A while back I was at the wake of another family funeral. During the usual rounds of catch up, there was a rumble of interest about my decision to buy an apartment in another country. This seemed to settle in people’s minds that I was integrated, assimilated, and long gone from England.
“You’ve lived there for 6 years? You must be fluent in…what is it, Dutch?”
“Danish.” I replied.
They widened their eyes and nodded, seemingly impressed. I nodded back, before quickly changing the subject.
Since moving to Denmark indefinitely in 2012, the question of fluency is a recurring theme from both family in England and the Danes themselves. Do I speak Danish? How often do I speak Danish? Who do I speak Danish too? How did I learn Danish?
Depending on the day, I can impress Danes with my language skills. They tell me how well I speak, and say I am clearly fluent. On other days I am exhausted by the barrage of questions and parade on in English, explaining that, yes, I understand what they’re saying, but no, I don’t feel comfortable speaking in Danish on the phone/at work/at the overcrowded dinner table just yet.
For those that don’t speak a second language, the hazy goal of “fluency” seems perfectly attainable. Surely you move there, listen to the language every day and poof! You wake up one morning speaking rapidly in a foreign tongue?
This trope is well entrenched. One example that sticks is the Simpsons episode where Bart spends a montage of weeks trapped in France with two horrible winemakers. He can’t speak to anyone to complain about his problems, so eventually, in his broken down misery, he spouts his frustration to a policeman in perfect French.
These montage movie moments make languages seem - although grueling to begin with - ultimately relatively simple. It’s all about immersion. Like a child, you will eventually absorb enough to speak to others.
I was also part of this fallacy. Before I moved to Denmark I thought if I just put in the effort with Danish I would be fluent in no time.
Aha. Not quite. I have since learnt that “fluency”, the ability to speak or write in a foreign language easily and accurately, is an incredibly slippery term. And that humans have a very short memory when it comes to the long journey of learning our first language — our mother tongue.
When you are born you hear language clearly for the first time. This language means nothing to you. But from that day forward, your job is to master it.
In that first year you begin to absorb the meaning of some words, perhaps forming some sounds of your own. You move your tongue in an attempt to copy the letters and tone. People laugh in delight at your attempts, your silly young mouth not quite there yet. But you’re trying, at least. They know it’s hard.
As you progress to your second year, you finally start to understand something. Phrases, tone, intonation. And you can now say many different phrases related to your own needs. Your pronunciation needs work, but nevertheless, you are adorable. Your lack of finesse is met with smiles and laughs, never-ending repetition and encouragement.
By the age of three or four you are really coming along. You can’t talk about anything complicated, but if you want to demand something is brought to you, you can do this no problem. You have also honed topics that interest you. Dinosaurs, Paw Patrol, iPads, Christmas. Your grammar is appalling, but people have the decency and patience to constantly repeat things back to you. So you start to absorb the rhythm of the language, the way words are properly pulled together.
Finally, you master speaking. You even start to read, though there are vast oceans of words that are still beyond your comprehension. The words “verb, noun and pluperfect” mean nothing to you. But you battle on regardless, absorbing more and more. Some phrases you use, some you don’t. But you find your niche, your way with words. You pick up accents and dialects and ways to manipulate language to make it sound funny to the trained ear. You do not consider your language ability a skill, purely a long formed absorption, a normal part of life. And a huge part of your identity.
Until the day you meet another language. You see the jumble of letters or symbols on the page and realise that all you have learnt is just one in a vast array of different uses of the human voicebox. And that now, somehow, you are going to have to do it all again.
As an adult. A busy, supposedly intelligent adult who can definitely feel embarrassment and is definitely not cute anymore.
Unsurprisingly, I know many people who speak more than one language. For one, nearly all Danes speak English well. This is mostly due to early exposure and the many British and American shows that are shown un-dubbed on Danish television. They speak easily and accurately, and can switch quickly between the two languages when needed.
Still, many Danes argue that their English needs work. My Danish friends, for example, have confessed they don’t feel like themselves in English, their humour and personality lost in translation. And when writing, they still struggle with the complicated and inexplicable grammar rules. So although they clearly speak two languages, many would not call themselves fluently “bi-lingual”.
I also know people who learnt two languages from birth, their accents imperceptible. These people, surely, must be fluent in two languages?
Not necessarily. When asked if they have a preference, many told me they feel one of their mother tongues is sharper than the other. One friend brought up in a Danish/French household felt their Danish was “at the level of a 12 year old” since that was when they stopped using it every day.
Indeed, many people I know from Spain who were brought up in Spanish/Galician or Spanish/Basque households feel they have lost the ability to speak comfortably in their regional language due to the dominance of Castillian Spanish.
In fact, if you ask around, you will find the vast majority of people who speak more than one language will always have one that they prefer, one they feel they have better control over, and one they feel truly “fluent” in. The other, although not bad, takes a back seat.
The fallacy of fluency for people who don’t speak another language is a nice one. For them, the dream of becoming perfectly bi-lingual is still attainable. And it is in theory. But perfect fluency, I believe, is an unrealistic goal. It does more harm than good. Because when you realise the unbelievable time and effort it takes to get there, you often give up.
Perhaps, then, the goal should not be “fluency”, but instead the ability to speak comfortably. To feel comfortable speaking we have to accept imperfection. We may make mistakes, but we can still be understood and have people respect your opinion.
I know many people who speak English as a second language comfortably (but not perfectly). They sometimes directly translate, they often have an accent. But they still express themselves and we have interesting, dynamic conversations.
That’s not to say that speaking comfortably is easy. Anxiety and social awkwardness are real language killers. Even the most confident can be hindered by the topic at hand, how tired they are, and how many times they’ve formed or heard the phrase over and over again. Even how much alcohol they have in their blood (if anxiety is the killer, alcohol is the giver).
And this is not restricted to your second language. I speak English very well, being a native, but if I had to give a lecture on safety in biomanufacturing, I would definitely be uncomfortable. Languages are huge, complicated and ongoing things. It took me 30 years to reach my level of English, and I still learn new things every day. My Danish, although much improved, is still in its infancy.
My advice for those entering the second language minefield? Don’t berate yourself harshly when you struggle in certain situations. Don’t expect to learn a language perfectly in 12 months. And for the native speakers on the other side - find your kindest, most patient self when talking to people using a second language. They are truly doing their best. And if they’re still struggling, buy them a beer.
A big thank you to Gordon and Cynthia Smith-Durán who have, somehow, managed to get me communicating in a third language (Spanish). They have loads of brilliant advice on how to overcome the fear that you will never be perfect — and are super lovely teachers. You can find free podcasts and videos at www.lightspeedspanish.com