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Wednesday, February 16, 2011


Sometimes one sees on a CV a line about foreign languages stating "fluency."  How competent in the language must one be to claim fluency?  The ability to read and write the language is not something that is likely to be tested at an interview, but the ability to speak might be.  How deep a knowledge of the language, what degree of facility, or what, if any, intimacy with a culture in which the language is spoken, is good enough?

Italian is my first language and when I was a kid I spoke it with as much regularity as English.  Over time, my command of the language has become rustier.  I still think that I speak Italian with greater ease than any other language besides English.  And I like to read Italian literature, newspapers, web sites, etc.  And so I call myself fluent in Italian on my CV.

But I'm not really fluent; I'm only fluent in the way that Americans believe themselves to be fluent, in very much the same way that they're sure that they have really gotten to know a foreign culture by having traveled there a few times.  For us, if you studied a language for a few years in school, spent some months in a country in which the language is spoken (generally, "when I was a student"), and are now able to string together a few consecutive responsive and jarringly accented sentences, you've achieved something approaching fluency.  And we are liberal in claiming fluency on our CVs under something like those circumstances.  I don't think it's like that in most of the rest of the world as respects the English language.  Most of the foreigners I know well are Europeans and their knowledge of and intimacy with English on average greatly exceeds our comparative facility with other languages.  The reasons are complex, and perhaps they will change with time. 

But here's my proposal: "fluency" should be reserved for those people who can understand humor and jokes in the language for which they claim it.  If you get -- if you feel yourself to be on the inside of -- the humor of a culture expressed in its own language by natives, then you're fluent.  Of course, under this definition one could be a fluent Spanish speaker and "get" the inside jokes of Mexico, but not Spain.  That's fine -- so long as you can palpate with ease the humorous underbelly of at least one country where the language is spoken.  But if, like most of us, when you are in a group of native speakers who are laughing and nodding knowingly together about some delightful little joke or bon mot, the best you can do is offer a dumb, ignorant grin, hoping that no one will perceive your alien creature status, then you're not fluent.  You should use a label that connotes something less than mastery of the language.  Maybe obfluent, or affluent.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on February 16, 2011 at 03:44 PM | Permalink


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I think that there's a difference between when you understand the significance of and can recognize the bon mot, the inside joke, or the double entendre, but you don't think it's funny. As someone who claims fluency in French, I get most of French humor, but I don't think it's funny. You can understand a culture and/or a language but still not like it or want to participate in it. Being fluent in French and going almost everywhere French is spoken but France, for example, is a way to say, "hey France, be funnier." It's a lot like when I went to several different sorts of metal shows to see if there was anyway that I could like it, but those efforts resulted not only in understanding how people could like it, but also that it's really not for me.

I suggest that the standard should be a relative one. You can claim fluency when you can express your thoughts better than you can in your native language in the foreign one or you often have a significant portion of your thoughts in the subject language. When I came to often express myself better in French than in English (my native language) particularly while speaking, I claim fluency.

Posted by: Matt | Feb 18, 2011 9:54:42 AM

I often (though not always) get jokes in Russian, and can sometimes make them, but I'd not call myself fluent as 1) when I read many things I need a dictionary pretty soon, 2) I make a lot of grammatical errors, 3) I'm so much slower in Russian than English that it interactions with me are clearly different from someone who is a native speaker or who is truly fluent.

Posted by: Matt Lister | Feb 17, 2011 6:58:33 AM

More great comments, thanks Joe and TJ. TJ, I agree about the inherent imprecision of these categories, but I still think that there are cultural factors which somehow make the nature of the imprecision generally more acute in the US than in other countries (that is, we are apt to believe and say that we are more linguistically capable than we actually are than are people from other countries).

It's interesting also that you would equate Klingon and Latin. I actually include (or maybe I got rid of it) "ability to read Latin" on my CV. After 6 years of Latin in high school and another 3 in college, I figured it ought to find a place in there somewhere. And, nerd that I am, I even sometimes will translate a passage or two from Roman writers I really like -- Cicero and Horace especially. So while I agree that there is no present Latin culture (sniff, sniff), I wonder whether it's possible to be familiar with an extinct culture in a way that it is not possible to be familiar with an imaginary culture.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 17, 2011 6:29:52 AM

My wife is a languages and lit prof in a foreign (Romance) language. She, like all of her colleagues, is fluent in her particular language -- to the point where when we go out in her adopted country, we often hear waitstaff arguing over whether she is native or not. (My grasp of the language is "conversational" on its best day.)

I can confirm that the "native" vs. "fluent" distinction holds in her field. Everyone speaks the language effortlessly with little or no accent, and most get the jokes -- almost everyone has spent multiple years over there, after all. It's just a question of what language you think in. My wife, even at the height of a six month research trip, mentally translates everything she hears (or says) into (or from) the foreign language. It's the exact opposite or native speakers.

Posted by: Joe | Feb 17, 2011 12:52:42 AM

Marc, in more seriousness, I think you are observing two phenomena. The first is inflation, in that we all tend to overstate our competence in something to the extent we can make it plausible. The second is that there is no single metric to measure competence in language, since it is an aggregation of various factors like technical competence (in reading, writing, speaking, and listening), cultural familiarity, and also context (e.g. are you looking for a translator for going to restaurants or to translate scientific journals). But I think there is not much to be done about this problem, and we just have to live with the imprecision. For example, to emphasize cultural familiarity means that no one can be fluent in Latin or Klingon. And to emphasize technical competence still requires some weighing of the various aspects. For example, suppose we have someone who can read at a college level, speak conversationally at a high school level, and cannot write a word. How technically competent would that person be?

Posted by: TJ | Feb 17, 2011 12:13:09 AM

Thanks to all for comments.

TJ, before your comment, I would never have thought that "half-baked" was an appropriate adjective to describe you. But as for my post, I don't think it fits either. I don't know about either your linguistic abilities or your sense of humor (we haven't had drinks yet), but I suspect neither is half-baked.

Jeff, wonderful.

Patrick, I only use effluent for emotional explosions and auspicious scatological experiences.

Will, maybe that's right, but on my CV, I use "proficient" where I really couldn't carry on a very good conversation at all, but can, with some amount of inelegant struggle, translate what a waiter said in answer to one of my friend's questions about a menu item. That's more than a few clicks down from 'I can speak it well.' Plus, proficiency is such an ambiguously mediocre level of ability (is it more, less, or the same as competency...and how crappy is competency?) that to me it basically suggests something like "I'm sort of able to inquire after food and shelter in foreign lands."

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 16, 2011 9:00:39 PM

In all seriousness, isn't why people describe themselves on their resumes as "proficient" in a foreign language? I thought that was the commonly-used code word for I-can-speak-it-but-short-of-fluency.

Posted by: William Baude | Feb 16, 2011 8:14:38 PM

I've been accused of being effluent in English.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Feb 16, 2011 7:35:11 PM

Marc, under your standard I (someone born Chinese who spent two-thirds of his childhood in Australia and moved to the US as an adult) am not fluent in any language. I am half-baked in the culture of all of these countries.

Posted by: TJ | Feb 16, 2011 6:48:10 PM

By the way, Dan, under your definition, my wife, born and raised in the Detroit area, is not fluent in English because she has consistently claimed for 34 years that she has not gotten a single joke I've made.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Feb 16, 2011 5:46:07 PM

In my former world, the definition of fluency was whether you could conduct a business meeting in the language.

Could you teach a class in the language? That's the real test, isn't it?

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Feb 16, 2011 5:43:10 PM

Adam and Dan, thanks. Dan, maybe, but I've always thought that a "native" speaker is someone who was born in and/or was raised and lived for a long time in a country where a language is spoken, and who then moves from that country in adulthood elsewhere. But maybe Orly would disagree (I know how superb her English writing is, and can only guess at how witty she must be).

What I'm after is a term for the person who isn't native-born but can interact with natives on their own cultural terms. 'The Return of the Native' back home wouldn't count. But I like very much the increased degree of joke-making difficulty that you propose.

Posted by: Marc DeGirolami | Feb 16, 2011 5:37:09 PM

Marc, my sense is that the word you're looking for is: "native."
Our own beloved Orly, I believe, lists Hebrew and English as native, and she rightly does so b/c she (almost) always get the jokes. It strikes me that the distinction between native and fluent sufficiently captures what you're after.

FWIW, the better litmus test would be not whether you get the jokes but whether you make the jokes. That's a good test of linguistic confidence if not competence!

Posted by: Dan Markel | Feb 16, 2011 4:46:45 PM

"That's fine -- so long as you can palpate with ease the humorous underbelly of at least one country where the language is spoken."

Well, there's certainly no question about your fluency in English.

Posted by: Adam Scales | Feb 16, 2011 3:58:40 PM

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