In addition to these fundamental sounds, vocabulary, and patterns of the language could be added functional language often called “power phrases” to help the student become a self-learner as the interact with their surrounding culture.
Relational Competence: This is the process of getting beyond survival to beginning to build relationships. This is often learned by trial and error which can be one of the most embarrassing parts of the process. On the low end it encompasses social norms for human interaction and on the high end this competence includes the ability to talk about deep desires and emotions.
Discourse Competence: Listening, Speaking, Reading, and Writing are the four skills of language learning. Often writing is the last to develop due to the high amounts of precision required to communicate without the aid of non-verbals. It also may require the student to make changes in their own preferred style of communication to better fit the culture (p.231). At first this competency will mimic speech on paper but after time, much reading, and helpful correction - a true naturalness will develop.
Native Competence: This is not just another way of saying “fluency” though that is part of this competence. Rather, this is competence beings to grow the most when the nuts and bolts of the language are no longer the main focus. Here the language learner will begin to more precisely develop native skills in volume, tone (not tones), rate, summary, idiom, and non-verbals. This begins developing from day one but blossoms much later in the process.
[Much of the material and quotes in this post are a summary from Encountering Missionary Life and Work, by Tom Steffen and Lois McKinney Douglas (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2008) - the whole book is highly recommended for Nurture Program candidates.]