Just yesterday I discovered the website “Meetup.com”. It is a site where people can find others who share the same interests and then actually meet in groups to discuss that topic. I joined the Spanish, French and Japanese language groups and went to my first Spanish language one last night.
At first I was slightly apprehensive about going since I didn’t know anyone and it was my first time to participate. However, it was in a very trendy SF bar, thus beer was involved and I really wanted to see what it was all about.
The group was about 25, some from Latin America but most had learned the language through study. It was the first time in a while I got a true language workout which got me thinking in general about language fluency and the real meaning of “being fluent.”
In America, people will always ask if “you are fluent.” This is a tough question for the language learner because there are various stages of fluency which differs depending on which country you are in. In America, fluency has the widest range because some claim to be fluent with only limited amount of study and really are not in my opinion. Fluency to me is to be able to converse in any situation without too much hesitation. However, in more difficult subjects such as the economy or international affairs my “fluency” would greatly deteriorate.
In England they have a much better description when assessing “fluency.” They differentiate between “fluency” which means my description above and “bi-lingual” which is being able to speak both languages (mother tongue and learned) equally well. In this way, I am not bi,, tri nor quadralingual (sp?) but still consider myself reasonably “fluent.”
I am most “fluent” in Spanish and am perceived to be so in ordinary conversation. The trick is that I can form the sentence in my head first and thus say it very rapidly. In this case even Spanish speakers will ask which country I am from.
However, last night the conversation got a bit more complicated as we described our careers and I found myself to be less “fluent.” I could still get-by but there were pauses of about 5 seconds as I had to search for the right word.
We often do not realize that we do this in English as well although it is no longer “fluency” we are concerned with as everyone reading this can speak English. Instead, if we speak well, one is considered “smart.” This is most apparent when describing. For example one could say “John is really smart because he speaks English well.” Or one could say “John’s use of nuance is remarkable in that he conveys meaning with superb use of subtle undertones which displays an outstanding intellect.”
Depending on how one describes an experience or idea through the medium of language opens a window into what is actually going on in that persons mind. Therefore, each of us has a level of fluency even in our native language. To illustrate the point, the English language is now passing one million words yet most people will not use even a quarter of the words.
For my own English “fluency,” the study of Spanish/French has had a profound effect. Instead of learning each word as an individual entity, I am now able to make an educated guess on difficult English words which from my studies I know the meaning to be correct. Take for example the words “maelstrom, malevolent, malice.” These words all contain the word “Mal” which is a common Spanish word and means “bad.” Thus, I able able to determine that the above words mean something bad and in the context of the sentence can determine a more precise meaning. Further, the French word “mort” means “death.” Therefore, “mortified”, “mortgage”, or the name Morticia from the Adams family take on a more profound meaning which mortgage being a humorous one in that we have to pay so much money.
Deriving meaning by breaking up English words did not occur to me until I had a conversation with a Japanese friend of mine. I was bashing the Japanese for not understanding the individual meanings of Chinese/Japanese characters “Kanji.” In Japanese class they would draw the symbol and we were just to memorize the meaning outright. However, the Chinese students are able to break the symbol apart into individual meanings. For example, the Kanji for “beautiful” combines both the Kanji for sheep and for beautiful. The Kanji for train station can be broken to show a man on a horse. Yet the Japanese simply memorize the Kanji as a complete symbol whereas the Chinese see individual meanings.
As I informed my friend of this, he said we do the same thing in English and was correct. “Com”, or “Con” mean to combine, (com-bine). Thus, “Computer”, “Conference”, “Construct”, “Competition”, all mean the combining of two or more things. I found this com-pletely fascinating.
Finally, there is always debate as to what is “correct” English. There are those who abhor bad grammar usage and take a very technical view of the language. For them the sentence “John didn’t do no good things for nobody,” would be like a punch in the gut. However, the English language is inherently a very impure mutt of a language since it has so many influences from a variety of sources. England, the home of English originally spoke Celtic until it was invaded time and time again to take on Latin, Germanic, Nordic and even Arabic words among many others. The language has evolved so much that we would not really be able to understand someone from the 15th century and English seem almost like a completely different language.
Thus, the “Grammar-Nazis” are simply trying to freeze the language into the form they find acceptable in the current year. The French do this and have found it very hard to incorporate completely new words such as “internet, computer, mouse” etc. For me, the language will flow as an unbound river and thus accurately reflect the societies mass-consciousness. Just think of the new phrases “cliches” that have come into usage under the Bush administration:
1. Boots on the ground
2. Battle for hearts and minds
3. Cut and run
In fact, the phrases can be taken to mean more than they actually do!
2. Battle for hearts and minds – Support the American agenda
3. Cut and run – Not support the Bush administration.
This is not a post on politics however and returning to language, there is one caveat to my idea that language should be allowed to flow and change. As I mentioned above, language is a window into the speakers mind and if simplified “dumbed-down” too much it actually produces a less intelligent mind. Therefore, I’m ok with the language changing and breaking grammar rules but not to the point that it actually decreases mental capacity.