Babel No More

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.


By |2013-11-22T14:43:44+00:00November 21st, 2013|Language Learning|5 Comments


  1. Natalie November 22, 2013 at 1:22 am - Reply

    I read the book, too, and I really liked it. I may have reviewed it – I don’t remember and am too lazy to go look for the link. 🙂

    I base my language goals depending on what language it is. For Russian, I want to sound as native as possible. That’s always been a personal goal of mine ever since I started learning. For Ukrainian and Belarusian, I know I’ll probably never be mistaken for a native. (My speech is too Russified or Anglicized, depending on who you ask.) I can get by in those languages and that’s fine with me.

    • Josh November 22, 2013 at 8:35 am - Reply

      Yeah, I’m moving more and more towards basing my goals depending on what language it is. With German, I’d still love to be able to fake being a native, or at least do everything a native could do, for the most part. My other languages, I don’t really aspire to that, because I know I’d need multiple lifetimes to pull it off. 🙂 If I can stumble around in them, that’s fine.

      (And yes, you did review it, right here 🙂 )

  2. IronMike December 8, 2013 at 3:54 pm - Reply

    I spent many years in the U.S. military, and I can say there is a prevalent theory in leadership that once you’ve graduated the Defense Language Institute, you’re fluent. It is just assumed. They also assume that if you’ve tested at a 2/2/2 (S/L/R) level, then you’re proficient enough to do whatever Uncle Sam needs you to do and you need no more training.

    This comes up when folks with 2/2/2 or higher in language, who don’t use it for years, then ask for monies to go somewhere for language training/maintenance. “But you’ve already gone to DLI. Why do you need more language training?” Any attempt to equate language to something the leader knows (Sir, do you still remember the Calculus you did a decade ago?) are passed off as just another servicemember looking for a boondoggle to a nice location for training. God forbid if the poor guy lost proficiency and needs to maintenance training to maintain his qualifications!

    Worse, I think, is the assumption by various leaders that those who have high scores (3/3/3) are fluent, and thus can be called upon to act as interpreter when the premier Russian doctor/expert in women’s health issues visits the base. Yes, that happened.

    More to the point of your post, I am with you. Long ago I decided to not worry about becoming fluent. I want to be functional in very limited circumstances, most of them tourist-y. If I can ask for a beer in all my languages, and manage basic bar-room conversations, along with what I call “Berlitz level” language (asking directions, ordering food, getting a hotel), then I am happy, and can move on to another language.

    Love the blog; added you to my daily read.

    shade-tree linguist
    “I’ve never met a language I didn’t want to learn”
    (…with apologies to Will Rogers)

    • Josh December 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm - Reply

      Hey Mike,

      Thanks for your insight! The high scores = interpreter thing rings home, for sure. Yes, I can speak German and read some stuff; no, I cannot understand every single thing in German, by a long shot!

      Glad you enjoy my blog. Thanks for reading!

  3. Robert December 19, 2013 at 5:30 pm - Reply

    Hey Josh –

    Interesting thoughts about fluency. Kind of fits in with the whole idea of getting away from a perfectionist learning method that is prevalent in schools. Why would I want to know how to say, “the rabbit is on the stool”? How does that help me in real life? Why should you need to know everything a native speaker knows? It’s likely that there are words native speakers only use once or twice in a lifetime, so it is totally inefficient to learn it.

    Makes more sense to be able to talk to a real person about things that might come up in daily life. If you can get your point across (even with the help of a few English words or hand gestures), you’re golden.

    I believe it’s all about communication, not dissecting turn of the millennium philosophical works in your target language.


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