Thursday, 14 July 2011

Two quibbles

I've been doing some looking around at a few fellow language fans' blogs, sites and so on this morning. There are some good tips and experiences out there, but there are also some things I can't really agree with. I would say I took great issue with the two following things, but I have something to add.
Never say 'I speak X fluently'

Unless X is your mother tongue, it is not smart to say that you speak a language 'fluently'. Nobody speaks a language he learned perfectly. 'Fluently' in that context sounds very terminal - you can't know it better. What will happen if the guy sitting next to you is a native speaker of that language and he, too, is pumped with testosterone and wishes to teach you a lesson? Will you be able to have perfect pronunciation, to know every idiom? Chances are you will look like a moron. People might feel that you exagerated your command of that language, and that maybe everything else about you is fraudulent.

The prudent polyglot will say 'I speak X quite well'. Nobody will ever try to expose the gaps in your command of a language if you say that. And people will esteem you for your modesty. They will think perhaps there is more to you than meets the eye.
Now, I have to agree that modesty is always the best policy. There's nothing worse than someone showing off and, frankly, half the things people say aren't true, so I can also see why he would be concerned that someone would try to prove you wrong. I think my issue here is with the assumption that someone 'fluent' in a language speaks it perfectly, or at native speaker level. Is this reasonable?

Well, it's certainly a common viewpoint, but not a correct one. The concept of fluency implies effortlessness and being smooth flowing. Confident and correct use of a foreign language so that your speech is easily understood and is without grasping for words. Well, without it to a reasonable degree. I mean, how often do we stop and search for the right mother tongue word??=) Fluency does NOT require that you have perfect knowledge of the target language. You don't even have perfect knowledge of your native one, so why expect someone to have that of a learned tongue? It's just not reasonable. However, there are many, many people who have a good, working level proficiency in a second language and they can be considered fluent without knowing everything.

I once described fluency to a former student as 'not knowing everything in the language, but using what you do know so well than no-one knows the difference.' To me, that's fluency. So, having a more reasonable understanding of the concept of fluency will help to avoid misjudging one's own abilities and that of others.

The second one I wanted to add a thought or two to is this diatribe against learning two languages at the same time:
Actually, this is a very bad idea. Unless you are a seasoned polyglot, you will waste your energy, study time and will power over several languages and never reach an advanced level in any. It is much better to focus on one and only language until you become fluent, then move on to the next one.

Finish the language you are doing before moving on. This also applies to closely related languages such as Spanish/Portuguese or Italian/French. It’s much easier to build from a strong background in one language rather than trying to build concurrently the foundations of two languages.

Once you reach an advanced level in your target language, you can start a new language, and still work on perfecting the first one.

I think there are some good points here and some I can't agree with. For one, you can never really 'finish the language you are doing' as learning any language (indeed, learning any subject), is a lifelong process.

So, can one learn more than one language from scratch at once? I would say yes, but only under certain conditions:
  1. You have a good aptitude for languages and/or are very keen and/or highly motivated.
  2. You start two very different languages at the same time. Having said that, I can see how learning two very closely related could help, albeit only for someone with the right kind of learning style and abilities, but generally, leave learning another related language until you've got a decent level of the first.
  3. You have a decent amount of time and energy to devote to the pursuit.
I also don't think you need wait until you've reached fluency before you take up a new language, even a related one. I think that reaching about CEFR A2 level (GCSE standard in the UK) would be OK (although I took up German when I was about A1 French and took my GCSEs in both at the same time - getting As for both). When I suggest that level, I don't mean just having covered the material, but actually having the majority of it in long-term memory and that you can use the structures confidently. I don't think I'd recommend, for most people anyway, taking up a new language too quickly - unless of course you're doing it from a point of view of linguistic enquiry, rather than with the aim of communicating to any great degree.

But then, perhaps I qualify as a 'seasoned polyglot' in his opinion??=) I shouldn't think so though and I don't consider myself as one. I could be, if I put the work in, but that's something I would have to see to believe!!!

Anyway, you'll find on the website I pinched these quotes from a lot of interesting info. At least he's now moderated his judgement of Chinese as being the hardest language in the world, an opinion which he formerly confessed to be based almost entirely on the script appearing hard. Chinese writing is a challenge, but one that can be met with sufficient work and someone teaching it well (i.e. showing how it works and de-mystifying it, rather than those folk who like to scare people), and I always feel that those who write Chinese off as virtually impossible solely on the basis of the script have clearly made no serious attempt to learn it and are language learning feather weights!! There are FAR harder languages to learn than Mandarin!


Elindomiel said...

I like these quibbles - I have very similar objections to them. :) But about Chinese, well, I think different languages are harder/easier for different people. For me personally, I think Chinese would take the cake. Why? Crazy grammar like in Finnish and Basque is my idea of fun, while I just don't have an ear for tones (musically or linguistically) and trying to say something ten times in Chinese without it even being recognizable just demotivates me. :)

Elizabeth Braun said...

Yes, I agree - different strokes for different folks!=) And having a good ear is *vital* for a tonal language.

Actually, I kinda like grammar myself and am a big fan of those drill and practice workbooks (post on those to come later on), but I do enjoy the feeling I get when speaking Chinese and knowing that I'm not goofing very endings (there aren't any!). When I'm using German I'm constantly aware that my cases, adjectival endings and gender are going all over the place!!!=)

Elizabeth Braun said...

That should be 'verb endings' btw...

Rachel Cotterill said...

I started Russian and Chinese at about the same time, and I did find it hard work! But they are, at least, such different languages that confusion between the two is unlikely ;)