Saturday, 20 November 2010

So when can you say you speak a language – part 3

I’ve drawn inspiration for writing this post from another post, dated 5 November 2010, which had come out on The Economist’s Johnson blog. The author touches up on an issue that I’ve pondered upon many times – describing one’s command of a foreign language. Any assessment of someone’s linguistic competencies is a very difficult task and the outcome will probably never be objective. Definitions vary, depending on who you ask. Some people say you speak a language if you can communicate in basic everyday situations, others point out you can claim to speak a language if you’re (almost) as fluent as a native speaker.

This discrepancy is emphasised in Johnson’s short article, the author leaves room for coining a definition to the commentators and puts forward his own definition. In his view, he can say he speaks a language, if he can go to a country and work there as a journalist. In Johnson’s definition it means a person who declares they speak a language should be able to communicate without awkwardness in typical situations in understands most of what they are told. However, when I first read the post I wondered what his work in the capacity of journalist meant. After all I’ve inferred it meant he had to garner information in a foreign language and then to write an article in English, so he didn’t have in mind mastery which would allow him to write an article in a foreign language, to a foreign newspaper.

I, in turn, distinguish between “knowing a language” and “speaking a language”. Knowing is about passive command – if you know a language you understand written word, can read newspapers and books in a foreign language and can understand what is being said, so it doesn’t make a problem for you to listen to radio broadcasts or watch films in a foreign language. Speaking involves active use of a language – speaking it in everyday situations and using a language at work, writing e-mails, reports, letters, and even a blog. Hardly ever can a learner afford just to know a language, this competency may prove sufficient only to translators who translate into their native language and probably to no one else. The rest have to speak a language to be able to express their ideas in a foreign language.

The problem of describing linguistic competencies has been solved quite effectually by the Europe Council. Its officials have worked out a framework which sets out six levels of linguistic competencies, which has become a standardised and widely-accepted method of measuring one’s command of a language. It may solve the problem, but you have to be aware such a grid exists. Most people are still oblivious of it.

Actually I can’t tell the difference between myself and someone who struggles to string together a sentence in English, but somehow gets by. They know English and I know English, consequently “know” appears to be a very imprecise word. The most frequent occurrence when the sentence on(a) zna angielski is when a Polish company needs to have its website translated into English and an employee who knows English best is assigned this task. If you happen to read some drivel consisting of manifold English words put together without rhyme or reason and can’t make head nor tail of it, such situation has probably happened.

I’m a sluggish blogger, so before I set about compiling this bunch of reflections on learning languages, another blogger, whose attainments usually pass unnoticed, has come up with another theory. His concept is a brilliant combination of complexity and simplicity – in his view you can say you speak a language if you have command of a language comparable to a command represented by a five-year-old native speaker of a language. I read this a few times and was deeply enchanted by the theory. Read between the lines and you’ll grasp what it takes – spontaneity. You speak a language and it doesn’t seem it’s rehearsed, your feel comfortable using it, you express your thoughts at ease and with pleasure, you switch smoothly to that language without discomfort (even when being woken up in the middle of a night), you can hold conversations on all topics you are familiar with in your mother tongue. I could add that you should also think in a foreign language.

In Polish there’s a vexing phenomenon that makes my hackles rise. Take any ten CVs of job applicants and I bet you’ll fish out at least one in which an applicant would describe their command of English angielski – biegle; sometimes to prove it they add information about a certificate they hold (if they claim to be proficient, it’s usually FCE or CAE, neither confirms proficiency). Being very critical towards Polish nation’s linguistic skills, I find it hard to suppress my displeasure with this complacency. Do those “masters in English” realise that proficiency means mastery comparable to an educated native speaker of a language? Do they realise among Poles born and bred in Poland, who still live here, there are few are far between who are really proficient in English?

I don’t claim to be proficient in English (funnily enough nor in Polish), I describe my command of English as “fluency”. This involves some inaccuracy, but leaves far less room for a possible letdown. I rarely have problems understanding written word (I still encounter some new words but I usually can make out their meanings out of context), for some time I haven’t had any problems understanding English speakers in face-to-face conversations, regardless of their accent, but watching films in English is not always easy for me. I’ve been developing my writing skills as a blogger, but I surely need more opportunities to speak…

As Johnson points out it takes immersion to become proficient, for this reason you can’t expect to master a foreign language without working on four key competencies (reading, listening, speaking, writing) and you won’t be considered a master if you make grammatical errors a native speaker wouldn’t make. And there’s another aspect – it takes long to master a language, but much, much shorter to forget it (at least in the active aspect), maintaining high linguistic is a challenge comparable to acquiring them. So let’s face it – use it or lose it (faster than you think)!

Over. Off to brush up on my English!


Pan Steeva said...

Thanks for this, which I find most thought provoking, but yet I slightly wish you hadn't. I had thought before how brilliant your English is and I've just looked back to your last post, which confirms it.

I'm not sure what implication 'biegle' has in Polish, but my dictionary gives me various alternatives. 'Competent': I would be insulting you if I described your English as competent. Proficient: I would have to add 'very' to this. To me, both of these describe levels of competence below 'fluent'. Two questions before commenting on your fluency.

Why, when I make mistakes or forget words in English, do I think that everyone does it, but when I do it in Polish I think my Polish is appalling? Who speaks a language better: a person with a exceptionally wide, standard-use vocabulary or someone who makes minor grammatical errors? From your last post, you write fluently and I would have considered you very fluent if you had been speaking instead of writing - we make more mistakes even in our own language when we speak.

Finally being a 'master' of or 'having mastered' a language are both alien concepts to me as far as something as complex as the English language in England is concerned - there are too many variations. I had to look up both 'competent' and 'proficient' in the dictionary - - to make sure that they meant what I thought they meant, but I suspect others would disagree with me. I think Polish people are too ambitious in their aspirations. They look for a level of English-language excellence that does not exist in England. However, if I would to have a stab at guessing what it means I would say that your last post appeared to have been written by someone who has 'pretty much' mastered the use of English, but you didn't quite make it with this one.

student SGH said...

biegłość implies mastery, in the context of speaking a foreign langauge it just means you can understand virtually everything and use the language at ease in any situation. Maybe you should check the definition in Słownik Języka Polskiego and compare it with some definitions of "proficient" in English monoligual dictionaries.

Why, when I make mistakes or forget words in English, do I think that everyone does it, but when I do it in Polish I think my Polish is appalling?

It works the other way round as well. As a native speaker of Polish I frequnetly have a word at the tip of my tongue or find it hard to express myself clearly in some situations. It recently occured to me if I have problems describing something in English properly it's because I'd have problems in Polish.

I think Polish people are too ambitious in their aspirations.

As stated in the post, I am of totally different opinion.

My English has seen better days, but I hope its best days are still ahead. Working on a dream :)

A pity we haven't had a chance to have a longer conversation on Saturday.

Pan Steeva said...

Webster's Third New International Dictionary helpful gives me the ranking competent, proficient, skilled, expert, masterly. Fluent is not in the list as it has a narrower meaning, but I would place it at skilled/expert level.

None of the Polish dictionaries I have - the largest being the two volume Słownik Wspólczesnego Języka Polskiego allow me to decide between these, whilst the Polish-English dictionaries I have looked at cross between them. I think it should be fluent, but I suspect that Polish does not allow for the same subtleties. I therefore stand by my previous comment on your abilities.

Since I always write too much, I shortened the description of 'ambitious' and did not mention those people who want to speak perfect English, go and get a qualification. and then think they have achieved their goal - the results being the appalling translators you mentioned. I have been quite irritated by people with lesser abilities telling me I know less than they do. It saddens me because I actually admire the level of competence they have - it's the arrogance that gets me.

I'm better in just a group of two or three people, so if you'd like to get together sometime let me know. I get even more incoherent after a couple of beers, though.