Fluent Enough – A guest post


Having just gotten back from getting my CELTA done (which definitely requires some blogging on!), I’m now well on my way to get back into blogging with a bang! What better way than to start off with a guest post from a lovely friend of mine, Anthony Vaughan?

Let me fill you in about this person. Anthony is a teacher and a teacher trainer who has taught both in Kuala Lumpur and Bali over the last few years. He blogs at www.anthonyvaughan.com/category/blog/. Among the things that has left such a lasting impression of working with him is his ability to pick up languages so fast! Anthony spoke Malay (Malaysian’s official language) so fluently that I was always left in awe. In fact, he even managed to pronounce words exactly the way it sounds and spoke pidgin Malay so well too! He, obviously, became a favorite among many of us here. I have always been curious as to how he managed to learn Malay so fast and so well, and invited him to write a post on my blog. And here he is – presenting to you the wonderful post entitled “Fluent Enough”  by Anthony Vaughan. A very interesting read, I assure you! And of course, please do leave your thoughts here, and he’ll definitely get back to you 🙂

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I find languages to be fascinating. I love the sounds. Even more than that, people who have grown up speaking more than one language intrigue me. I used to sit in the office and listen to Ratna (the owner of this blog who has so kindly asked me to contribute this piece) speaking to her colleague in a mixture of English, Malay and Tamil. Their hearty laughter told me that when using three languages to communicate simultaneously, conversations become three times as funny.

This is the backstory to this post. I asked my friend Ratna to write for my blog about this trilingual phenomenon. In turn, she has asked me how someone who grew up speaking only one language has managed to pick up multiple languages so fast.

It’s a good question. Most people learning languages want to learn fast. They want to learn to be fluent. They want to learn everything in the language. So they can say: “I’m fluent.”

Then I would ask, what does “fluent” mean? Being fluent means different things to different people.

For me, it means that if I’m in a foreign country, I can do everything I need to do during the day using that language. If I’m studying at a University in France and I can understand my lectures, I’m fluent. Or should I say fluent enough. If I’m an English teacher in a foreign country and I can order food and speak to colleagues about simple things, then I’m also fluent enough.

Maybe for other people, being fluent means learning all the grammar rules of the language and knowing thousands of vocabulary items. But then, would you ever become fluent if you were not a native speaker. That’s no fun. Outside of professional contexts, it’s funny when you’re not fluent, because you have to lose a bit of yourself to communicate your meaning. Or laugh when you can’t communicate what you mean.

I met Ratna when I was working with her in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. She tells me she is quite impressed with how quickly I became “fluent” in Malay. (Thank you for the compliment Ratna. You’re too kind!) So, here I am, sharing with you that my fluency is part illusion, part “cutting to the chase”.

Cutting to the chase

For me, I start with the sounds in the language. The languages I have learned generally have some sounds which are the same as English. You can eliminate those sounds from your study as you can already make them. Even Chinese, which admittedly I failed to learn, has some corresponding sounds, though don’t get me started on those tones.

Next, you need to have fun trying to copy the weird sounds which do not exist in your own language. Your mouth has never made them before. So you have to work out which muscles are doing what. You need to know what your mouth should look like. Native speakers will find this endlessly hilarious and as accurately as you manage to do it, they’ll possibly tell you its still wrong. I blush a lot at this point, but it’s worth it. Later on, as you’ve progressed with the language and speak it more often, your own mouth muscles will start to remember the new positions and eventually you’ll be able to do it. And if not, it doesn’t really matter. But if you can, well done!

Then, study a bit of grammar. I studied linguistics in a past life, so I do enjoy this part. If you don’t, you might need to find a cheat guide, like the condensed subject guides that university students read before exams. It should give you an overview of the grammar and the parts that are different from English. If you can’t find one, try Wikipedia. But do go too crazy. When you are in country, you don’t actually use a lot of the complex grammar that is taught in school foreign language classes. Or you can find a short cut. There is often more than one grammatical way to say the same thing. As long as you can understand it, it’s enough. Just learn the grammar necessary between past, present and future. If there is more than one of each tense, just learn the easiest one first. That way, at least you can distinguish between different periods of time. Some languages are not so fixated on this like in English, so if they don’t, just take note of that and work out how they do differentiate the time (it might be just contextual or using clear time words like “yesterday” or “tomorrow”, as in Malay and Indonesian).

Next, learn some vocabulary. Just enough vocabulary. Don’t learn too much. I have heard it said that you can remember 7 to 8 new words in a study session. So don’t waste your energy learning thousands too quickly, it will take time.

Finally, pretend that you know what’s going on most of the time. This is the “illusion” part I eluded to. The concept of fluency depends on how you define it and your language goals. For example, if you just want to buy some rice from a street vendor, you can smile, point at a picture and then say thank you in the local language. That will be enough to get the ball rolling. Later on, you can try some simple sentences. If you give the illusion that you can understand more than you can, people will speak to you more. This will give you a chance to hear the sounds more and to practice the little that you have learned. Overtime, you start to learn more. Then you will be fluent enough. Whatever that may be for you.

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