Sunday, February 5, 2012

Not Fluent, Stop Asking

Photo from this site

It's been 5 1/2 years. 5 1/2 years of learning Chinese - with some extended breaks, but make no mistake, I learned on those breaks, too. I suppose you could count that tortured year in China in 2002 when I taught myself basic survival Chinese, but looking back, I have to wonder. I feel now as though I knew nothing then. At this point, especially as it's clear that I do speak Chinese, although not perfectly, I get a lot of people asking me "You must be fluent, huh. What's that like?" or "So, are you fluent?"

I never know how to answer them. Am I fluent? I personally would say "no", but I don't really know because I don't know what "fluent" means in real terms. Am I fluent in that I can go an entire day and speak/read/write/hear nothing but Chinese with no problem? Yes. Am I fluent in that I can read, I dunno, Confucius? Hell to the NO. Am I fluent in that I don't make mistakes? Of course not.

After five years of mostly self-study, should I be? I don't know. I'd certainly speak at a "higher level" if I'd continued to study hard and attend Shi-da, but I met plenty of people at Shi-da at my level or above who were too nervous or just not, ahem, "fluent" enough to get sentences out that come easily to me, so I don't know.

So, let's explore this whole "fluency" thing.

The idea that "fluency" in a foreign language isn't something that can be measured easily, nor are the metrics to determine it agreed on by any stretch has been pretty well covered online and in the many conversations serious language learners have with each other.

There are some who believe that you're only fluent if you can communicate flawlessly - think on the level of interpreters or native speakers of more than one language. There are others who feel that if you can converse and basically communicate what you need to and get by in day-to-day life vis-a-vis spoken and written communication, even if you make mistakes, then that means you're fluent. Still others have what I view as a warped idea that if you're able to read, write, analyze, do research in and know the classical background of a language, than regardless of how well your speaking of that language flows, then that means you're fluent. A teacher at Shi-da's Mandarin Training Center once told me that if you complete all five books in their series and do fairly well, then you count as "fluent".

Well, let me tell you, I'm on the last book - Book 5 (I never took the class for it, but I own it and have flipped through it and there is a lot that I already know, plus a few things I need to learn) - and I don't feel as close to this "fluency" thing as this teacher confidently asserted I should.

By the first definition, I will never be fluent in Chinese. I can study and study, but I'm never going to reach a point where I speak it, ahem, flawlessly - but then, what does "flawlessly" even mean? Some snob in Beijing might listen to a perfectly fluent native speaker of Chinese from Taipei and proclaim that her Chinese is not "flawless". I might be able someday to interpret Chinese into English, but probably never the other way around. I'll always have a "different", non-native sounding way of speaking it. 

But then, by this definition students of mine who speak far better English than I do Chinese - who have done Master's and even PhD degrees abroad - are not "fluent" because they still make mistakes. I have a friend who got an Master's in the USA and still forgets to put verbs in the past tense occasionally. I have a student - a psychiatrist - who got her PhD at Cambridge and who still makes occasional mistakes or says things in a clearly non-native way or  using awkward grammar, and who doesn't always know just the right adjective or noun for specialized words ("incomprehensible" was on her vocabulary review list recently). With the grammar mistakes she makes - never big, always at a high level, but still noticeable - many language assessment ratings wouldn't put her at an advanced level; she's currently placed in high intermediate (although I teach her as though she's advanced).

But dude, she got her PhD at Cambridge. Can you really say she's "not fluent"?

I have plenty of students who score, in terms of vocabulary range and grammar knowledge, in the mid-intermediates. I'd say it's the biggest group of learners I encounter, and that there are barriers in language learning that keep many language learners at that level. Here's the thing - they make mistakes. They use prepositions of time all wrong, and forget all sorts of tenses and other bits of speech - like conditionals and reported speech - come out a bit wonky (although generally their point is clear). But they can get by just fine. They can handle - and often have handled - life in an English speaking country just fine (although they all claim it's a struggle - well, duh. Sometimes communicating in Chinese in Taipei is a struggle for me. I don't think that ever goes away). They can converse, they can make themselves clear, they can understand spoken English face-to-face. At times it's hard for me to judge how much their understanding is based on grading of my speech, because I now grade my speech almost subconsciously. I would guess that rapid English from one native speaker to another, if it were two people conversing, would be generally understandable but more challenging, with some missed meaning in idioms and nuance. They can generally read just about anything at a higher level than I can read Chinese, but that's hardly surprising. Anyone learning Chinese as a second language feels my pain, my beautiful torment! Other than in obvious spoken mistakes - which rarely obscure meaning - the only time one might question the fluency of these students of mine is in watching television or movies or trying to discern song lyrics.

Which, you know, is just about where I'm at. There are some differences: I tend to know a lot more Chinese slang and idiomatic speech than my students know in English (although they constantly surprise me: once I was discussing "charisma" in political leaders with a student and mentioned Bill Clinton. "Even after the Republicans tried to push him out of office..." Student: "Oh, I know! Because of a blowjob!" I produce a fountain of spurting coffee from my nose). I can understand bits of casual conversation between native speakers more easily. I can produce Chinese without having to translate from English in my head. If someone speaks to me in Chinese, Chinese comes out of my mouth in reply without a second thought. This isn't surprising, given that I'm learning on my own in an immersion environment and pick up most of my Chinese from friends. 

They tend to know higher level / business / professional language and read far better than I can - again, not surprising as English is, I believe, easier to read than Chinese and they use their English skills for work, not socializing. It still stuns me how few of my Taiwanese friends have other foreign friends besides me - although some certainly do, and how rarely I come across a student who answers in the affirmative when I ask if they have foreign friends. Colleagues, business partners, acquaintances, yes - friends? Not really.

So, I need to work on more formal Chinese and business Chinese (and reading/writing!) and they need to work on more casual, quick, no-head-translations-please English with a wider range of vocabulary.

But, generally speaking, I can live my life in Chinese without much problem. I can call repairmen, go to B&Q, order food (even foreign food), talk about all sorts of topics from economics to geography to religion to media to history to basic office matters and more (I remain weak in sports, but even in English I don't care about sports). I haven't tried yet but I suspect I could pull off a job interview in Chinese, albeit with mistakes. I can more or less follow the news, although I know I miss a great deal of nuance and pick up a lot from the accompanying visuals. I can do an informal business presentation in Chinese (and have) and can follow other presentations. I can participate in and head a Q&A session in Chinese (and have). I can't read that well when it comes to newspapers or books but I can and do interact with friends on Facebook in Chinese - including fairly meaty posts and messages. I can type just fine but my writing is...well, I can fill out forms and write short notes and postcards by hand, but not much more. I'd feel bad about this, but I have plenty of students who routinely forget how to write even basic characters by hand. I feel ever so vanquished when one student turns to another and asks, "how do you write putao (grape) in Chinese?") THANK YOU.

I know where this places me, and my various students, on the scale of typical "levels" in any given language, but where does it put us in terms of fluency - which I have come to believe is a separate thing?

I don't know. I know that, no matter what Shi-da says, I'm not as close to my ideal of fluent as their system implies. I know that, while my students make intermediate-level mistakes, that while they may not believe it's true, I know that they can get along in an English-speaking environment. 

I personally believe that I'll feel "fluent" when I can turn on the news, move away from the TV and do something else, and still understand in a fair amount of detail what's going on without having to look at the visuals. The other day I had to get a knife refurbished as it had developed a bit of rust (and it was a very expensive knife) -  I could explain that my knife had a problem - here, take a look! - and could you please fix it, but the word "rust" eluded me. When I came to this cafe earlier, I told them that I did not want a particular seat as my backpack would  jut out into the hallway and people could trip over it. I managed to make myself clear, but fairly awkwardly and certainly with a few mistakes. When I can get through exchanges like these with total confidence - even if there are a few mistakes - I'll feel fluent. When I can look at a menu of foreign food and read off my selection perfectly - not nearly perfectly except for that one character I don't know, dammit! What IS that? Oh but they know what I mean - I'll feel fluent. When I can read a blog post clearly or get the gist of a newspaper article in greater detail (I can get the gist now, but basically detail-free), I'll feel fluent. When the number of workarounds I need to make a point clear are diminished considerably - and it becomes a tool I employ rarely rather than fairly often - I'll feel fluent.

When will that be? I don't know. I work towards it, but I do it in my own rambling way.

Do I ever aspire to speak flawlessly? No. I have no aspirations toward interpreting English into Chinese for official purposes, and I have no aspirations to academia in Chinese. Cool as it would sound - yeah, well, I'm totally a professor of Chinese, so there! - I know that's not the path for me. My relationship with the language has always been more street-level, more everyday, less academic. I *heart* academia, but as an abstract, not as a career goal. At heart I'm a traveler and a networker, an adventure-seeker and an organic learner. I am not a researcher and not someone who believes you can put the strictures on language that so many academics would like to put on it. 
Do I aspire to speak more comfortably? Yes. I'm not sure if, after five and a half years, I've missed some benchmark that I could have hit if I'd only studied harder, or if my organic "it happens when it happens and I am learning" approach has done me more good.

I just don't know, but it's all worth thinking about.

So if you, too, are not fluent and wish people would stop asking as though fluent were a concept whose metrics everyone agreed on or as though there was a benchmark, rather than a scale, of fluency -  don't beat yourself up. You're not alone. I'm here, too!


Alec said...

Subscribed recently to your blog and I enjoy your writing. Sounds like we have a similar level in Mandarin, but being back in the UK now I often get asked the "Are you fluent?" question. The only answer I can give is "What's fluency?" which is a frustrating answer for friends and family, but the only honest answer!

Klaus said...

Hey, you just described my own feelings about my level of Chinese - only better than I could put it. Thank you!

I like to tell people who ask me how it is possibe to learn Mandarin at all that you do not have to be born a genius or have any special talent for languages, the important thing is to just keep going, continuously learning, and you are bound to gradually improve. 持之以恆!

ordinary malaysian said...

If you are not fluent in Mandarin, then it seems that you are doing fine anyway. Fluency to me doesn't equate perfection. A person can be fluent in a language and yet he can still make mistakes. The important thing is to be able to get across what you want to say and be understood, be able to read and understand basically what is it that you have read. Mandarin is very pictorial. It is easier to recognize a written/printed character than to be able to remember and write it correctly yourself. This is true with the Chinese people themselves. That is why Chinese primary school pupils are made to practise writing a Chinese character over and over again in the hope of imprinting it in their memory. Do not despair. If you have reached this stage of fluency studying the language on your own, you should give yourself a pat on the back. Mandarin is hardly the easiest language in the world to master. 加油! Forget the language snobs. There are many Chinese Malaysians who are surely fluent in Mandarin, but I am sure that there will be snobs who think they aren't. Laughable! Nice post though.

David said...

There are ways of measuring fluency. The ILR scale is an example and is used by the US State Department.

Jenna Cody said...

The fact that there's an ongoing discussion in language teaching circles about what fluency even means makes me suspicious of anyone who claims they can "measure" it. How can you measure something that the educators themselves can't define, and why should one trust what those who "measure fluency" define as "fluency" at all?

cephaloless said...

presentations and Q&A, impressive!

I'm fortunately enough to have experienced ILR for a few years and I got to say that it is hard. I wouldn't call it a good scale to determine fluency unless making 1+ equals "fluent" because I think that's where I would put it.

Let me give a little of my background. My family moved from Taiwan to the US when I was in grade school. There after my limited chinese proficiency has been maintained/improved by tv, home life, some books, and now my chinese wife and blogs. My verbal and reading skills are ok but writing is not (3 years of practice didn't stick ordinary malaysian).

I managed to pull a 3+ listening and 3+ reading last time I took the chinese-mandarin test (it took a second upper level test after attaining 3/3). I might have done better if I could have some coffee in the testing room but it was long and hard. I didn't even have time to finish the reading portion. The lower level test was easy compared to this.

Coming from learning english initially as a foreign language (though I consider it my "native" language now), I suggest fluency to be this fuzzy line you cross when you stop translating from your "native" language to the learned language in your head and simply think in the language, mistakes and all. After all, how many of us english speakers speak/read/write like an english major PhD? And we definitely know native speakers who don't seem to as fluent as a foreign student of english, even with the foreign accent :-P

YT said...

I feel the words "fluency" and "level" (when applied to language learning) do not have consistent definitions. I think both are dependent on if you're able to do whatever it is you want to do with that language. Don't worry about other people's perceptions.

I grew up with Chinese and English. For me, fluency is that I think in the language that I'm using. It's also that I'm confident using either language. I switch back and forth on a whim depending on the situation. I've achieved that ability because it's a necessity, not because of any classes or tests.

Wade Kaardal said...

Jenna, Love reading your blog. My girlfriend is a Chinese teacher here in Taiwan. I showed her your blog and she noticed the picture of Audio-Visual Chinese Book 5. She was just wondering what your thoughts on the series were.

Jenna Cody said...

I don't care for it, Wade. I feel the units are poorly designed - the few activities they contain are not that interesting, and the massive amount of vocabulary per unit places an undue burden on teachers to get through all of those words, leaving little time for activities (which I'd hope would be better than the ones in the book). There isn't enough in the book to aid with practice of the grammar points, and minor grammar/sentence structure points get equal weight as far more important ones...although the most important ones, such as use of 就, get broken up into sections and taught gradually, which is good. The book leaves it almost entirely up to teachers to come up with ways to practice, and at Shi-da at least, they rarely if ever do. In an entire semester at Shi-da I think the teacher threw maybe fifteen discussion questions at us, if that.

The grammar points are also not clearly explained - and when I've been confused the teachers haven't been much help. I just ignore the formulas because they don't work for me - it's just gibberish that doesn't improve my actual speaking and use of the structure, but other than that they usually just provide one or two examples. Not good enough if you ask me.

I also feel that the vocabulary taught varies wildly in usefulness. Some really necessary words aren't taught until too far in, and a lot of words taught earlier on aren't that necessary. Overall, I find the words and structures taught tend to be too formal - I don't mind learning 幸會, for example, but the book doesn't really clarify enough that this is not a common expression and only used in very formal circumstances (and sometimes not even then). The teachers are no help - I'm in corporate training and my husband used to be - and we hear businesspeople of all ages and levels speaking Chinese constantly, and between my husband and I we've heard 幸會 once in 5 1/2 years. The teacher insists that it's common in, no, it's not. I'm around those folks a lot more often than she is. So...why is it taught in the first book? Is it really so necessary that it needs to be taught before words like "soap" or "boring"?

The same for structures: the books claim that the way to say that something is nonsensical or illogical is "哪裡有 [這件事] 的道理?", which is true, you can say that, but nobody does. It's far too over-wrought. Why teach that super-formal, funny-sounding construction when "有什麼道理" is fine? (幹嘛/幹嗎 is also taught, but later on, and not given that much weight as a common expression).

So...while there's a lot of good stuff to learn in there, generally speaking I'm not a fan.