Are you fluent in …?

Nerd alert: This is an issue that polyglots face, but the solution can be useful to language mortals, too.

I often get asked how many languages I speak. It’s always a tricky one to answer. I don’t want to bore people with too much detail of which languages I speak to what level. Equally I don’t want to say 10, then being asked what they are, only to then be spoken to in the one language I am still really struggling with.

The quick fix is to say “nine and a half languages”. It gives an idea of the number of languages I can say something in, but leaves me the back door open when I don’t do too well in a subsequent conversation.

If I am then asked how many languages I am fluent in, I again feel slightly uncomfortable. Fluent is such a vague term. I can have a conversation in Russian which will sound very fluent to a non-speaker of the language, but would not really be able to talk about complicated subjects such as politics, religion or science.

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages is a good starting point for classifying ability, but not everyone knows it. I like the term it proposes: “independent user” as somebody who can make themselves understood without too much help. I am just about there with my Russian, although it doesn’t always sound beautiful.

The next level up to my mind is a term used by LinkedIn: “professional proficiency”. That’s where it becomes really useful. LinkedIn distinguishes between ‘full’ and ‘limited’ professional proficiency. This led me, as a journalist, to distinguish between my broadcast languages: German, English, Gaelic, Spanish, my interview languages: French, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Irish, and the ones I am working on at the moment: Chinese, Fering (Northern Frisian) and Swedish.

Scots or Lallans is an interesting phenomenon. It is on a continuum to Scottish English and I understand a lot of it, especially of its Glasgow variant. But if I was to go to a fishing village in Aberdeenshire where they speak the wheel-kent (well-known) Scots dialect of Doric I might struggle. There isn’t really a college for Scots like there is for Gaelic which makes learning it more difficult.

I studied Latin as a dead language at university, but apparently there are freaks out there who use it as a living language. That could be another project, as could Breton, Maori, Hawaiian, Arabic or Quechua (the language of the descendants of the Incas) or Herero (the language of the proud tribe in Namibia, whom the Germans gave a writing system, only to brutally slaughter them when it was a colony). But resources on the latter two languages aren’t great so I probably have to spend some time in those countries.

Frasch – Northern Frisian

There are 10,000 speakers of Northern Frisian, but in most schools the subject is not marked and was often dropped during the pandemic. The Frisian Council call for it to become compulsory. But the first member of the German parliament to represent the Danish and Frisian minorities for 60 years says he is making progress in rallying support in Berlin. (An Là, BBC ALBA, 05/01/22).

Colombian Climate Change Activists at COP26

The Atrato River in Colombia is flooding villages and fields more and more often caused by climate change. A court afforded the river a legal persona – the third this has happened world-wide. It’s voice is expressed by residents – Guardians of the River Atrato. But there is also violence and intimidation of community leaders.

The Colombian President, Ivan Duque, promised at COP26 that 30% of the country’s territory would be protected by 2022. But community leaders say this needs to come with funding and economic opportunities for locals to work. As seen on An Là, BBC ALBA, 6/11/21.

German elections and the Frisian language

Includes an interview with the candidate for the Danish and Frisian minority for parliament, Stefan Seidler, where he explains that the Frisian language and culture have no continued funding, but rely on project funding, which he hopes to change. For the first time in 60 years his party, the SSW is represented in the German parliament, the Bundestag. (“An Là” on BBC ALBA, 24/9/21) in Gaelic.

Min Öömrang Lun – anthem of Amrum island in the Northern Frisian language

Classified by Unesco as severely endangered and spoken only by around 10,000 people you would think a “model” democracy like Germany would pull out all the stops to support Northern Frisian. But Welsh and Scottish Gaelic enjoy much more government help. I hope this little video adds awareness at least (sorry for the wind noise at the start).

The state of the Frasch (Northern Frisian) language: Since recording this video on the island of Oomrem/ Amrum I have found out that you can do an A-level/ Higher in Frisian only in one (1) high school situated on Feer/ Föhr.