Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Bilingualism: Are You Fluent?


This is the first post in  what I hope will be a series exploring bilingualism.

The hardest question for me to answer concerning my bilingualism is, naturally, the one I am asked most frequently:

     Are you fluent in (X)?

Such an obvious question, so innocently asked, but without an obvious or easy answer.  I know that the person asking it usually doesn't have the faintest idea how hard it is to answer, nor am I under any mistaken impression that people who ask me want Linguistics 101 for an answer.

You lot, though--all you Internet Folks-- you get Linguistics 101.  And for FREE! (if I understood Dan Airely's Predictably Irrational correctly, saying 'FREE!' like that should make you desperately want what's on offer, whether you actually do or not;-))

So-- am I fluent in Japanese?

Yes.  No.  There!  Gosh, that was easy!  (Sorry)

I'll go out and come in again.

Under the 'Yes' column:  I can understand and make myself understood....
  • in restaurants
  • in supermarkets and stores
  • at doctor's and dentist's offices
  • in train stations (directions and the like)
  • at parent-teacher meetings
  • with friends
  • with random strangers who ask me what I'm looking at when I'm hanging half upside-down, apparently taking photos of grass.  Or concrete. 
  • reading short articles, recipes, things that come home from school
  • writing notes to my kids' teachers or filling out vaccination forms and the like
Sometimes I still have to look up words or circumlocute on the spot (that means "talk around" what I'm trying to say using simpler words and hope the other person gets it and gives me the word I need.).  I mostly understand what people say to me, unless someone is speaking *very* quickly, mumbling, or using excessively polite "Keego" (High-level Polite Japanese, where almost all the words are different from everyday words).  I get the gist of what telemarketers are saying--enough, at least, to figure out that the person on the phone *is* a telemarketer, what they're selling, and to say "no thank you".   When someone comes to our door, and I answer the interphone, they usually assume I'm Japanese (leading to funny shocked looks when I open the door;-).

In the'No' column-- I...
  • still stink at 'Keego' (polite language)
  • fail to understand some things my kids say to me
  • have a hard time sometimes following TV news (depending on the topic-- but especially business/econ, and trying to follow the news about the Fukushima reactors made me tear my hair out)
  • can't really read a newspaper, beyond the basic gist of what an article's about
  • can't write most Kanji reliably correctly (after about 3rd grade level)
  • still haven't passed Level 2 of the Japanese Proficiency Test
That last thing is the result of never having formally studied Japanese, instead learning it on the fly.  By the seat of my pants.  In context.  *Really* in context.  As in, "in the delivery room" kind of context--

Nurse:  Suute... haite!  Suute... haite!  Oshite!
Me:  what??
Yokohamapapa:  She said "Push!"
Me:  Oh!  (uhnnnnnnn....)

Srsly.  That's what has made taking (or, rather, attempting to take) the Proficiency Exam so frustrating for me.

I can speak! (mostly.)  I can understand!  (mostly.)  I can read the Kanji for "Monosodium Glutamate" and "Inoculation"!  I know how to say "umbilical cord", "uterus", "episiotomy", and, for crying out loud, "enema" in Japanese!

And I can't pass that test.

I can sing just about any children's song you care to name.

And I can't pass that test.

I can read and follow a recipe... and get it right.

And I can't pass that test.

Japanese people who talk to me tell me they think I speak 'pera-pera' (fluently), which I take to mean that I speak idiomatically and naturally (mostly).  I sound like a Mom, in other words.

And I still can't pass that damn test.  According to the test-givers, I'm not fluent.  A friend I knew in Tokyo, though, who had studied Japanese at school and could read a newspaper but couldn't talk... and passed the test.  Gosh, I wish they'd test me on the words I know.  To date, though, neither "episiotomy" nor "enema" has appeared on the Proficiency Test...;-))

This is not meant to sound like sour grapes.  I used to teach German at the high school level, and have been frustrated before by the difficulty in giving a paper-and-pencil test to determine 'fluency'.  I have been frustrated, in fact, by the whole exercise of defining what, exactly, constitutes 'fluency'.  As soon as one begins, it proves to be a very slippery concept.  What, exactly, is meant by 'fluent'?  What, exactly, is the definition of 'fluent'?  Is there a single definition of 'fluent'?

I'll leave you to ponder that 'til next time... (next post:  What is 'fluency'?)


  1. I know after 4 semesters of JPNS in college, I was far, far more comfortable reading and writing than ever speaking. Speaking was terrifying. Reading and writing were controllable.

  2. Having my last exam tomorrow, I can appreciate what you say in the last paragraph: it's when you try to define something that you realise how slippery most concepts are! Like reading the exam paper, thinking "OHYEAH I'M GONNA ROCK THIS!!!" and then start writing, and weeping, realising you don't now anything xD It must be about the same to sit down an take a language test, knwoing you can handle yourself in the real world, and then read the test. I understand your frustration! <3

    (Besides, who needs a paper when native Japanese speakers say "pera-pera"? Hm? ;D)

  3. i'm with Summer. And i was always much much better at katakana than kanji.
    I'd love a post about why you first went to Japan and why you chose to stay (though i assume the second one probably has something to do with yokohamapapa...)

  4. Summer-- speaking is terrifying for most people! Being more comfortable with reading/writing than speaking(listening) is something I plan to into in the next post (or the one after that)...
    (hey! are you in your new house?)

    Josephine-- thanks! Nice to know others know what this feels like! Still, would be nice to have the piece of paper...;-) Are you bilingual, J? English/Swedish?

  5. Hi, Sarah! How much Nihongo did you take? (just curious) Yah--the Kana are a lot easier than Kanji. If only the whole language were written in Hiragana... (little kids' books are, though, and are not actually all that easy to read in spite of, or rather because of, the lack of Kanji. Which is weird, but with so many homonymns, the Kanji help differentiate the words).

  6. I know what you mean. I understand French (because my parents speak it fluently) but put me in Paris and I probably wouldn't be able to understand anything but the basics. People talk differently there, and the way my parents speak it might be different from the way other people speak it. I know when I go to the French church I don't understand a word the pastor says. :/

    P.S- I love German culture! You used to be a German teacher? :O Sugoi!!

  7. I think the only concrete thing I'm willing to say is that there is no such thing as pure fluency, that is, fluency meaning absolute, unencumbered communication. I can think of so many times when I've had to clarify something myself (or had to ask someone else to clarify for me) when speaking with a native speaker of the same language and dialect, even of the same general background (age, sex, etc.). Of course we can set certain parameters and guidelines to help establish general rules (usually the rule is intelligibility, can someone else understand what you're trying to say, i.e., are you functional in a language, can you convey meaning and navigate tasks that involve communicative interaction). But I'm sure there are many native English speakers who get tripped up with Shakespeare (just as there are probably many Japanese speakers who get tripped up with keigo or bungo), but they function completely normally in their everyday lives. Are such people not fluent in English (or Japanese)? Understandably, there are certain times where it's useful to set bars, like when someone is learning a new language or when someone has to function in a (for them) foreign language environment. But I'm willing to say that there is no ultimate set of parameters for fluency; its meaning will change depending on the circumstances of the situation and the context of the language use.

  8. Hey Amy, just an FYI, something weird happened and my blog is disabled. I'm trying to find out what happened but just wanted you to know that I'm not vanished!


  9. I get asked all the time here if I am fluent in Dutch, and I don't think I'll ever reach a point when I think that I am. Niek and my in-laws do think that I am fluent, even though I assure you that I am not. I can speak fairly well, read newspapers, and I even handle translating my documents for my research pretty well. Ask me to write an e-mail, however, and I almost break down. I can do it, but it's painful and very slow going. It's all these damn idioms and flavor words I can't seem to wrap my head around. There are so many!

    I think about fluency a lot. I've been researching intellectual networks in early-modern Europe for my dissertation, and all those men seemed to communicate so seamlessly in a myriad of languages. I keep wondering why it was so much easier for them than it is for me. I'm a little jealous of their amazing language acquisition skills.

  10. I'd say you're even trilingual, to attend a German university you'd need a high level fluency. And from the way you write German, your every day fluency is just fine as well.

    My own definition of bi-/multilingualism is that you can switch between languages without even thinking. That's not something you learn from books and in classes, you need contact with native speakers. Reading books in the foreign language helps too. And you need to stop being afraid of making mistakes. I'm relentless in inflicting bad grammar on the unsuspecting reader/listener... Mwaaaaahaaaaha Erm err yeah... My native language is German, I consider myself bilingual with English. I've no problems in most situations. I know I make mistakes, but so do native speakers, so who cares. ;-)

    Most kids in Germany start with English as their first foreign language btw, but without the opportunity to use the language they lose the ability. "Use it or lose it!"

  11. Amy,
    I'm bilingual (Swedish/English), although I do have embarrassing moments when I can't explain genetics in Swedish (learnt it in English) and can't tell the plumber that my tap is dripping because I have no idea how to say that in English! But for the most part I get by all right. Not that I have a fancy certificate to prove my English skills, I got a C on that one? o_O

  12. I've been reading your blogpost and the comments, and fluency is a funny thing, sometimes even a trap. I speak english fairly fluently, but with weird snags. I write british (because that's what I've been taught), with american wording (because that's what I've picked up along the way). My accent fluctuates wildy, and depends on whom I last talked to.

    I spent a year (Fulbright) at grad school in the US (doing ecology, evolution and behaviour), and spoke well enough that I think the other students didn't constantly think of me as a non-native speaker. -To the point where one of my fellow students (American) kept asking me the spelling of words he was struggling with. In the end I asked why, since he was a native speaker. 'But you're allways right', was his response. And true, one of the advanages of learning a language through books is that you tend to photograph the 'look' of a word, and so get the spelling correct. Pronounciation is a whole 'nother can of worms ;-)

    And where fellow Chinese students were apologized for lack of knowledge of English, I think I instead came through frequently as humorless (failing to pick up on ideoms twisted around, subtle jokes). Sometimes even as stupid, when I had to as about pretty basic concepts. Terms I had somehow failed to pick up, never needed, or that had no direct translation into my language (Norwegian). Concepts differ surprisingly much...

  13. Oh, thank you all for such interesting and in-depth comments! I didn't know I had such an international community of commenters--but totally cool! I'm *very* interested to hear about others' language-learning experiences/bilingual experiences or frustrations/language stories!

    Chris-- "no such thing as pure fluency"... *exactly* what I think! Well said!

    Ez-- I didn't know you knew some French, too! Chouette--moi, aussi;-) And, yup--my degree was in Germanic Studies (French minor), and taught high school German. Diana up there was my student many moons ago now:-)

    Diana-- I *always* think I'm less fluent than what other people tell me I am. Flavor words--gah! Those take a while to get ('zwar' in German. OMG--I thought I'd never remember what that word meant and how to use it).

    Monika-- my degree was in Germanic Studies (hab' zwar das Zertifikat Deutsch als Fremdsprach an der Uni Hamburg gekriegt...aber das ist schon lange her...;-)) Ich bin übergefreut dass Du deutsch bist, und wir können uns manchmal auf Deutsch unterhalten, weil es in Japan natürlich wenige Chance gibt, auf Deutsch zu reden...

    Josephine--ha! Know *exactly* what you mean about being able to talk about some things only in one of your languages! That can be...frustrating, to say the least.

    Hege--thanks so much for weighing in! Spelling...I was always good at. Until I went to Germany. Then, for some bizarre reason, I could spell just fine in German, and lost my ability to spell in English (which is a weirdly spelled language anyway, but...). And pronunciation is definitely a whole 'nother can of worms-- which I plan to talk about in a future post. Now I have almost too many post ideas! Dou shiou?

  14. I just let all of you fluent/almost fluent people chime in. Now for a comment from someone who *knows* that she is not fluent in anything but her native English.

    I found all of the comments very enlightening and interesting. Most interesting to me–I understood Amy's comments to Monika even though I could not say all of that myself. I have a little understanding, and I will take comfort from that. I look forward to more posts on the subjest of language.

  15. @Cary (and everybody else)-- don't let her fool you. Cary can speak German quite well, and would get along just fine were she to go to Germany and *have* to use it;-))