Have you been learning a foreign language for a few months or a few years? Do you consider yourself to be a speaker of this language? Chances are, you will answer no to this question. This is because it is difficult to determine when one has become fluent in a language. Anna Babel, a linguist who specialises in the relationship between language and culture, dedicated a TED Talk to this question. When are you considered to be a speaker of a language? What does it mean to be fluent in a language? The answers she provides may surprise you…
Do you have to be bilingual to consider yourself as a speaker of a language?
No! It is not necessary to speak a language perfectly to be considered a speaker of that language. In fact, when you think about it, you probably make mistakes when you speak in your own mother tongue. Yet you certainly consider yourself a speaker of your language.
For Anna Babel, being fluent in a language is primarily a matter of cultural perception:
- the way you see yourself in relation to the language you have learned;
- and above all, how others judge your acquisition of the language.
Fluency in a language: a matter of personal judgment
Anna Babel is a Spanish professor in a university. Her students are mostly people who are considered to have an advanced level in the language.
They have an extensive linguistic background and several years of practice behind them. These students are able to follow lessons entirely in Spanish, to write reports in this language … Yet when their professor asks them if they consider themselves to be Spanish speakers, only a very small proportion of them answer yes. Why?
There can be several reasons. The first is that these students started learning the language “late”, and do not consider themselves as good as they could have been if they had learned Spanish at a very young age.
💡 Going further: Is language learning more challenging for adults?
Moreover, experts have found that children who speak Spanish at home and English at school do not see themselves as fluent speakers of these languages. They find themselves in an “in-between” situation, which does not allow them to feel comfortable, either in Spanish or English. It seems that this feeling is related to the way others perceive us…
How others perceive our fluency in a language
Several studies have been conducted to find out whether the way we are perceived by others can alter the way we are perceived as a language speaker.
One of them was conducted at an American university. Two groups of students listened to a recording of the same lecture. The researchers showed the first group a photo of a Caucasian man, indicating that he was the lecturer who had given the lecture. The second group was shown a photo of an Asian lecturer.
Although both groups of students listened to the exact same recording, those in the second group reported that the lecture was less clear, and more difficult to understand. Clearly, the students in the second group did not perceive the lecturer as an English speaker.
It seems that we are influenced by a person’s cultural background in determining whether they can be considered a speaker of a language
Things to remember…
Being fluent in a language is not only a question of level, it is also a question of perception. Therefore, this makes it much more difficult to answer the question “when can we say that we speak a language fluently?”. Indeed, the link between language and culture leads to biases, subjective elements that we cannot control.
Anna Babel says it herself: “Who counts as a speaker of a language? – I don’t really have a simple answer to that question.”
One thing is for sure, the way others look at the way we speak a language can have an effect on the way we see ourselves as speakers. We must therefore put our prejudices aside. Being fluent in a language is more a matter of confidence than of level!
You can watch Anna Babel’s full Talk below 👇
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