What it means to speak another language

What does it mean to say that you “speak a language”? That you speak like a native, that you speak fluently, that you can to some extent get by? There are many different interpretations of what this phrase could mean.

Over the years, I’ve had a go at learning quite a few languages. I started off at school with French and German (with Latin thrown in for good measure), and I then went off to university and studied these further. Somewhere along the line, I got some teach-yourself books and duly taught myself some Italian and Spanish. A period spent in Wales prompted me to tackle Welsh. Later on, I had a go at Russian, Dutch and finally Japanese. Whereupon I decided enough was enough, so, no, I have no intention of learning Zulu or Icelandic.

I have sometimes been asked how many languages I speak, and I really have no idea how to answer this question. The reason is that I have achieved greatly varying degrees of proficiency in these various languages. My French and German are reasonably competent, but I am definitely not a native speaker, and if I were to write this article in either of those languages, I would take a lot longer and still want a native speaker to check it through. At the other end of the scale, I can’t say very much at all in Russian, but I still have a certain feel for the language.

The point, perhaps, is not so much how many languages I speak, but what do I know of these languages, and what use is what I know.

When we start learning a foreign language, we would of course love to reach a high level of competence in a short period. However, there is no getting away from the fact that there is a lot involved in language learning; even if you have a gift for grammar, and an intuitive feel for the way languages work, you still have to memorise vocabulary, and that takes time. Not everyone can devote years to the study of a foreign language and so, realistically, not everyone who tries it will achieve a high level of competence.

I’d like to go back to my own experience and compare my rudimentary knowledge of Japanese with my non-existent knowledge of, say, Korean.

I can’t say very much in Japanese, I can’t really follow a conversation, and I certainly can’t read a newspaper. However, I do have a feel for the way the language works. I know the sound patterns, and how these are put together to make words. I can easily identify nouns and verbs. I know something about levels of politeness, and how these important aspects of Japanese culture are reflected in the language. On the purely practical level, if I go to Japan, I know enough to get myself around without support. Most important of all, if I meet Japanese people, I can say something in their language, and show them that I have made the effort to match in some small way the effort they have probably made to learn my language.

In Korean, I can’t do any of this: to me the language is just a jumble of sounds, I have no idea what people are talking about, and if I go to Korea I have to really on support from others, sign language, or the classic “Does anyone here speak English?”

The level of knowledge I have achieved in Japanese is probably on a par with what people might hope to achieve after one or two courses with Euroasia. I am certainly not fluent in the language, and yet the knowledge I have is knowledge I really appreciate having: it’s of practical use, it helps me to relate to people, plus it contributes to my general understanding of the world around me.

And this, I would say, is the value of learning a little.

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