How difficult is it to become fluent in a language? Intro

My masters program is halfway over. What’s nice is that not only have I realized that it’s definitely the right program which aligns my passion and skills, but I’ve also learned an amazing amount of fascinating theories and research projects, as well as being able to restudy the languages that interest me: Greek, French and Russian. On top of that, after a seven year break, I’ve been forced to re-utilize university level German and challenge myself to face my shortcomings and express myself orally and in writing at a higher level. In one year my German has definitely made some improvements and that was quite shocking after plateauing for about 5 years.

However I’ve also faced a lot of myths and delusions about foreign language learning and what it means to be multilingual. My mistakes in German have been pointed out when I’m just going about my day-to-day business, my intelligence has been in-explicitly called into question and instead of focusing on my ideas, I’ve had people only focus on my language deficiencies. As a former English teacher, I know exactly the type of mistakes certain speakers make and the certain trip-ups the English language provides. I listen to good English all day long, but it comes with plenty of mistakes and lacking the subtly and expressiveness of native speakers. I recognize that I, as a person choosing to live in Germany, am and should be held to a higher standard when it comes to my German, but at the same time, as an English teacher mistakes are noticeable to me, when others might just let them slide and I definitely know that I speak “international” or what I call “teacher English” a majority of the time. I also have been so fed up with the delusions of Europeans who believe that they speak English as well as a native speaker, that I once gave a presentation at a super fast pace, with the English which would be expected in college and had the satisfaction of seeing my classmates semi-stunned in silence and not daring to ask much, lest they be called out for not comprehending something.

I do not feel like it is my job to rob someone of their delusions, but to me, there are two types of people in the world: those who are relaxed about languages, focusing on communicating and sharing, rather than exactly what is being said and those who assume all mistakes can be avoided and reflect innate intelligence or effort (read: prescriptivists). Both groups can include linguists, as well as those who have learned foreign languages as an adult. In the first group they would be cognizant of their mistakes and accepting of those of others. In the second group they assume their foreign language skills are excellent and hold everyone to the same standard regardless of what unique native language and foreign language relationship they are coming from. We Americans, and English speakers in general, generally fall into the first group. We only speak one language and tend to be forgiving of foreigners who speak English with us. (Too forgiving if you ask me, but more on that later). The most dangerous though are those who speak only one language fluently but hold everyone to the impossible standards of perfection.  These people have often been taught a foreign language in school, but failed to make the most difficult transition from beginner to fluent. Thus, they feel even more qualified to judge the deficiencies of others, having convinced themselves there’s nothing more to language than memorizing lots of vocab and that their not following through is in no way a reflection of themselves, but simply a lack of time etc. etc.; clearly if they did want to speak it, they would do so at the highest level. Since being at university I have made instant judgment calls about who I am willing to spend time with. If I meet anyone who falls into the second category, I make absolutely no effort in being friendly. Not because I am a horrible person mind you, but because these type of people generally see me not as a person, but rather, a means to  improving or increasing their opportunity to use English for free. As soon as someone sees me as a language tool, I check out of the situation.

Ah the trials and tribulations of being a native speaker of the world’s lingua franca abroad. Make no mistake, it is a good problem to have. But to be fair, it is my job and no one wants to have to be reminded of their job every waking hour of their life.

People approach language like everything in life, from their experience. I am going to be writing my master thesis about language politics and multilingualism in Europe. There is a huge problem in Europe of wanting to preserve linguistic variety, but unfortunately the people working in Brussels don’t usually include people who grew up in multilingual settings, with family members who had often imperfectly learned the language of the country as immigrants. The majority of Euro-crats at most had a dialect and a standard version to keep apart. If they did grow up multilingual it was probably two “large languages” like a German mom and a French dad, and they went to an English school, i.e. the focus was on a high university level standard. While this in and of itself is a good thing, it does not reflect the multilingual experience of many of Europe’s citizens. This means smaller languages (from minorities from Europe or immigrants outside of it) are neglected and not factored into the discussion of Europe’s language goals. And this in turn is what I encounter. People who have started learning English in grade school and then picked up another language in high school, have never been exposed to the multilingualism that exists all around them with minorities. Which in turn means their concept of multilingualism is very narrow. For them it means getting to a good level of an important world language, from a young age, learning another one if they enjoy it, while it’s easy and nothing complicated like life and feeding a family get in the way, which in turn means they are convinced that being multilingual means speaking two languages at more or less equal levels of competence is the norm and anything less than that is “bad” language use. I mean no wonder they can’t admit to themselves later that their English is not actually as good as they were led to believe it is! That would immediately invoke images of migrants in lower social classes who even if they are bilingual are constantly accused of either not being fluent enough in their native language (i.e. reading and writing skills aren’t as good as other citizens in the countries they come from) or speaking a bastardized form of the national language.

One thing is clear: elites bilingualism in two big languages = good, well-educated, but bilingual minorities = low intelligence, inadequacy, possible identity confusion.

This is all very laughable when you consider that language is a very democratic thing. It comes from the lower-classes and goes up, not the other way around. Why on earth do you think Greece elites fought unsuccessfully for over 100 years to try and make the masses speak something resembling ancient Greek, rather than the language they learned from their families? Many good things came out of it in the end, but their mission was by no means a success.

Here something funny for us English speakers. Does anything sound more posh than the southern London way of saying the word hot or the way people have dropped the r at the end of water? Yes we Americans think that sounds very refined, very chic. Well my friends that originated from the lower classes right around the industrial revolution. So the prostitutes and criminals in a Dickens novel started using these first. How does that make you feel? Wait until 200 years from now, when the monarchy (if it still exists) has substituted bottle for bo*el. A glottal stop no longer stigmatized, but the norm, imagine!

So I thought, since we have such funny ideas about language, especially about how difficult languages are, I would write from a native English perspective and provide examples of the easy and difficult thing about each language I am learning, instead of just providing a blanket statement about how it depends on where you are coming from and what you individually find hard. Maybe this will be useful for other language learners out there.

I would also like to have an outlet for the delusional nonsense I sometimes have to put up with as an English speaker in Europe. I think I talk about it too much, so I’ll just stick it here and have my say, once and for all.

Part 1: German will be next 🙂

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2 thoughts on “How difficult is it to become fluent in a language? Intro

  1. I love to read your blog when I remember to do so! It makes me feel like we are having a conversation – albeit one sided. I miss you so much. I can just hear you – when you gave your presentation talking a mile a minute! I recall you giving me many such a speech in high school where I could not say a word til you were finished! (altho I am sure this one was college level and all the more better!) I love hearing how people learn and speak from a European view for I see you as starting to have one now. Love you! Mom

  2. Thanks Mom! I see myself as a typical European young adult, so that works for me. You of all people know how this presentation must have been like! I can talk anyone’s ear off, college level or not! I’m glad you like reading it. And now look, we can have a two-sided conversation. 🙂

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