Saturday, August 10, 2013

Dispelling the Language Fluency Myth

What does it mean to be fluent in a language? 

More importantly, 
how necessary is it to be fluent in a language to use it?

(Take a deep breath...)

HWYD Learning thinks that you don't actually have to be all that fluent to use a language. 

We know this may offend, so let us explain... 

Do you know everything there is to know about English, the language you are reading this in? How would you feel about this statement: 

The epicene subject of this painting is breathtaking.

That's English. Did you have to look it up?

So what is fluency about, if not the words?

To be truly fluent in a language, (whatever that means), you need to live in the culture. Sorry. It's a hard truth. The language is about more than the words. More than the grammar. It's about the slang. The body language. The historical events that find their way into snarky news headlines and snide bar jokes. It's about the iconic corner drug store and weekly market haggling. It's about the hot button issues and holiday values. So even if you know academically the full nuance of the words and structure of a language - in reading, writing, and listening - you will miss a lot in communication without the day-to-day use. Even study abroad programs don't necessarily provide this because it's easy to cocoon yourself in the already overwhelming sea of a new dialect, a new town, a new school, new foods, new cultural practices, maybe one new family you are living with, etc. It's a super-duper fantastic life-changing experience. And it's on the road to fluency for sure. But you won't transform into a perfectly native-like speaker with just one extended visit.

One major barrier to so-called fluency is that native speakers in different sub-cultures use their language to communicate differently the world over. That means, yes, if you live in Barcelona, Spain for six months, you'll still have a lot to learn if you relocate to Tegucigalpa, Honduras. 

So, "fluency," is sort of arbitrary, no?

You now say, despairingly, "So if I can't drop my life as I know it and relocate to become fluent in another language, should I even bother to try to learn one?"

Um... yes! Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Why not?! 

Even 15-20 phrases or a handful of food or clothing items in your vocabulary will take you a long way. You know, many people around the world will describe themselves as able to speak six or seven languages. There are a handful of those people who are fully fluent in all of them, but most speak enough to get by. Or at least establish some sort of relationship with another person in that language, no matter how limited that communication is. 

Caveat: Be forewarned, regardless of your level of fluency, you will always find a judgy-judgerton somewhere among academic non-native speakers and native speakers alike. Some people can be notoriously snobby about their own language skills, but regular, normal people, not so much! They love to help you along in the language. You also need to be aware that your own ability with a language will come and go...and come again...and go again...with use. It's not static. It can and will change depending on your effort and exposure.

These snobs are yummy.

So shrug off any snottiness that comes your way and enjoy your own path to learning! 

And this brings us to the real reason for this post. 

We've been asked hundreds of times, "Is Rosetta Stone a good way to learn a language?" Even  more so, people marvel at how little they feel is learned in a traditional language classroom. Have you really stopped to think about how many minutes or hours you spent exposed to language in that environment?

So is learning a language worth it even in small quantities?

Of course it is. Any method you choose or have the opportunity to take advantage of is a good method. It's not magic, though. Don't think that it is. Your motivation and pursing of knowledge is actually the only thing that matters. Oh, and time. There are no good shortcuts for that.

Language resources, just like all other information nowadays, are out there free all over the internet. Of course, you can buy programs like Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, etc. Are those programs going to give you that beautiful academic nuance? No. Are they a substitute for day-to-day fluency? Not even a little bit. Are you going to be literate enough to read the newspapers and, "get," most of it? Definitely not. And forget literature. 

Does that mean studying language in school or buying language programs are a waste of time and money? 

If you don't stick to it, yep - it's a waste. Well, sort of. HWYD Learning doesn't really subscribe to the idea that learning of any kind is ever a waste. But it certainly may mean that if you find the materials expensive and level of work tedious, you might need to sell anything you've purchased on Ebay and move on to a hobby you enjoy more. The only real waste is in your disappointment if you are seeking some imaginary idea of, "fluency." If you are really seeking, "fluency," then you need to drop everything, enroll in classes somewhere for a year or two, and move abroad. 

However - if you want to be able to communicate in the language, read a little, write a little, shop a little, meet lovely people on vacation who don't speak your language, understand road signs, grow in the language over time, augment your logical reasoning skills, and have a better understanding of your own language and culture, then by all means, start learning!

The ACTUAL Rosetta Stone

We are in constant pursuit of languages at HWYD Learning. Our, "fluency," waxes and wanes. In this age of proliferating technology, news broadcasts are literally minutes away in hundreds of languages simply by browsing the iTunes app store. There are the aforementioned Rosetta Stone and Pimsleur Programs. Most local bookstores have Living Language and Language for Dummies and a whole host of resources at your fingertips. Try googling, "mooc," for a language you are interested in. Massive Open Online Courses and websites like LiveMocha or even Quia are also amazing resources. If you are in the UK, the BBC has a fantastic suite of language learning resources online as well. Usually the videos are not accessible in the US. 

It's a fantastic moment when all of the gibberish begins to sound like individual words and even syllables, and finally(!) you can get a meaning every now and then. It's a little like when you sing along with a favorite song before and after you know the actual lyrics. (Anybody remember the song, "Secret Agent Man?" We were so happy to learn those were the lyrics. More than a few people heard, "Secret Asian Man." Beginning to tease out words in a language is like a lot like that ah-ha moment.)

James Bond: An Iconic Secret Agent Man

Learn songs in your target language. Watch soap operas and movies in your target language. Whatever you need to immerse yourself as much as you can. If you are still in college or high school, look at online programs. Colleges seem a little behind the online high schools. If you go this route, try to choose a program with good, solid interaction with a teacher.

Speaking of foreign language teachers. And actually teachers and professors in general. Even a bad instructor, (most likely), knows more than you do about the subject. Occasionally, they won't know more, but they definitely will know something you don't. You are always better figuring out what that is and learning it than focusing on how they could be a better instructor. Just like they need to focus on what your learning strengths are and how to teach you...not how you could be a better student. Make sense?

So, get learning!

Andrea & Steve

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