Flawless, Impossible Fluency

Posted on 27. Aug, 2014 by in Language Learning, Uncategorized

Itchy Feet: Saving Face


Germans have this funny habit of downplaying how good their English is. I feel pretty confident in saying that, aside from perhaps the Scandinavians and the Dutch, Germans speak the best English in mainland Europe. And yet every time I ask a German stranger if they speak English, they either fidget and shuffle their feet and say “hmm, a little bit,” or they just say “no.” A little more conversation reveals that they’re pretty much fluent in English (of course, if I start in German and make a mistake—they immediately switch to English! Figure that one out).

Admittedly, I’m not all that different. I downplay my skill in adopted languages as humbly as any German. My dad has started introducing me to people by saying, “this is my son, he speaks perfect German,” over my embarrassed protests. Many of us language learners are shy about our language ability, and I think I’ve figured out why: we don’t actually know what “fluent” means.

To be “fluent” in a new tongue is the holy grail of language learning. We want to be able to speak and understand perfectly. The trouble is, unless you’ve already climbed the language ladder once before, you don’t have any point of reference aside from your mother language. And let’s face it—to be so good at a foreign language that it is as good as your mother language is a bit of a stretch. Your language goals are somewhere up in the clouds, intangible and mysterious. You’re reaching too far. “Fluent” does not mean “perfect,” but that’s what you think it means.

So because to you “fluent” means “mother language-level,” you’re easily disappointed. You don’t know what your language level is exactly, but you know it’s not fluent, because it doesn’t come out as naturally as your native tongue. You must still be trudging along the gravelly road, the destination still shimmering impossibly far in the distance. Of course you’re shy when someone asks you if you “speak” that language, you have no idea!

Literally defined, “fluent” means graceful, easy, flowing like a liquid. It doesn’t mean impeccable, it doesn’t mean flawless. It doesn’t mean perfect. What it means for your language ability is up to you to decide.

When I decided I didn’t want to live in Berlin forever, but I wanted my German to be better than it is, I realized I had to set a very specific goal for my language learning, or I’d never think it was good enough, and I’d never leave. I decided I don’t care much about prepositions, articles, or adjective endings—you can be perfectly well-understood in German without using them perfectly, and anyway, even Germans routinely screw them up. Rather, I want to be able to speak without thinking too much about what I’m saying. Specifically, I want to be able to use all the verb tenses (future perfect, past perfect, pluperfect) and moods (past and present subjunctive II) without sitting there for ten minutes running conjugation charts in my head. I can talk about what had happened, what will have happened, and what would, should, and could have happened. At that point, I will be able to speak German fluently, by my own definition. I’ll be able to fully communicate. The rest is just new vocab words.

Now that I have defined my goal, I’m able to own my language level. “Do you speak German?” someone will ask. “Yes,” I’ll say. It’s true; I do speak it. But just as “fluent” does not mean “perfect,” “speaking” a language does not mean “fluent” in that language.

You have to decide for yourself what “fluent” means.

What about you? How do you define “fluent”? Have you reached that fluency in a language? Does that help you meter goals for other languages you’re learning?

Confessions of a Native English Speaker

Posted on 25. Aug, 2014 by in Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips

Image by Eustaquio Santimano on Flickr

Image by Eustaquio Santimano on Flickr

In my last post, I interviewed my wife Natalya. Natalya shared her language learning experiences as a Ukrainian native who left her country to settle in the United States.

Today, I’d like to share with you the same kind of interview I conducted with my mother. My mom, born and raised in California, moved to France with my father, a French native, in 1988. She relates her experiences and the challenges she faced as an expatriate living in a foreign country. This is her story…

How much French did you know when you first arrived in France?

I had taken a night course in conversational French at a local junior college.  My husband is French and his mother came to the U.S. every year for a one-month period.  She spoke no English at all so this forced me to use the little French that I knew.  I understood quite a bit but only spoke in the present tense and only used the informal (familiar) form.

How did you learn to speak French?

We moved to France in 1988 and upon my arrival I went to the University of Grenoble for six months to learn French with foreign students.  Thankfully I already had the basics of the French language because my husband is French and his mother came to visit often.

How long did it take you to become fluent in French?

I would not consider myself fluent because I still make mistakes in French.  But it helped tremendously that my husband is French so he could correct my errors.  I also checked out children’s books from the library.  That helped a lot in seeing how words were spelled that I had heard spoken.  

What did you find most challenging about learning French?

The conjugation of verbs, masculine and feminine forms and plural endings.  Also, the pronunciation was difficult since there are so many letters that are silent.    

Do you feel you still struggle with French?

No, I feel quite comfortable in the language.  If I don’t know how to construct a sentence in French one way, then I find another way to do it. 

Do you think in your native language or in French?

I think in my native language.  Though when visiting France I often think of a sentence in English and then translate it into French in my mind before speaking.  But after being in the country for a while French comes naturally (though I don’t think in French).  

What advice would you give someone who, like you, came to France from a foreign country without knowing how to speak French?

Learn the language as quickly as possible and as well as possible.  The French are not very tolerant of foreigners who speak French incorrectly (though they love the American accent).

What were some of your experiences learning a new language in a foreign country? Share your comments below!

Learn a Foreign Language in Your Hometown: Visit Your Local Library

Posted on 25. Aug, 2014 by in Language Learning, Reference/Usage Tips


Image by Gabriel Rodríguez on Flickr

Did you know the Queens Borough Public Library system is home to more than 800,000 foreign language books and employs 6 language specialists whose job it is to locate more materials for popular languages in the area?

Were you aware that Seattle Public Library teaches basic and intermediate English as a Second Language (ESL) classes every single weekday?

How about Pollard Memorial Library in Lowell, Massachusetts—did you know their blog is a great place to find out about local cultural events, like the Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival, which celebrates the traditions of Khmer, Thai, and Laotian communities (many of which have large enclaves in Lowell)?

Are you sensing a trend here? That’s right—your local library wants to help you learn a language, and they’re equipped to do so! If you think musty old language books when you think of your local library, you’re in for a bit of a shock. Sure, they have a trove of books and audio tapes (both of which are still viable language-learning resources, not to mention they’re free at your library), but you may be surprised just how well-versed your local libraries are in terms of technology. They’re blogging, they’re tweeting, and they’re seeking out the best tech to provide to their communities.

The three libraries mentioned above, along with hundreds of others throughout the U.S. and worldwide, have stepped up their language resource game. They all offer Transparent Language Online accounts free of charge to their patrons, providing language-learning materials to their communities in 90+ languages! So, when you’re looking for language-learning resources, don’t count out your local library. Be sure to stop by and ask your librarians about their language offerings.

Want Transparent Language Online in your local library? Let you librarians know, and send them our way!