Are language levels bullshit?

I’ve spent some time reading through the language learning blogosphere, so to speak – started off at Japanese Level Up and continued from there, although I found the Japanese learners’ community to be the most active. I noticed (and have always known it to be true) that there’s a huge focus on language “levels”, attaining them, testing at them, almost always following some sort incredibly vague description of each one.

And I think that’s kind of bullshit.

I’ll take a moment to note here that I can absolutely see the psychological benefit of hitting certain quantitative milestones when you’re studying a language like Japanese. But for most languages in your standard bunch, particularly those that use an alphabet, I don’t think it makes any sense at all.

First off, levels are incredibly subjective, and even if they’re broken down by category (speaking, listening, reading, writing), what really separates a foreigner’s level 7 from another foreigner’s level 8 in writing? Let’s look at an example near and dear to my heart I despise with the fiery passion of a thousand suns: the IELTS.

IELTS stands for the International English Language Test System administered by the British Council (nota bene), the U.K’s cultural diplomacy arm.  Right there you have problem number 1: the test is compiled and graded by speakers of British English. For an illustration of problem number 2, let’s compare the “writing mark schemes” for levels 9 (the highest) and 8 (the second highest):

Level 9

  • fully satisfies all the requirements of the task
  • clearly presents a fully developed response
  • uses cohesion in such a way that it attracts no attention
  • skilfully manages paragraphing
  • uses a wide range of vocabulary with very natural and sophisticated control of lexical features; rare minor errors occur only as ‘slips’
  • uses a wide range of structures with full flexibility and accuracy; rare minor errors occur only as ‘slips’


Level 8

  • covers all requirements of the task sufficiently
  • presents, highlights and illustrates key features / bullet points clearly and appropriately
  • sequences information and ideas logically
  • manages all aspects of cohesion well
  • uses paragraphing sufficiently and appropriately
  • uses a wide range of vocabulary fluently and flexibly to convey precise meanings
  • skilfully uses uncommon lexical items but there may be occasional inaccuracies in word choice and collocation
  • produces rare errors in spelling and/or word formation
  • uses a wide range of structures
  • the majority of sentences are error-free
  • makes only very occasional errors or inappropriacies

First of all, my computer does not consider “inappropriacies” to be a word, British Council. Secondly, this grading system makes no allowances for differences in cultural and educational background, or even just interest in the subject. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, the task itself is ridiculous – part of it involves describing but not analyzing a graphical representation of some data (some people are just naturally analytically minded, British Council!), and the other part of it involves writing one of those stupid “for and against” high school essays, usually on some mind-numbingly boring topic.

Anyway, the reason love fire burns in my heart for this particular exam is because I had to take it to get into grad school. Since the language of instruction for my undergraduate degree wasn’t English, I couldn’t get out of the requirement, and it was easier to take the IELTS than the TOEFL (equally awful, btw) at that time. Anyway, I got 9s on listening and speaking, an 8.5 on reading (there was a text about the woodpecking habits of woodpeckers in New Jersey…), and an 8 on writing. Look, I ain’t no James Joyce, but I can write, yo. I was VERY ANGRY, but I literally had no choice but to send those results in to complete my application. Anyway, I got in, and because I still had some sort of leftover trauma from that 8 on the writing section, I spent hours meticulously crafting every paper for every assignment during my first semester. Then they started coming back with comments like “excellent writing, great job” and “this is very well written”, and I wanted to print all of them on a giant banner and fly them past the headquarters of the British Council.

Or something.

Anyway, point being, all that test did (besides get me into grad school, okay, okay) was sow unnecessary panic and erode my confidence in my abilities.  Obviously I wrote well, I just happened to only write about things I liked and not some made-up pie chart.

I’ve never taken a formal French test outside of school and don’t expect to need to do so, but just going by my experience with the IELTS exam and with my widely varying competencies in other languages, I’ve kind of started developing this theory that tests and levels are confusing, even counterproductive, and that they engender either false security or false insecurity, depending on where you fall relative to where you thought you were. I say that because I can, and routinely do, read newspaper articles in Bulgarian or Polish, but I can’t say anything in either one, and I frequently read complex commercial litigation in Spanish, but can only really carry on a beginner-level conversation. Sometimes (and this is terrifying), I can understand nearly 100% of an Almodovar movie, but only about 80% of a French TV show, yet my Spanish is far far far weaker overall. There are accents, dialects, regional variations, thematic groupings in which cognates dominate, etc – none of this matters in conventional language testing, it seems.

I think there should be a different system altogether, one that considers natural aptitude, affinities for certain topics, technical vocabulary and so on, and it would, by definition, be very personal. I hope to write more about that soon.

P.S. Here’s a very good JALUP post on levels and “native” “fluency”.


Moving to France: By the Numbers

I wanted to be very transparent about the costs involved in this from the outset because there’s so little financial transparency in these conversations online, particularly when it comes to expat life in Europe. Everybody’s stories always seem to begin with “I sold everything I owned” and end with “and moved abroad”, which is like, okay, good for you, but …?! I intend to keep the financial conversation very open and honest here, and I hope this will help anyone contemplating a move of their own.

Annual Budget

The TL;DR version: in order to be financially comfortable and confident, I need to leave the US with at least $65,000. Forty-five of that will be my “spending” money, $20,000 will remain in “reserve”. This is so that I’m protected in either of the following cases:

  • I lose all of my freelance work and find nothing else while in France (the $45,000)
  • I need to return to the US, temporarily or permanently, for whatever reason (the $20,000)

Ideally, at the end of my 16 months, I would love to say that I still have the $65,000 I came with. That is unlikely, but it won’t hurt to try. Currently, I’m sitting on just under $38,000 in savings and another $5,500 in an IRA, though that I’m not touching. Here’s how I plan on filling the gap:

Savings Plan

If my estimates are correct, my annual income both this year and next will hover right around $105,000. I say “estimates” because that’ll depend on my bonus and my freelance income, which is sometimes a matter of blind luck. In addition to my full-time job, I consult for a number of different companies on the side in the field of anti-corruption and anti-fraud, broadly speaking. Sometimes these are tiny gigs, sometimes not, it all depends on the mysterious ways of the market.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “what the hell, that’s a lot of money, what’s her problem”, you’re almost entirely correct in thinking so, but I live in a very expensive city (DC), travel a lot, and sometimes get hit with unexpected bills, just like everyone else. Plus, I’m a contractor, so I pay more in taxes than a regular employee and have fewer benefits. Additionally, due to the asinine tax system we have, there are some categories in which it actually makes more sense for me to spend the money I have than to save it – for example, I could spend ~ $3,500 on “educational expenses”, or I could end up paying a very large percentage of that to the government, so instead I choose to invest in some kind of skill or competency. I can’t squirrel away huge chunks of my income every month, but I’ll obviously try to rein some things in.

The goal will be to budget carefully (I’ll post my budget spreadsheet for anyone interested), eliminate wasteful spending (more on this later), and put away $1,000 in salary per month. With a tentative departure date of October 1, 2017, I should be $12,000 closer to my goal.

The remaining $15,000, hopefully more, as much as possible, will have to be made up of freelance income. If I take on one to two projects per week at my standard rate, approximately $250 per project, I should be able to get an extra $1,500 per month, or another $18,000 total by my departure. That would put me on the tarmac at $68,000, which is a good place to be. This number shoots up astronomically if I land a golden egg client, though little depends on me in that regard, or if I become a total shut-in and work 80-hour weeks, which I could do, but won’t. Because a lot of my side income depends on precision and attention to detail, I try not to overwhelm myself, since there comes a point beyond which I’m too tired and I just risk producing a subpar work product, therefore jeopardizing future earnings.

I mentioned that there are some big expenses I can’t cut, but there are also some I won’t. I’ll cover this in a comprehensive budget post soon, but this is another thing I feel often makes expat/travel/living abroad blogs disingenuous – all of the “I moved into my parents’ basement and ate air, and so can you!” posts disregard the realities of everyone else’s life circumstances, unique by definition.

Savings Recap

$38,000 in savings today

+ $1,000/mo x 12 = $12,000 to be saved from salary

+ $1,500/mo x 12 = $18,000 to be saved from freelance income

= $68,000

As you may recall from about a million words ago, at least $45,000 of those $65,000 – $68,000 will be needed to cover expenses for 16 months. Here’s how I arrived at this figure:

Monthly Budget by Category

Rent: EUR 800 – I’ll probably use Airbnb due to advantageous credit card terms (each dollar I spend will net me 3 bonus miles) and not having to worry about hooking up wifi, cable, a washing machine, etc. I’ll try to go as low as I can here, but I have several non-negotiables: walking/tram distance to both school and the city center, a washing machine (sorry, #gringa), and pets allowed. Some kind of cable TV setup purely for constant practice/immersion would also be helpful.

Health insurance: EUR 45 – I’m overestimating a bit, but let’s just say it’ll be that

Food: EUR 500 – I’m way overestimating this category, but having a bit of a buffer here will help me to be able to move things around a bit in other categories as needed

Travel: EUR 300 – again, this is a big travel budget for someone who’s going to be doing a degree program and working, but I figured a buffer wouldn’t hurt, and I foresee a lot of SNCF in my future anyway.

Cat: EUR 50 – my estimates suggest this will suffice for food and litter. He’s pretty low-maintenance otherwise and has plenty of toys and accoutrements already – and yes, he’s obviously coming with.

Health & beauty: EUR 50 – whatever face/body/hair stuff I need, although I, like my cat, prefer a simple routine.

Phone: EUR 50 – standard.

Totals and Notes

My in-country costs for the length of the program (16 months) come to a minimum of EUR 1,795 or US $2,154 total per month, or US $34,464 for the whole getup. Let’s round up to $35,000. The program itself, which may well be France’s most expensive degree that isn’t an MBA, is another EUR 8,500 or about US $10,000. Et voilà.

As you can see, this budget doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room for emergencies, which is where (hopefully) a combination of freelance income and the “reserve” budget would come in. It’s also lacking a fairly standard category – “shopping” – and I’ll explain why in detail a little later.

Also, these calculations don’t take any of the costs of the actual move into account – plane tickets, visa stuff, checked bags, microchipped cat, vet documents, etc. – because those are all one-time costs with which I actually do, magically, have some wiggle room. For example, I’m sitting on a small pot of United/Star Alliance miles, currently about 250,000 in all, and I expect to spend 30,000 of those on a one-way ticket, so all I’ll be responsible for are taxes and extra luggage / cat fees – under $300 total. I’m rolling all of the moving costs into a completely separate budget, though, so I’ll cover that in a separate post.

I am also deliberately leaving anything I could earn selling my stuff out of the equation. My car is in good condition; in a year, it could probably go for $3,000 in a private sale. The rest of my stuff could end up netting another $2,000, maybe less. For tax purposes, it may end up being a better idea to donate instead of selling; that’s a calculation I have yet to finalize. Whatever comes out of the sale will be added to the “reserve” fund; some of it may have to go towards a cheapo storage unit until I have the time and means to take the important keepsake stuff to my parents’ house. Conveniently, they live in neither France nor the US, so that’s going to be a whole separate process.

I am, of course, praying to all currency conversion gods that this current rate doesn’t change significantly between now and then, and I’m watching the markets carefully. I’m not so much wishing the euro would get weaker as I am for the dollar to get stronger, but if we could get to 1 : 1.05, for example, I’d be positively beside myself.

Fortunately, in the time it took to write and polish this, I completed four side projects that together came to $2,585, all going straight to savings. I should note that that sum total is not at all typical for four measly projects, I just got lucky. I’ve got one more side project confirmed, due next week and likely billable right around the $250 mark, and two more potential projects worth $1,800 total (again, atypical pricing). Once all this money hits the bank, I’ll post an update on my progress, and I’d eventually like to write more about what I do as a freelance gig and how all of that works.

The flipside to this, of course, is that the more I earn, the more I pay in taxes (taxed at the full monty rate), so I have to be exceedingly careful with all my records and really go after every possible deduction. There are some benefits to this type of salary arrangement, but it’s a never-ending cycle of preparing the next quarterly IRS payment and pulling money out of savings to cover whatever I owe every April, so I suppose it’s lucky that I really like my job.

Next up: a serious overview of my current income, fixed costs, variable costs, and what might very well be a brutal budget. Stay tuned.


Building Fluency by Showing Up

This is a really emotionally complex topic for me and probably THE most significant challenge I currently face, way more so than the finances, so it’s something I wanted to cover early on. I’m not sure how much detail to go into here – I want to be open but not overly dense in details and therefore boring, if that makes sense. The shorter version is that while I have absolutely zero trouble with spoken/written comprehension in French, expression is another story. Writing out a long explanation of all of the reasons why probably isn’t necessary; suffice it to say that I suffer from self-limiting perfectionism, having been raised bilingual (sadly, not in French) means it’s easy for me to fall into the mental trap of “well it’s never going to be as good as my English, so I might as well just give up now”, and I’m almost always terrified of making mistakes when I speak. Because I have consciously shied away from practice in the past for those very reasons, I still somewhat struggle with turning passive vocabulary (words and phrases I understand) into active (words and phrases I can use intuitively), using slang and colloquial expressions, that sort of thing.


Anyway! Ultimately, none of that matters, what matters is the end result, which should be attaining fluency at a level where I can confidently communicate in complex professional settings. No one’s going to be able to do it for me, so I just have to stop being a weirdo and get over myself.

A few years ago, I found a great blog called All Japanese All The Time, which houses one of the most engaging collections of essays on language acquisition I’ve ever read anywhere. Lots of elucidating stuff! In one of my favorite posts, AJATT offers a really helpful way of conceptualizing fluency and “native speech”:

[T]he best group of Japanese speakers on the planet, a group many call “the Japanese”, just happen to spend more time hearing and reading Japanese than any other group. They’ve “shown up” to Japanese as if it were their…job or national pastime or something. But there’s nothing special about this group of people; when a Japanese person speaks Japanese to you, what she is demonstrating is nothing more than the result of dedication, albeit often unwitting dedication.

This seems like such a “duh” moment once you’ve read it, but I’d never actually thought of it that way before. I’d also never really considered how much of our native language(s) we absorb effortlessly, simply by automatically reading street signs or book covers or billboards, or hearing snippets of other people’s conversations around us. Even when we’re doing absolutely nothing, just being in our native linguistic environment reinforces everything we already know about the language, and doing that all day every day by virtue of just existing is the only reason we’re considered native speakers.

But languages to which we’re not exposed by default require a metric shit ton of work, and AJATT surmises that maybe it’s a matter of frequency of contact, not necessary the quality thereof: here’s a great post summarizing his ideas, and make sure to check out the comments as well. I’ve decided to dedicate the next year toward building both – toward creating what is effectively an artificial immersive environment in every sense. In case this is helpful to others, here’s a detailed description of how:

1. The first thing I do when I wake up is check my phone, where my iOS is already set to French (this is also a great way to learn technical terms and directions, and you get hit with a lot quickly because most of the apps will switch to French as well). I scroll through headlines for a few minutes, about 50% of which are in French. As I’m getting ready I have BFM on in the background – I have watched so much BFM that I now even know their little ad media spot by heart, aucun président n’a été aussi impopulaire que VOUS!

2. When I leave to catch my bus, I switch to France Info radio on the Radios France app (super handy), which I now prefer to RFI. Once I get to work, I check my email for Le Monde’s roundup of top stories and quickly read through whatever looks interesting.

3. At this point in the day, let’s say 9 am, I usually switch to English, as I rarely do much francophone work. I try to take a midday break to read some other articles or a book or a blog in French for about 45 minutes, then continue in English until I leave. If I’m doing something monotone, maybe running calculations or formatting very large documents, I’ll have French music, radio, or BFM on. Throughout the day I try to stay at least exposed to French in tiny increments, like checking something on my phone (navigating the iOS in French) or catching up on breaking news through francophone Twitter. AJATT calls this “touching” a language, by the way, which is charming.

4. If I go to the gym in the afternoon, it comes with a sort of virtuous circle catch: I’ve set a rule for myself that I can only watch TV and movies while I’m at the gym, so if I want to watch anything at all, I gotta haul myself over there. The other rule I set is that anything watched or listened to at the gym must be in French (this was much easier to stick to than the preceding rule). That’s another hour-ish squeezed in.

5. English obviously takes precedence if I’m going out with friends or working on a freelance project in the evening, unless by some miracle I happen to get a freelance project that requires French research.

6. If/once I’m free for the night, I switch to more French video content or to my giant stack of French books, lying in wait (I’m currently reading Bertrand et Lola). The discovery that ships to the US blew a hole through both my budget and my appreciation of free space in my condo, so here we are.

7. Then I sleep, usually in English. Bo-ring.

And then there are those rare glorious weekend days when I have nothing going on and can veg out in front of Le Grand 8 archives for hourssssss, with my cat periodically checking me for signs of life. Those are the best.

In all, it usually comes out to an average of about 5 hours of French exposure per day, and even if I’m traveling for work, I try to maintain the same level. Some of this is quite recent, by the way – I just instituted this exact schedule/concentration of exposure to French about two weeks ago, and I’m already feeling a little more confident in terms of expression. I’m definitely curious to see how this goes and how far I can get – is there a plateau? Let’s find out.


Moving to France: The Why & How

“Moving to France” blogs are a dime a dozen, obviously, and most of them cite Paris, French, fashion, or something like “it’s so romantic” as their reasons for doing so. Macarons and champagne, whatever. It’s not like France needs any more marketing anyway.

My jam with France, however, is politics. To an almost embarrassing degree. A politically aware family + taking French sort of melded into a natural interest. In high school I read Is Paris Burning?, fangirled over de Gaulle, followed the 2002 elections with extreme curiosity, and then went to college and basically just wrote a thousand papers on French foreign policy. In grad school, I branched out into adjacent fields to round myself out and spent less time reading in/interacting with the language as a result (btw, if there’s anything I’d now do differently if I could, it would be this, so if you’re reading this and doing this exact thing, don’t). Old habits die hard, however: when a professor asked us one day who liberated Paris, I proclaimed, in front of 20 proud Americans and being one myself, that it was General Leclerc (it was the Third United States Army; also, #gunner).

Anyway, I live for this. My friends and I went to the French Caribbean on vacation, and while they went out like normal humans, I spent the entire evening glued to Le Grand Journal and it was the best evening ever. France has far and away the most vibrant political landscape I’ve ever seen (I’ve tried to build electoral models, there are like 76 parties), and its political history from Lutèce onwards is just spectacularly interesting to me – hence the landscape, I suppose. Modern-day French politics and French governmental affairs are absolutely my top interest, so wanting to attend a French policy school was the obvious result of all of the years I spent on that, but various circumstances led me to stay in the US for grad school. When the opportunity to do a semester at Sciences Po came up, I already had a full-time job in the middle of a recession and just couldn’t bring myself to take what felt like a huge risk by quitting it. Afterward, since I already had a master’s and didn’t want to do a PhD, I looked at business schools in France, but quickly realized that taking on a ton of debt to do something that only nets a strong B for overall appeal, that isn’t a policy program at all, solely in order to check an arbitrary “studied in France” box, made zero sense for me. So I went back to my life for a while, periodically checking to see if maybe a more fitting program of some sort popped up, and then… I found it.

An “executive” (mid-career) master’s. In my actual professional field, 100% on target. At France’s best policy school. During what is certainly one of the most boisterous times in France’s political history.


^^ me, basically ^^

So I hyperventilated for a bit, told everyone about it, started preparing my application, and then… life happened. I had commitments. I got a promotion. I didn’t really have the money. I second-guessed everything. It was absolutely love at first sight, but it just had to wait, or maybe never even happen.

As I’m sitting here writing this two years later, it feels like a fog I didn’t know I was in had slowly lifted, like when you step outside on the first cool day of the year, and maybe it’s a little overcast, and you’re surprised by the mental acuity you feel in that moment when the air hits your nose. Now all of the ducks are more or less aligned, but beyond that, I’m finally realizing that if I don’t finally do this, I’ll regret it forever.

The program is 16 months, and it’s exactly everything I’ve ever wanted. Now all I need to do is, well, go.

Next up, I’ll write about the financial side of this affair, which is the one area I wish more expat blogs would cover in greater detail.


To start.

I suppose the best way to start is just to… start?

So I recently turned 30 So I recently sat down and tried to really evaluate my life against whatever goalposts I had set prior. In all, my conclusions were slightly disappointing (I hope to write more on underachievement and success FOMO separately), in that I’ve mostly done what’s been expected of me and I’ve mostly done it well, but that I’ve remained risk-averse almost to the point of limiting myself. I decided that I wanted to change that and try to do something I’ve always wanted to do: move to France.

I hope this is the year that sets this specific set of wheels in motion.

I’ll discuss more regarding the reasons why and the technicalities of my plan later (I’m a US citizen, but I do speak French, so I have some advantages), but for now, I just needed to put this to “paper” and establish a place where I can organize my thoughts. In anonymity. If you’re reading this, you can call me A.

It would be pertinent to note that this is not the first time I’ve tried to set said wheels in said motion, and it’s not even the first time I’ve tried to blog about it. This has been a consistent nagging thought in my mind since I was in college in the mid-2000s, yet it seemed like at every crucial junction, when I was just about to start lining up my ducks, some event – moving back to the US after studying abroad, then grad school, then the recession, then various jobs – would undercut it.

I really shouldn’t whine – I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunities I’ve been afforded, and that’s all been outstanding, and for that I’m truly very grateful. But there comes a point when the marginal utility of each additional dollar offered by your employer begins its rapid descent, and all of a sudden you’re no longer charmed by the cute brownstone on the corner that everyone tells you you’re supposed to want to buy someday, and all you find yourself capable of doing is marathoning Politiquement parlant on Dailymotion for days on end.

Or at least that’s what happened to me, anyway.

I have about 6 months to get all of this figured out before the hard part begins, and I hope to share most of that process.