I recently finished reading Michael Erard’s Babel No More, and found it to be an enjoyable read. Erard ended up not having any definitive answer to his question (what makes the best language learners?), but it still covered all sorts of things that should tickle most language learners. It was also cool to be reading about people that I’ve interacted with on the web, like Ardaschir or Iversen from the HTLAL forums.
One thing he talks about at length is fluency, how it’s defined, and, frankly, whether it’s important or not (hint: in most real life scenarios, it’s not, at least not in the way we often think of fluency). Something he discusses that really struck me was how different groups of people think about knowing a language, and what that means. Specifically, in America, many people seem to equate “I speak Spanish” with “I speak Spanish fluently, just like a native speaker.” Obviously this is quite wrong, but it’s still a pretty common idea. It’s led many people to have a very all-or-nothing idea about languages; you either know German – the whole damn thing, all of it – or you don’t know anything.
Other places around the world have a much more practical idea of language, seeing it as a tool that you use for whatever you need it for, when you need it. Nothing more, nothing less. Erard called this the “something-and-something” model, the basic idea being that even having tiny bits of language can help you in the right circumstances. In some places, you may need to know a bit of Hindi for doing business, and that’s all you need – you don’t need to also be reading Hindu literature. Similarly, you might need to know a bit of another language where you work, and not need it anywhere else. That’s okay, too. It’s not really about collecting a bunch of languages where you can fake being a native, it’s just about being functional.
Granted, I’ve long known that language learning isn’t an all-or-nothing affair; there’s not a finish line, one which, after you cross it, you put away your books and your media and all of your other goodies and say, “Well then, I’m glad I’ve now learned all of that!” Of course it doesn’t work that way (if it did, I wouldn’t write posts like my last one!). But the bits in Erard’s book that discuss functioning in a language do give me pause and make me look at what I can do with the languages I’ve puttered about with, instead of always obsessing about the things I can’t do. Even if I said I was done with learning German, I could still do a hell of a lot with it, and that in and of itself is beneficial to me.
For a long time, I sort of approached my language interests with the goal of becoming as competent as a native speaker, to be able to pass as a native if I suddenly found myself in a country that spoke whatever language I was studying. As of late, the more I look at that idea, I ask myself – why? What’s the point, besides it being an interesting parlor trick? If I can do what I want to do with the languages I’m learning, that will work for me.