Second Language Fluency..not as simple as it seems

Note: wrote this in early August, so it’s two months later that I’m actually posting it.

After a hectic spring and summer, in which I bought an apartment, remodeled and furnished the apartment, got married, found a new job, and will soon celebrate that marriage here in Philadelphia, I suddenly have a day with absolutely nothing pressing that needs to be done. I’d been desperately looking forward to just such a day, and yet now that it’s here I feel like I ought to be doing something constructive. However, rather than doing that, I’ve decided to give a little attention to my long ignored blog.

I had a conversation with my older brother about a month ago while he was in Korea for my wedding, which started with his question, “So are you fluent in Korean now?” The short answer to that question is “No, absolutely not.” But to my family’s eyes I seemed fluent as we made our way through Busan, based on the fact that I had no difficulty whatsoever in handling everyday affairs in Korean. And what’s more, beyond the fulfillment of those simple tasks, they also saw me engaging in simple small talk with Koreans, which normally occurs whenever a Korean meets a foreigner who seems capable of answering their small-talk questions. So, in that light, I have gained a certain degree of fluency.

But my brother’s question didn’t concern degrees of fluency, he just asked whether I was fluent: yes or no? Of course, his question assumes that we know what fluency is; we talk about and use the term in conversation, but if asked to define it, we’d likely be caught up short.

Here in America, anyone born in an English-speaking household will be fluent in English, as demonstrated by the fact that when we speak to them in natural tones at natural rates of speech, they respond in turn. However, if we were to hand them Milton’s Paradise Lost, how much sense of it would the average American make? Or if Milton’s too tough, how about Virginia Woolf (still too tough), Charles Dickens or even the straightforward prose of Jane Austen? Or from another cultural perspective, how much of Mos Def’s hip-hop lyrics would remain vague and ambiguous to many listeners? My guess is, in both cases, quite alot. So how is it that among fluent English speakers, there is so much English that they can’t comprehend? Do we give out the title Fluent too freely, or  is fluency in reality a far more relative, pliable, and ultimately personal term?

When I think of my Korean, I will consider myself fluent when I can pick up the same type of reading materials that I would choose in English and make simple sense of their Korean counterparts. This would include politics, economics, sociology, artistic theory, etc. Unfortunately, I’m nowhere close to that level, and will have to spend a long time learning vocabulary (always the killer) before that dream becomes a reality. Yet what if my language goals were simpler? What if I was happy not reading and instead was content to understand some Korean soap operas and K-Pop lyrics? This second task seems far less intimidating, but can we really negotiate the terms of fluency?

I think the key is to consider for a moment the literal meaning of the term, “fluency,” meaning the quality of running like water, or more simply “flowing.” If our thoughts are simple straight lines, then flowing is a relatively simple task. If, however, our thoughts constitute something more complex – a many-branched, interweaving stream, rising and falling with the contours of a mental landscape – then the process of “flowing” becomes altogether more difficult to decipher, more variegated and the ultimate product not always necessarily visible to the naked eye. The richer the flow of your accustomed language, the more difficult the task of replicating it in a second language, and hence the greater challenge of obtaining fluency in that second language.

Perhaps the better question is to ask an ongoing basis: I am fluent enough for the task at hand? If the answer is becoming increasingly yes, that’s a sign you’re getting better, but also time to strike out into new territory.

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