As in, does one give rise to the other?
I’m sitting in a workshop about the ACTFL standards. The task before the trainees is to place certain functionalities, content and control of language or comprehensibility into each level of ACTFL proficiency (Novice, Intermediate, Advanced, Superior, Distinguished — which was recently misspelled humorously on Facebook as “Extinguished”, which sort of resonates…but I digress.)

So let’s think about the list. ACTFL believes that less-experienced speakers (which are for them Novices and say Intermediate Low and Mid students) can only speak about familiar topics. But think about it: doesn’t that really depend on what vocabulary is provided to them with their basic structure? Why is it any harder to say “Britain doesn’t want to be in the European Union” than it is to say “I don’t want to go to school”? Yet one is considered to be “a topic about the greater world” which is “obviously” only possible for a more advanced student.

So then we have to ask why. Why this limitation, if the student’s cognitive level is not a limiting factor, his education and knowledge of the world are not limiting factors. What is limiting him?

The input. It’s what he gets from the textbook, from his class, from his teachers.

If we only “allow” beginners to talk about their classes, their home, their family, then sure, that’s all they are going to be able to talk about. But if we give them the gift of perspective — the flexibility and instinct to know that they can use very simple structure (the highest frequency structure of the language, which is what is being taught in thematic units, to express ideas that fit into any theme or topic out there.

Think about “hypothesize”. That’s an advanced function for ACTFL. Yet where does that limitation come from? Most likely from the fact that the FIGS languages (French Italian German Spanish — a translator’s shorthand for the ‘usual’ languages, so to speak) require subjunctive in many cases to fulfill this function. But Chinese does not require this kind of grammar to hypothesize. If the ACTFL guidelines of proficiency are to apply to all learners of all languages, this discrepancy should be thought about.

Especially in Chinese, vocabulary expansion is what is needed after about second year. There’s not that much structure to do, really. But we need to keep in mind where vocabulary comes from, and what vocabulary does. Vocabulary is only the clothing. If you have a firm skeleton inside, you can put on any garment (any topic) and function with it. And vocabulary alone takes far less time to acquire than structure.
Yes, we should not abandon the focus on high-frequency vocabulary while we are giving students structure through massive comprehensible input. But that is not to say that it is the *only* way to do it. There is, in my mind, absolutely no basis for claiming that a person at one level or another could not perform certain functions or deal with certain contexts and content simply because “government vocabulary is hard”.