Letter to American Language Learners

This post is for students in the USA who have ventured to learn a foreign language.  This is something I know quite a bit about and felt an honest post from someone who has shared the same experience might be valuable for current students.

Learning a foreign language can sometimes seem like a very daunting, if not impossible task.  I’m here to tell you it can be done, but more importantly how to set realistic expectations and to not become discouraged.

Having spent a lot of time abroad and in language classrooms, I have to tell you the one question I really do not like is when people back in the USA ask me,

“Are you fluent?”

The true answer is yes and no.

The reason is that there are varying degrees of fluency and it is important to realize this so as not to become discouraged and give up.  I’ll separate my reasoning into the following points in order to make things very clear.

1. English

English is both a blessing and a curse for language learners.  It is a blessing because one can go to many countries and “get by” on English.  Therefore, we as Americans have it a bit easier in that so many people in the world speak English.  We can thank the British for that.  It is a curse however because it can become a crutch as well when learning another language.

To really learn, one has to fully immerse themselves in the language.  Yet, while living abroad so many people want to speak English with you and this can be hard to get away from.  The best way is to find friends who do not speak English and practice as much as possible.

2. Fluency

In America we think of “fluency” as someone who can speak another language just as well as they do English.  Yet, it is more complicated than that.  I have always preferred the British categorization method which is:

a. Bi-Lingual
b. Fluent
c. Conversational
d. Beginner

For me, I would fit into the Fluent category here in that I can have a conversation and it would appear that I am “fluent” to a non-speaker.  But to the native, they will hear my many mistakes and the language might seem a bit bumpy.

I would also be able to walk into a high level college class and not have any problems.  But for the serious language learners, we tend to compare ourselves with the natives which can be very frustrating at times.  It always seems that we are not good enough and it can be difficult to keep the confidence levels up.

However, this is the path to “fluency.”  To become really fluent in terms of native speakers, it would take at least 10 years of living “in country” to get that good.  As for me, I was in various countries a relatively short time.

Returning to America, I would say that only in French do I really feel I have lost something.  Spanish and Japanese still get plenty of workouts so I have not lost nor gained anything.

Bi-lingual means that you can speak two languages equally.  Fluency, put in the proper context is that you can have normal, flowing conversations without too many pauses.

So, to really illustrate this  I’ll share what I do and do not understand in Japanese

1. Anime – This is relatively easy
2. Women – They speak very clearly and most of my teachers were women.  Therefore, I understand normal conversations with women around 80%.  But with men it drops to about 40%.
3. News – 20%  –  I do not have the vocabulary to really understand the news very well

But, for day to day life, there is no problem.  In a business setting I would have to learn all the business words which I have never done so it would be a challenge.

To further illustrate this point, language takes a long time to learn and it may be a surprise for some to realize that their English levels are actually not very high even though they are natives.  Language is full of rich word choices which describe and illustrate ideas, actions, objects, emotions and so on.  In daily life we use the same words over and over but if we read something more difficult, The New Yorker for example, then many more difficult words are used.  Therefore, the level of understanding will be different depending on the “fluency” of the reader.  The question is, how many words will simply be skipped over with more words skipped equaling less of an understanding and less skipped words equaling greater understanding.

I tried to look up how many words are in the English language but instead found this wonderful example which illustrates the complexity of language.

“There is no single sensible answer to this question. It’s impossible to count the number of words in a language, because it’s so hard to decide what actually counts as a word. Is dog one word, or two (a noun meaning ‘a kind of animal’, and a verb meaning ‘to follow persistently’)? If we count it as two, then do we count inflections separately too (e.g. dogs = plural noun, dogs = present tense of the verb). Is dog-tired a word, or just two other words joined together? Is hot dog really two words, since it might also be written ashot-dog or even hotdog?

It’s also difficult to decide what counts as ‘English’. What about medical and scientific terms? Latin words used in law, French words used in cooking, German words used in academic writing, Japanese words used in martial arts? Do you count Scots dialect? Teenage slang? Abbreviations?”

One of the great secrets I uncovered is that through my studies of Spanish and French, my English level actually improved.  I wrote a bit about this in a former post.  Instead of simply trying to memorize all the “difficult” words, it is much easier to find the root in Latin based languages, learn to speak one of them which will cause your understanding of English to skyrocket.

3. Europeans

I would guard against American students comparing themselves to Europeans.  It would seem that Europeans can all speak English but,

a. This isn’t true
b. Their countries are closer together and they have more interaction with different languages.  English is a good one to learn then one can travel more easily
c. English replaced French as the language of business

If comparisons must be made, find a European that can speak an Asian language and then compare fluency levels.  The playing field will be leveled a bit.

4. Benefits

The main benefit of being able to speak another language is that people will think of you as “smart.”  The believe this because many people think of language as something you learn in class which they have experiences as being “difficult.”  What they do not know is that if you have the opportunity to study abroad and really immerse yourself language is not as difficult as they think.

The reason is living abroad, you have a very real and serious motivation to learn as you simply cannot communicate unless you do.  Therefore, what you learn in class is immediately used once you step out the door.  Couple that with fun situations such as finding a girlfriend/boyfriend, making friends, doing activities, going to bars etc are very enjoyable and become much more so when you can participate.

Learning Japanese in an American classroom = boring GPA killer
Learning Japanese in Japan = ENORMOUS AMOUNTS OF FUN!

Then, when you come back to the USA people will think you are smart because of their experience with language.  Little do they know you spent time having FUN and it became easy!

5. Where things stand now

Spanish – As I live in San Francisco, I’m still able to use Spanish on a variety of occasions.  It is not really used much as a means of actually communicating for business but rather to warm up to the customer very quickly.  If you speak their language it is much easier to see eye to eye and you get a special status.

Japanese – I still have many opportunities to speak Japanese here but not enough that it would actually improve.  To really get better I would have to be back in Japan.

French – Yea, I don’t feel very good at French anymore.  I can still rattle off enough to impress French people but that is not saying much because they are expecting absolutely nothing.  Very common words and conversations are still easy but if I find myself in France again I would have to a lot of studying to do.

5. Conclusion

Do not get discouraged if you feel that your language abilities are not up to par.  If you are a serious language learner they never will be unless you have the opportunity to spend the next 10 years in another country.

Out of all the people I studied Japanese with, I know of only one who remained in Japan, married a Japanese guy and now she is someone I would consider “Bi-Lingual.”  The trick is to set a realistic goal and just have fun with it.

By Mateo de Colón

Global Citizen! こんにちは!僕の名前はマットです. Es decir soy Mateo. Aussi, je m'appelle Mathieu. Likes: Languages, Cultures, Computers, History, being Alive! (^.^)/

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