What is the internet trend that most annoys you, Flora? Glad you asked. After Men Explaining Things To Women on Twitter, and People Oversharing Online, I do find my fists clenching at one particular theme of clickbait content: Youtube videos and blogs with titles such as ‘How I learnt Italian in 1 month!’ or ‘How I became fluent in 15 languages in 2 years!’. Usually such bold claims are accompanied by a picture of said self-proclaimed polyglot gazing (with a dreamy yet intent expression) into the green void of the duolingo owl, or flicking their hair in the foreground of an #artsy Berlin wall.
Apps such as Duolingo, Memrise, and Google Translate too make language learning appear seductively simple: just click here, let this word flash up 4 times a day, and you’ll be fluent in a month.
Even otherwise sensible academics seem to have bought into this notion, beyond the internet universe. I study Modern and Medieval Languages at the University of Cambridge, reading French and Spanish, and it is claimed that we will reach ‘near-native fluency’ by our fourth and final year of the course. For students or professionals taking standardised language tests, ‘C2’ is the highest achievable grade, marking total fluency across the board. Surely, then, reaching it means that you find yourself
This is, of course, rubbish. I took the Erasmus+ test last week, as part of my application to the ENS Lyon, (one of the Grandes Écoles in France), and was pleased to receive a C2 grade. I also know that I am certainly not fluent in French; nor do I expect to be ‘near-native’ fluent by the end of my degree.
Becoming truly fluent in a language does takes more than a few weeks and months: in fact, it takes more than a few years, unless you live in total linguistic immersion. Learning a language for pleasure, work, or romance is the labour of a lifetime, and you will likely never reach full native fluency. Many of those who do achieve this are literary geniuses: Beckett, Achebe, Smith.
Perhaps I’m being a little negative. I would say it is possible to have a very high level of linguistic fluency, without being ‘perfect’.
Using the word ‘fluency’ is misleading. If I were Master of The Languages, I would say ‘fluencies’ instead. This would better capture the varying levels of ability a speaker might have across different language skills: you might be able to read a page of a 20th century French novel without looking up a word, or watch a full Almodóvar film without subtitles, but stutter when trying to reply to a friendly question in your target language. Personally, I can understand the majority of conversations in my target languages, read and comprehend a range of texts, but still have difficulty in expressing myself sometimes in conversation.
Different people vary in their disposition towards gaining these fluencies: a quiet, studious speaker may be highly advanced in reading literature in their target language, while an extrovert may speak well and confidently, but tire of endless grammar. Language learning is more intimately bonded to personality than any other intellectual discipline: not only do you learn a language, you also live it.
It is also possible to speak or read fluently (at an average conversational / reading pace) without near-native fluency. Studies note that in order to read fluently, you need to understand 80% of the words on the page; so as long as you have solid basic and intermediate vocabularies, all you have to do is look up a few of the most difficult items, without it interrupting your engagement too much.
Cultural fluency can only be learnt by living in one of the countries of your target language. A friend of mine is Danish, and lives in Brussels: she is fluent in Danish, and English, as well as having a high level of French. However, during her first term at university, she found herself missing the punchlines to jokes, and misinterpreting the nuances of everyday conversation: she said it took her the rest of her first year to really learn how to understand English, as spoken by the English (specifically the obnoxious and intellectual peacocks that are Cambridge students), rather than ‘just’ speaking it with linguistic fluency.
It was relatively easy for my friend to have become a polyglot, due to her language environments. Linguistic environments also limit your capacity for fluency. If you’re a long-term language learner in a largely monolingual culture, it can be frustrating to see people from other countries quickly pick up multiple languages throughout their lives. The fact is that it simply is much easier for a German to learn English, or a Swede to adopt Norwegian; when bilingualism is embedded in your country’s culture, politics, education system, and economy, it is not so hard to become fluent, as in monolingual cultures such as England, where self-motivation, advanced educational levels, and good luck are essential factors for developing fluency.
It’s also worth remembering that language learning is stimulated by very different circumstances, and the particular demands of each situation will influence progress in the target language. Falling in love with a speaker of another language; working in a bilingual office; studying languages formally at school, university, or evening classes; learning the language because you have just moved to the country; reading or watching films to explore the cultures of your target language – all of these scenarios will affect the speed at which you gain fluency. The most efficient language learning seems to come from long-term relationships, where you have moved to the country of the target language – but even then, there are people who have not reached ‘near-native’ fluency even after decades-long partnership in their partner’s country.
The facile promise of instant, fluency is a sign of the times. In this age of instantaneous gratification, it is difficult to grasp the concept of the slow, hard slog necessary for language learning; at a time of extended quantification within our education system, it is hard to comprehend the nuances of the different fluencies of language learning.
As hard as language study may be, it is also a joy, allowing you the privilege of entering new cultures, countries, and relationships; learning a new language allows you to reflect on your own culture and mother tongue, and even to explore parts of your personality and interests that are not so easily opened by your native country. And if you choose wisely, you might get to eat some great food too!