When discussing language learning with people who have unrealistic standards for what they must have in their second language before they consider their level good enough, I’m left amazed at the screamingly obvious issues they don’t seem to be aware of:
The elitist standards you require are something that we may not even have for our native language, so why should we have them for our second one?
Someone may say that to speak a language fluently or “good enough” by their standards, you must be able to:
- Participate in a debate on a complex topic, such as one on philosophy
- Speak with no hesitations
- Use complex vocabulary and advanced expressions
- Never have any serious miscommunications
- Be able to give the definition or translation of a low-frequency use (but still important) word
- Write a complex essay
- Never make basic spelling mistakes or misuse a common word
- Be able to participate in a discussion that any typical native may have
But here’s the thing – based on these criteria I don’t speak fluent English, my native language. I break many of these rules and others. Going through this list again, in order:
- Philosophy is something I’m quite weak at, and debating is something I’m even worse at. If you gave me this test in English, I’d fail it. This is a fact of life; there are some complicated matters I can discuss, but many I can’t.
- I’d fail miserably at a requirement of no hesitations too. Have a look at my fist (non scripted) TEDx talk, and count how many times I say “ehh…” in the first few minutes. It’s a LOT. Hesitation can be caused by lots of factors (in my case here, by nerves from talking on a stage. In my second one where I had a script I prepared in advance, this wasn’t the case, but I don’t have scripts throughout my normal life in English of course).
- I don’t have as many videos in English as I do in other languages online, but there are still a lot. If you watch any of them (like these interviews) you will see that I don’t tend to use really big words, and I don’t go out of my way to pick clever quotations or use really well worded expressions. In fact, many English learners tell me that they enjoy reading my blog because I have a straightforward and simple way of writing. This isn’t intentional; I simply don’t use extremely complex English with anyone. I did quite poorly in English in school actually.
- Because of speaking Hiberno English, I’ve had some moments where I have had to scratch my head and wonder what the hell that other English speaker is saying, or vice-versa. What the F is a “nitch”?? Why are they so confused by me saying “Stop giving out about your man”? And that’s forgetting the cultural misunderstandings; I’ve had way more with Americans than I have with Spaniards for example.
- Many times, people have said words to me that I probably should know, but simply don’t. One of my most common uses of Google is actually “define X”, where X is some English word. With enough context I rarely have to do this, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
- I can’t write an essay at academic standards. I rely on spellcheck all the time when writing something like a blog post. And even despite that, since Firefox doesn’t have a context-homonym-spell-checker that I’m aware of, there are still one or two mistakes that make it through that someone comments about. Right now (pretty much only from writing so much on this blog), I’m very confident about which to use between your / you’re or it’s and its, but to be totally honest, 3 years ago I had no idea. Many natives don’t; I see these mistakes every day from my family and friends’ Facebook updates.
- I can’t participate in “any” discussion. If I find it boring, I’ll lose interest and lose track in what’s going on in the conversation. Sorry, but this is just the truth. There are a very large amount of possible conversations that I can’t participate in English, even when it has nothing to do with technical issues or enough vocabulary. Talk about shoes/fashion or many sports I don’t follow and you’ll quickly lose me, even though these can be quite simple conversations.
Many language courses and discussions take place or are prepared among those who are clearly in academic circles (such as linguists). This is fine, but I have one very important criticism about what many of them do: they hold their academic standards to what speaking a language is, to others who don’t value these standards in their native language.
I am not an intellectual. If you like to have philosophical debates, use complicated expressions, and have the oration skills to never slip up, that’s fine, but that’s just not me nor is it the vast majority of people.
I find it incredibly arrogant to force these standards on others. It’s elitist: to them you only speak a foreign language if you speak it like rich very well educated people do. I compare myself to normal people I hang out with, and make sure I’m as comfortable and confident as possible with them. Rather than learn formal dialogues, I’d rather learn slang and text language.
Most people talk much more about every day things than the complex situations that some elitists demand. Football games, how the work day was, how cute that girl is, how shitty the job situation is, how they can’t wait for that holiday, or many other things that normal people talk about. Not epistemology or quantum physics.
There are, however, times when we do get more technical with our languages, but something you must never forget:
The standard that REALLY matters: can you do what you do in your NATIVE language, in the target language?
Forget all of those ridiculous requirements others are imposing on you, where they are trying to turn you into clones of their academic ideal of how and what people should be talking about. My criteria for any language is simple: can I live my life in that language the same way I would in English?
For me this means that the technical and complicated things that I need to know are related to the technical and complicated things I know in English. My Spanish and French are C2 (“mastery”) level because I’ve worked as a professional engineer and translator of engineering documents in these languages. I can talk or read all about transistors and remote control interfaces and software specifications in the language. The fact that the Instituto Cervantes also agrees with me helps (i.e. I was awarded an official C2 diploma in Spanish, which can’t be disputed), so I’m not dreaming this up.
One interesting nitpick that has come up lately (from the incredibly long list that I get on a daily basis) is that if you look through videos of me online talking in Spanish, you could suggest that my level is only B1 (“intermediate”), which seems to conflict with my C2 assertion above. But the thing is, I’m talking about my friends’ experiences as aupairs, and don’t use much complicated vocabulary on purpose. Why on earth would I use complicated vocabulary in a casual chat like this? The only reason I can think of would be to show off for the camera, rather than stick to the topic at hand.
I could upload a video of me explaining the technical workings of trellis code modulation (what my undergraduate thesis was based on) in several languages… but that would be incredibly boring for most people, and really pointless to watch. I think the cultural topics I actually tend to share are much more interesting, and the level of Spanish I used for them was quite fine and aligned with that of the person I was speaking with.
To me, if I’m having a casual chat with someone in English and they use very big words or formal language when it’s not appropriate, I find this pompous. If anything I feel that this shows poor command of the language, because they aren’t appreciating context and social dynamics.
So far, things are going well with my Chinese mission (despite lots of stress, which is part and parcel of learning any language as intensively as this). You’ll be very happy with what I have planned to demonstrate my level in April! But the fact of the matter is that I know that a lot of the perfectionists who have been critical of me the whole time will not be pleased, because I’m not going to use Mandarin like they would. I won’t be debating politics, I won’t be quoting Confucius in his original words, and I’ll still be nervous at times and slip up or hesitate…
… exactly like I do in English.
Time to take languages back from the academics
Sometimes I feel like those who put such unrealistically high standards on languages almost want to keep the languages to themselves. Like if people like me who have a history of not being good at languages into adulthood found out that we can actually have fun with our languages if we used them the way we want, then speaking a foreign language wouldn’t be their special thing any more. I say enough of that.
Languages need to be taken back from those who hide them behind the bars of “use the language like we do, or we won’t give you our seal of approval”.
For example, when I was teaching English I found out what my students wanted to learn rather than what I wanted to teach them. I modelled some of my classes around Sponge Bob Square Pants episodes or used the scenery from their favourite computer games to teach them vocabulary. It was far more interesting and relevant for them, and it inspired language learning even in the weakest students.
So if you are learning a target language, and see it as impossible because of these stupidly high standards that others impose on you, forget them. This language is yours to use as you wish.
What I say about ignoring those telling you what to do applies equally to what I say. Speak if you want to do that, but forget my advice or that of any particular method and watch TV or read comics if that’s what you prefer to do in your target language (I am totally and utterly wrong to follow if your priority isn’t to speak a language socially, since I don’t care much for TV/comics etc. I suggest checking out many other language blogs for other priorities). Focus on reading if that’s the enjoyment you get out of foreign languages, and aim to read the kind of things you would read in your native language.
If you read comics in your native language, read them in your target language. If you watch Star Trek in your native language, watch the translation in your target language. I like how Khatzumoto does this for Japanese.
And, of course, if you enjoy debating politics, speaking with no hesitations as you do in your native language, and using fun references to classical literature, then by all means do that too. In that case it truly is how you were meant to use the language.
Hold the same standards for your target language as you do for your native one, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
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If you enjoyed this post, you will love my TEDx talk! You can get much better details of how I recommend learning a language if you watch it here.
This article was written by Benny Lewis
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