What does it mean to be fluent?

Jon Hunstman’s insistence on trotting out bits of his Mandarin here and there (see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IPb-5AZuzXo) has provoked a lot of commentary and no small amount of ridicule about his proficiency, and whether it really rises to the level of fluency. A better question, and one which gets asked much less often, is what exactly does fluency mean? It is also a lot harder to answer in any definitive way.

I’ve come to this subject from the perspective of somewhat unusual personal experience. Due to life and career choices, in the course of things to one degree or another, I’ve come to speak a lot of languages: English, French, Spanish, bits and pieces of various Akan dialects (Twi, Baoulé, Nzima), Haitian Creole, Japanese and Chinese.

With every one of these languages at some point I got well beyond the phrase book level. Even now, I speak almost as much French in any given day as I speak English. With both Chinese and Japanese, after prolonged and very deliberate effort, I was able to sustain genuine friendships and do my work, meaning not just function in an everyday sense, but conduct extended interviews in the language. And after years of disuse, I was pleased to have been able to revive my once reasonably supple Spanish on the fly as a Rube Goldberg solution to needing to work and function in a Portuguese-speaking environment. This came recently during nearly two months of solo reporting in Mozambique. Hell, I even learned a good bit of this new language, and attained a decent comprehension level as I stumbled about with my crude Portañol.

But just what is fluency? In the end, it is a slightly foolish term, and one can (should?) feel foolish using it. Language learning is an endless process, and one’s comfort and degree of articulateness, never mind literacy in a foreign language is a dynamic and ever-changing thing.

I conducted nearly all of the many field interviews I did for my forthcoming book on the Chinese in Africa alone and in Chinese, and in the thick of it rarely had language problems of any kind. In the five months I’ve been back in the U.S., though, the Chinese space in my brain has shrunk dramatically, almost alarmingly so. No, I haven’t forgotten how to speak by any means, but my level has steadily gone down from disuse and from removal from a situation of immersion.

I remember a lunch I had with a Chinese friend right after my return from Africa in early September. “You sound amazing, so natural,” she said, to my delight, as we carried on in Mandarin. When I saw her again just a few weeks ago, I was already much less confident. In fact I was stunned and embarrassed to have to ask her in English to remind me how to say something relatively basic that I knew well but suddenly couldn’t summon in the middle of a sentence.

With Japanese, things have been even worse. I mixed a couple of Chinese words into a straightforward conversation with a baffled Japanese person in New York the other day, and didn’t even realize until it after I’d walked away, when I played the conversation back in my mind. I studied Japanese first, but I use it much less now. This “splicing” error used to happen a lot in the opposite direction, and it drove my early Chinese teachers crazy.

(On the other hand, many of my Africa interviews were transcribed for me by students or friends in Chinese, and reading them, while quite time consuming, has not been a problem. In fact, it was a lot of fun.)

Last summer, I got to use my Akan in Ghana again, managing to at least bluff my way through many situations (for most people, comprehension decays much less rapidly than speech) and to ingratiate myself to people in many others. It is a near universal rule that people almost always appreciate a sincere effort to speak their language. Unless I retire to a beach in Axim or Elmina, though, I’ll never really speak one of these languages again. Although I worked at them, I never studied them formally, and I’ve let them go for too long. The same is true for Haitian Creole, for which my exposure these days is mostly limited to song (which, it must be said in passing, is an underrated language tool).

For anyone wanting a sense of the process involved in language acquisition, I really enjoyed this article:


3 thoughts on “What does it mean to be fluent?”

  1. Love you post. Didn’t know the term splicing, but it happens to me with my only two African languages (Jula (Dioula) which i’ve been using for 12 years and Amharic – which I started learning 1,5 years ago). It seems my brain has a box for African languages. My other 7 languages (all European) have less of an splicing issue, though Italian sometimes suffers when I am speaking it surrounded by French (and then all the ‘faux amis’ come out).
    Hope to be able to speak either Japanese or Chinese one day. My Chinese for the moment is limited to This is a nice notebook. I am a student. And what are you doing tonight?- I guess it could make for a nice pick up line.

  2. I’ve lived in Shanghai for eight years and have had similar experiences. I still never say I’m fluent, even though I’ve negotiated contracts in Chinese, translated for visitors, and have been complimented on my high level of proficiency. After a month of traveling outside of China and speaking one of my other foreign languages, I return to Shanghai and feel like a beginner again and seem to struggle for the most basic of phrases.

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