Here’s a little piece I wrote in May 2013. I literally just wrote it in about an hour, continuously typing because I was livid– the words just spewed onto the screen. Yes… Enjoy?
As an individual who studies two foreign languages, there is one question that will always rub me the wrong way. It comes off as a simple question, but to someone who understands the process of learning a second, third, or even fourth language, the question is ridiculous and takes away from the beauty of becoming a part of a new culture. That question is “Are you fluent?”
If I actually bothered to keep track of how many times I have been asked this question during small talk, I would have to guess that nine times out of ten, people are curious enough to continue the topic by further inquiring upon my skill. This list of people includes, and is not limited to, fellow university students, co-workers, current employers, and creepy homeless men at the bus stop who are a little too friendly. But why should this question annoy any learner of a foreign language? Come forth and hear my rationale as to why this question is, or should be, completely and utterly cringe-worthy to learners of a foreign language.
During the summer of 2012, I had the amazing opportunity to study in Dresden, Germany, where I attended the Goethe Institut, an internationally recognized establishment for individuals who are learning German as a foreign language. The sole purpose of the Goethe Institut is cultural diplomacy: people of any age (more like sixteen years and up) can attend culture and/or language classes to develop an understanding of Germany. At the end of your time studying at the Goethe Institut, students have an option to take the Goethe Zertifikat to gauge his or her level of the German language (based on the common European language standard of A1-C2 levels). The process and technicalities are much more in depth than I described, but it lays a foundation. What made the Goethe Institut an incredible opportunity was that not only was I emerged in German culture, but I was also surrounded by people from all around the world. And what was our common bond? The German language. You may be thinking, “but what does it have to do with being fluent in a language?” It has everything to do with it!
I was placed in the B2 level, which is the third highest level; however, a good friend of mine that I met, a fellow American as a matter of fact, was at the A2 level, or the second lowest level. Despite the fact that we both spoke English as our mother tongue, we primarily spoke to each other in German (I mean, we were in Germany). One may think that with such a gap in our “abilities” that it was extremely difficult to communicate with each other. Nope! Just because my new friend did not have as much of a grip on the nightmare that is German grammar as I, or as vast of a vocabulary as someone who has studied the language for six years, did not mean he was unable to understand and respond to me. So. What defines fluency? Most people, who have never had the pleasure to engage in the process of learning a foreign language, have this idea that being fluent in a language means being able to instantaneously translate any sentence, or read any book, or fully comprehend any foreign film. And I say Quatsch! To me, my friend from the Lone Star State was fluent. Although his grammar was not up to par, or his accent wasn’t the most convincing, he was able to hold a conversation without any breaks, and when there was something he wanted to say, but didn’t know the vocabulary for, he simply danced around the word by using vocabulary he did know. You wouldn’t call an eight year old German boy, whose Muttersprache is German, not fluent in German because he cannot comprehend the works of Nietzsche, would you? There are varying levels of language comprehension, whether it is a native speaker or someone learning a foreign language. Some people are better at speaking, while others excel in reading or writing or listening. I may fail at reading Russian, but it’s my chance to shine when it comes to writing. And with this example, how can one simply say, “I am fluent” or “I am not fluent”? Yes, I am fluent when it comes to writing, but no, I can’t speak to save my life! It just doesn’t make sense. There are so many aspects to learning a language; it truly is a layering affect, where skills build upon other skills. Fluency in relation to foreign language skills should be defined just as it is in a dictionary: able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily.
Learning a foreign language has unfortunately become an oddity in the United States. High school programs are not taken seriously in many cases in comparison to the early start and differing teaching techniques of teachers in other parts of the world. When local school levies do not pass, foreign languages are often grouped with the arts, and consequently, programs do not get the funding needed to operate. So, when someone asks whether I am fluent in X language or not, it comes to no surprise, because many people are alarmed to hear that an American could possibly speak, read, write, and listen in another language… and understand. Say whaaaat?! This brings me to my next point: how does one respond when asked the ridiculousness of the question on the table? I like to think of myself as a relatively modest human being (is that a contradiction?), so not only do I get annoyed with the lack of sense in the question, but I also get flustered! I’m not one to brag; so, what am I supposed to say in this situation? “Yes! I have mastered this language in X amount of years! I am superior to you!” No. And if one does respond in this manner, he or she is totally missing the point and deeper meaning of learning a foreign language. That is why my time in Dresden was fantastic—at no point was I asked about my language skills (other than the man, Olaf, who interviewed me to see which level I should be placed in), ultimately avoiding the awkwardness of me trying to not sound like prick. This relates back to what I mentioned earlier about schooling abroad and the focus of teaching languages at a young age. I am hopeful that the lack of Americans speaking a foreign language is not out of ethnocentricity, but simply because most Americans speak English, which is the international language of business, cinema, and loads of other industries (thanks Great Britain!). In countries like Germany, it is a normality for children in grade school to learn English or French or Spanish, along with another language later on if they choose to. The fact that I spoke English, German, and very minimal Russian was nothing out of the ordinary. Why do they care how much knowledge of a language I possess? The thing is, they don’t.
My last point may seem just as ridiculous as myself attempting to write this piece, but I find it to be the most important. Why does it matter if I am fluent in a language or not? Whether fluency is on the standard of an unaware unilingual person, or from a bilingual individual at the age of ten, what is the difference? Languages are a gateway to cultures. By learning a particular language, you are opening doors to other cultures and ways of life that are different than your own. I always tell my peers that my goal in life is to be happy, and I plan on achieving this by interacting with and forming relationships with people. By learning another language (or two), I am increasing the amount of people in this world that I am able to effectively communicate with, thus making one of my life mantras a reality. There is no bigger complement, in my opinion, than taking the time and committing to learning a foreign language, traveling to a country, and speaking with locals in such language. The first time I went to Germany, I was a mere tourist with only high school knowledge of the German language, however, by showing initiative and speaking German to Germans, I was praised for my valiant effort, even if I did not use the correct adjective ending. Learning a foreign language speaks volumes, and it may just be the idealist in me, but the fact that one takes the time to learn a language is beautiful. So who cares that at this point in time one’s speaking is not fluent—who’s to say this time next year his or her speaking skills won’t be phenomenal and free of grammatical errors? Learning a language never ends and to anyone who is curious enough to learn an entire language from scratch, I commend you and you can guarantee that I will never ask you the question, “Are you fluent?”