Monday, June 16, 2008

Am I fluent?

“How do I know when I’m fluent in Spanish?” is a question that language students sometimes wonder. I have given thought to this question, first as a learner and then as a teacher of languages. What are the defining characteristics of a person who has achieved complete linguistic fluency? I’m not sure I have the answer, but here are some thoughts about the question.

A common assumption I hear from time to time is that a language learner is fluent when he or she dreams in the target language. This criteria seems to me to be too arbitrary, because some people dream often, and I know language learners who are quite beginners who have experienced the joy of having a dreamed conversation in the new language they are barely starting to study. I also know fluent speakers who, through some vitamin deficiency or sleep difficulty, seldom dream at all—and yet during their waking hours, they speak a second, third or fourth language as well as their first. While dreaming in other languages may be something to wish for, and perhaps a way to gain easy extra practice a language we’re studying, and—when such a dream happens, something to enjoy and be grateful for—our dreams are not under our direct control, and they do not mean that we are fully fluent necessarily. If you’re in your first months of studying Spanish and frustrated that you haven’t dreamed in Spanish yet—let go of the pressure you’re putting on yourself, and let language happen as it comes.

“Am I fluent when I’ve finished second-semester of second-year college Spanish?” Most people in the US who go to college are expected to take 4 semesters or the equivalent in a second language, in order to attain a bachelor’s degree in any subject. I have witnessed many students come out of these language programs, even with A and B averages because of their good study habits and test-taking talents, and still prove themselves to be mediocre communicators in the language they have “learned.” Also, I have met people who speak very eloquently in a language in which they have had no formal instruction, ever. Just as we all have unique talents and skills, each of us has different preferred methods of acquiring new knowledge. Language learning can be done in a classroom, in a friendship, or through travel—and the time it takes depends more on the individual God-given abilities (and the hard work) of the person who wants to learn than on the number of hours, the setting, or the price or reputation of the classes.

Fluency is considered along a continuum rather than a on-off switch, as in, “I finished that class, so now I’m fluent” as if getting a degree or passing an exam proves that the goal of linguistic fluency has been achieved. Fluency is a process and language learners are lifelong students. When you read a great poet or novelist in any language, even in a language you have been reading for many years, and in which you have read dozens or hundreds of literary works, you will, from time to time, run upon a word that is not familiar, and to which none of the linguistic paths you know lead to an educated guess, and you are driven in humility to the dictionary to learn something new. Language acquisition is either an adventure, a series of discoveries, or a treacherous and tedious task of admitting ignorance. Either way, we learn as we go.

A friend of mine Finnish by heritage, but was raised by missionary parents in Taiwan. His father, a pastor, was Finnish but spoke such fluent Taiwanese that native Taiwanese professors in the country would call on him for linguistic advice about obscure words in that language’s complex writing system. His son, my friend, was in a sense a native speaker of Taiwanese because he was raised in that country—but his parents spoke Finnish at home, and his international school spoke English, so he was not as fluent in Taiwanese as his father (who taught himself). This story calls into question the meaning of the idea of “native speaker.” I admit that when I was first studying Spanish, I scoured the registrar’s catalog to find an instructor whose name belied that person’s “native” heritage. I wanted to learn from someone who spoke well—and relied on the last name to guide my selection of a qualified teacher. Universities are legally not supposed to inquire in the job search about whether a candidate is a “native” speaker (although I have been asked this question, and have seen it in job postings). Is it a good question to ask? Is there a reason for a person whose job it is to study, preserve, research, and instruct students and society at large about language, literature and culture to be native to that culture? The US has a law that the nation’s President must be at least 35 years of age and native of the country in order to serve in that capacity. While these criteria are arbitrary, they were selected by the founding father’s with the intention of having a qualified occupant in the high calling of holding the Oval Office. Does it seem important for those transmitting and preserving language, literature and culture, and (to some degree), creating and promoting cultural understanding, to have the innate ties of a personal, blood connection to those roots? I venture to say, at the cost of my own academic future, that being a native speaker is worth a great deal. Fluency is essential—and can be learned. Personal native heritage cannot be bought, earned, or acquired, except, perhaps, by a willingness to immerse oneself into another culture, live it, become part of it, and—for example, in the case of poets such as Massachusett’s Charles Simic, contribute to creating it. Though he is Serbian-born, he is an American poet. And while he speaks English with ever-so-slight an accent, he is fluent. More fluent than this native speaker will ever hope to be.

“What about when I can use all the verb tenses correctly and have a 5,000-word vocabulary?” Learning grammar is necessary to achieving fluency. Adding vocabulary sets provides each communicator with the ability to converse about increasingly diverse subjects. But linguistic fluency goes beyond just knowing words and rules. There is a cultural and contextual aspect to language learning. If I understand well enough to translate all the words of a joke, for example, but do not understand the cultural contextual clues that make that joke funny in a certain culture, then I am not fluent enough to “get” the joke. That’s why some aspects of language learning are best achieved outside the classroom, in the real world.

“Why is it that when I am relaxed, or with friends, or after I drink a beer, I am able to communicate so much better?” Learning any subject or skill is easier when we are not under extreme pressure to judge ourselves. Some level of expectation to succeed may cause me to exert the necessary effort to communicate better, while feeling inadequate to the task at hand may cause me to clam up or fear making mistakes so much that I am not able to learn anything new. A delicate balance is achieved.

Dr. Gilbert Meilander of Valparaiso University wrote an essay about “Bringing One’s Life to a Point.” In it, he discusses a moment of truth in which he spoke openly about a matter of great controversy, and identified himself, among others, as holding a certain position—which brought him a flood of animosity and criticism in the ensuing weeks and months. There are moments, perhaps not so dramatic, though, in the life of a language learner, in which we identify ourselves, take a stand, and have a linguistic breakthrough of sorts. The first conversation in Spanish in a public place, where others may turn around and stare, may be one such occasion. The first halting conversation in Spanish with a native speaker who does not speak English can be such a moment. And there will be others: the first time you go to the hospital in Spanish, or buy an expensive piece of equipment or property and, without the presence of a translator, you sign a contract that you have had to rely on your language skills in order to sign—these are moments of truth in which you take ownership of Spanish, and bring your reality “up-to-date” with the language that you are acquiring little by little.

I was 19 when I rented my first apartment. The transaction took place in Barcelona, in Spanish, and it was a thrill. I was young enough not to realize how scared I should have been—and there were times I regretted the choice I made—and, since, times that I have been very grateful that things worked out the way they did. Leaps of faith are hard—but God is good, and “all things work together for good, to them that love the Lord.” I urge my students to be sane, be brave, and be trusting in God as they march into the world to acquire language and experience. Boldly, legally, and with expectation to learn much.

When I was in high school, our choir director Mr. Moore, had a music club for his students. He took a moment during the first semester of freshman girls’ choir to invite us to join. He said the club had three levels, and by joining we would become better singers and musicians. There was no cost involved in joining, and assured us that it was not competitive, and that we would know right away when we were in. The introductory level was open to beginning students who wanted to try to sing better. In order to join, a potential member had to go to a public setting (like the grocery store, a theater, a church sanctuary, or a park) and sing a song out loud—not having anyone being present to witness the event would be fine. The second level of the club involved performing a vocal number in a similar public setting, with a human audience. The mastery level of the club could be attained only be singing in public and inviting audience participation (and getting the group to sing along). The first two levels came easily to me at age 14, but I know adults who still do not have an easy time with public speaking or performance. For me, the third level of the club took more time; I had already been teaching Spanish at Columbia, and singing in a choir there, that I led singing with a group of friends, served as cantor in the local Lutheran church occasionally, and had other opportunities to initiate group singing. The most rewarding and memorable experience of that kind happened en route to a Glee Club performance in Manhattan, at an opening of a show in an art gallery. The choir members took the train. It was the last week of classes, right before Christmas, and our program included some familiar Christmas carols and wintertime songs. We serenaded a car on the 1-9 subway train, and were richly rewarded with smiles and nods, a scowl or two, and the companionship of some impromptu performers in the train who sang along with us.

I tell this story to share the idea with you, not so much as a “club” as more an attitude. If you want to become “fluent” in Spanish, you don’t have to speak perfectly. Rolling your Rs is secondary. The important aspect of fluency, I believe, is communication. Good grammar certainly helps to make you a good listener and a better speaker. Ample vocabulary invites you into new fields of conversation and study. But being able and willing to engage with your audience, to show interest for other speakers of the language, and to enjoy being involved with Spanish by learning about the myriad of cultures, traditions, lifestyles, cuisines that Hispanic cultures encompass—this is the key to fluency. Enjoy the journey, take pictures, eat well, and don’t worry too much about finding out the answer to the famous childish question, “Are we there yet?” Your fellow travelers will enjoy the journey with you much more if you adapt such an open and positive attitude, and they will spend more time learning beside you and teaching you when you make yourself a pleasant traveler yourself. Buckle your cinturón de seguridad, hang on tight, and, by the way, buen viaje.

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