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.

2 thoughts on “Are you fluent in …?

  1. I get the question all the time and have a similar answer to yours. Not quite nine and a half. I usually say that I am fluent in five, understand another two or three or four, it’s difficult to draw the line. As a writer, I class myself fluent in the languages I write in or at least could potentially write in. I feel as soon as I can create and play in and with a language, that’s the sign of mastery. Of owning it. People often just look at the monetary value of a skill. Language is so much more. Love reading your blog.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Britta. You obviously aspire to a very high standard, which is great. Furthermore I agree there isn’t just a monetary value of speaking a language. As you say it is so much more. However, it is also true that not all employers reward language ability in monetary terms as I believe they should.

      Liked by 1 person

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