Thursday, December 24, 2009
Having just graduated with a B.A. in Japanese, the question is, am I now fluent in the language? People often ask me this. They assume that since I've spent four years studying the language I should have some high level of proficiency in it. This is sadly not the case. I do OK—I have all the basics down and can understand most of what someone says to me—but what I understand still outpaces what I can say, and what I say often comes out haltingly. I remember reading somewhere that getting a degree in Japanese is "a good start." So when will I be fluent?
Perhaps first we should define exactly what fluency is. Is it being able to communicate day to day, bar some extraordinary circumstances like ones that require medical jargon? Or is it being comfortable in any situation, no matter how rare?
Let's ask Oxford. "Able to speak, read or write a language, especially a foreign language, easily and well." Pretty vague, this definition. Let's say I can hold court at my neighborhood bar "easily and well," but a conversation with a doctor or the stone-faced man at the immigration office finds me lacking. Am I fluent? Perhaps my fluency is situation-dependent.
Let's look at the Japanese word for fluent, "pera pera." This is an interesting word because it means fluent, eloquent, glib, etc. but also to blab or go on and on. Where we say "blah blah blah," the Japanese say "pera pera." So in this case, to speak fluently is to have the ability to babble on in a language.
If the latter is my yardstick (and since I'm talking about Japanese it may as well be) I am not fluent. I cannot babble on in Japanese. Not yet. After a year or two living there I am fully confident that I will have reached babble stage. Whether I can babble on with doctors and lawyers and IT specialists is another thing.
How do other foreign language learners define fluency? Or if not fluency, than being comfortable with how much you know of a language? Comments, please.