10: The Fluency Conspiracy

“Would you say you’re now fluent?” is a question I get asked relentlessly, even more so as my year abroad draws to a close. It is, incidentally, a question posed only by people who have never learned a foreign language themselves.

You wouldn’t spontaneously pluck a chapter from a Dickens novel and ask a literature student to give a detailed analysis of its characters and nuances from the top of their heads. You wouldn’t ask a history student to rattle off every significant legislation that was passed in 1736. So don’t expect me to know how to recall the word for Dodo in German, because chances are I haven’t come in to contact with too many extinct species on my year abroad.

Fluency is too often perceived as a finite state, a black and white label. In reality, it involves an ongoing process of years of cultural immersion and linguistic osmosis. A year abroad undoubtedly catalyses this process, yet simultaneously serves as a harsh wake-up call to the reality of language learning; what you once you once thought of as a quick walk around the park has turned in to an expedition to climb Everest. No amount of text book phrases and listening exercises can prepare you for that. Imagine reading Oliver Twist one day and then being expected to seamlessly assimilate in to Victorian society the next. You’ve learned about it, you’ve passively absorbed its language, you’ve even humiliated yourself by enacting Mr Bumble in a Victorian literature seminar, but you’ve never actually lived inside Dickens’ world. Vicarious exposure can’t ever fully prepare you for that.

This concept is most easily grasped by considering your relationship to your mother tongue. When speaking English, there are frequently times when I am lost for words in conversation, when I ask a friend to repeat what they have just said, when I need to look up words in a book I am reading. Yet under the same circumstances in German, I presume these lapses are indicative of my ‘non-fluent’ status, of my failure to fully grasp my target language. According to the standards that I hold my German to, I am not fluent in English either.  This disparity is a consequence of our misconceptions about fluency. As a native English speaker, I’m not insecure about my use of vocabulary, I’m not instilled with paranoia about how my accent comes across and I certainly don’t worry about accidentally making sexual innuendos every time I comment on the weather.

Yet with insecurity, paranoia and worry comes under-confidence, stuttering and stunted conversations. After all, fluency is a state of mind. It is the symptoms of this mentality, rather than a lack of linguistic capability, that ironically hinder fluency in a foreign language.

It’s therefore helpful to distinguish between social confidence and linguistic competence. I am much more comfortable talking to friends about our plans for the weekend than I am discussing coding with a computer scientist. When speaking German, on the other hand, I judge myself as fluent in the former conversation, yet a complete novice in the latter. Before basing your ability to speak an entire language on a five minute interaction, it is important to take context in to consideration.

And then there’s the mood I’m in. If I’ve had a salad for lunch, I will probably stammer my way through asking for the bill, a request that is articulating perfectly after devouring a pizza. Whilst my exhausted attempts at small talk on the 7.30am bus to work are laughable, after a colleague compliments my German, my conversation starters become almost plausible attempts at social interaction.

Annoyingly, the arrogant people who quickly decide that they’re fluent have the confidence and self-assurance that is, incidentally, what we misconceive as fluency. Accordingly, those humble enough to second guess their competence in the target language are afflicted by the hesitations that expose themselves as foreigners.

If we were to rid language learners of the concept of fluency, all the paranoia and second-guessing would dissolve along with it, ironically making them more fluent…..not that the concept exists.