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Limited Fluency

March 31, 2013

There’s all this talk out there about “getting fluent” in another language.

Let’s be honest – I work in an extremely multicultural office that demonstrates that what is “fluent” to one person is not the same to others.  There are plenty of native English speakers, but a lot for whom English is a second, third or fourth language, and in some cases, it shows… and all of these people would likely define themselves as “fluent” in English.

And there are plenty of other good blog posts out there on fluency, so I’m not going to rehash those points here (especially because most of them put it in far, far better ways that I ever could without plagiarizing).

Instead, what really should  matter is the why of it – Why are you learning the language and what is the goal?

I’m learning the languages I’m learning for very, very different reasons:

  • Spanish – I took five years of Spanish in school, then spent a few years working for a company with offices in Mexico.  Now that I work for a multinational company, it seemed to me to make perfect sense to get my Spanish back up to snuff.  (The issue for me is actually more practice and refreshing than having to learn anything beyond vocabulary.)
  • Hebrew – I took a lot of Hebrew as a child.  My mother is fluent in the way that most folks mean when they use the term, and we spoke it in the kitchen over summers to keep in practice… and still, I have trouble getting around in the language.  (My vocabulary, again, is the bigger issue.)
  • Ladino – Well, when you know Spanish and Hebrew (mostly the former), the language spoken by the Jews thrown out of Spain in 1492 isn’t that much more of a stretch.  Purely for fun.
  • Esperanto – This one’s more a curiosity to me.  I like the mental exercise of it.  Like Ladino, it’s purely for fun but certainly more useful.

And my goals in each language are fairly simple – I’d like to be able to participate in a conversation, watch a movie and fill out forms in the three modern languages on that list.  Ladino… I’d like, at some point, to be able to handle it in Hebraic script, but for the moment, I’m more interested in being able to understand it if I read/hear it.  (I have a few CDs that have music in Ladino, and a few of the words that differ from Spanish escape me.)

So what prompted today’s thought on what is “fluent”?

My wife was browsing Facebook, and something was posting funny pictures with Hebrew all over them, so she called me in to translate.  Now, I’m far, far better about understanding spoken Hebrew than I was when I started this blog.  My reading’s improved as well… but admittedly, there are times where “normal” Hebrew (meaning: without vowels) throws me for a loop.  Between what I could read and what Google Translate on my phone could help me get past, we got through a lot of them, but it’s still embarrassing a bit when words I do know are suddenly unfamiliar because I’m reading them, not saying them aloud.

To her, I’m definitely more “fluent” in Hebrew than she is.  To me, I have a long, long way to go…

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One Comment
  1. Nice to have found your blog. I was looking for a few more language-related ones to peruse… nothing like a bit of blogcrastination when I’m meant to be working 😉
    The fluency issue… a tricky one, that. I guess fluency kicks in when you stop having to translate every sentence from your native into your target language. But it doesn’t say all that much about the quality of the spoken language. Fluency is mostly about delivery speed and intelligibility.
    Comparing two of my Spanish intercambios, both of whom have an equally advanced level of vocabulary, one of them sounds very fluent indeed, but makes a lot of grammatical mistakes (which do not, however, stop me from understanding what she’s saying), while the other speaks much more hesitantly, but what comes out is more or less correct.
    I’m a bit of a stickler myself 😉

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