Seemingly easy questions oftentimes betray assumptions that are much more problematic than they appear to be. When it comes to multilingualism, the ultimate case in point is the inquiry about knowledge of languages. It is a question that is common enough (at least once you get out of a monolingual situation), it seems straightforward, but it betrays problematic expectations. What exactly does knowing, speaking a language mean?
Think of school, for example. Chances are, you had to take a foreign language as part of your schooling – but chances are also that learning this language mainly meant learning vocabulary and grammar, doing the exercises, becoming able to hold simple conversations, but not much more. It probably did not feel like fluency. Well, consider the “Gymnasium” (i.e. grammar school, academically-oriented high school) of Europe’s German-speaking countries, where Latin still forms part of the curriculum. It is a dead language, thus one you learn only to translate it. Nobody would (usually) ask anyone to speak Latin (and the only place you might be able to hear it used like that would be if you went to the Vatican, which also has a Latin section on its website. Still, if you can translate it well enough, you know the language, don’t you?
Many people who are into personal productivity – both as using their time to best effect and for parading their achievements – suggest that a little, but effective, learning goes a long way. Avid self-promoter Tim Ferriss, for example, follows Pareto’s Law (or the “80/20 principle”) also when it comes to languages, arguing that 20% of the effort will give you 80% of the results. In other (simplistic) words, learning the most-used vocabulary and getting a decent grasp of the grammar structures that are most often encountered will easily get you to conversational fluency within three months.
Some of the surface claims (a favorite headline: “How to learn (but not master) any language in one hour” are rather over the top; and choosing what language to learn by how little effort it takes is a valid approach only for some people.
Still, these thoughts also point to the issue raised at the beginning, the issue of what exactly knowing a language actually means. All too often, language learners use native speakers as their frame of reference, and are frustrated even before they really begin. English itself shows the problem excellently: if you only just sound foreign, you are oftentimes not considered truly fluent – but at the same time, scholars of the English language have begun to talk of “World Englishes” (e.g. with the journal of that name) to reflect the fact that British English is not the same as American, let alone Australian or Indian, and a New England American will sound different from a New York cabbie – but all will recognizably speak English.
Thus, of course native speakers of a language are the ones you will want to be able to converse with, but you know a language as long as you can make yourself understood in it. (“Signese” doesn’t count, though.)
Expanding the perspective to again include reading and writing, things get more difficult, but the basic argument remains the same: even in your first language, you probably cannot understand, let alone produce, all kinds of text – just get some legalese that makes perfect sense to a lawyer but no one else, or have a look at some of the dissertation topics in the department studying the language you thought you spoke every day. It will suddenly seem pretty foreign.
The real question is not knowledge, it is skill in a (foreign) language compared to what you want or have to use it for… This may, incidentally, be why we feel that progress in a foreign language is much better when we are in a country where this language is spoken – because there are more situations in which we feel competent, getting the desired results, even if it’s just ordering some dishes at a restaurant.
About the Author: Gerald Zhang-Schmidt is an independent scholar with a background in ecology and cultural anthropology, writing about his interests at www.positive-ecology.org, www.beyond-eco.org and www.chilicult.com. He hails from Austria, and currently works as German lecturer in China. During his career, he has learned something of nine languages and forgotten much of it again.