Who dropped that penny?

Success feels like it should be clear and unambiguous. One person (or team) wins, another loses.

Either you are Steffi Graf or Bobby Jones, winning the Grand Slam and the ticker-tape parade, or you are Raymond Poulidor, the eternal second. Or as the Americans might say, first loser.

We embed this idea when we talk about language capability. The question is, “What (or How many) languages can you speak?” The implication being – you can or you can’t.

I think that this is a disincentive for most people considering learning a new language. The expectation is that learning a language should only result in “success” probably defined as fluency. Which is equivalent to saying that if I get off the couch and go for a gentle jog, I should expect to be able to run a full marathon.

We understand that physical activity is healthy, even if we don’t end up competing at an elite level. Why shouldn’t we look at languages in the same way?

If you want to follow some links to the broader educational benefits of learning a foreign language, click here. But even without empirical evidence, I hope that the idea of exercising our brains will prove of benefit to keeping ourselves mentally fit and alert.

Perhaps the answer lies with the great philosopher and polymath – Mr Nigel Tufnell. Rather than asking the question – What languages can you speak? We should move to a more gradual enquiry. Perhaps a two stage question along the lines of, “What languages have you learned? Where are you in that language?”

The reason for this blog (and the reason for its title) is that I sat down to my Polish software the other night and was able to zip through two “lessons” in one session. After a previous encounter with Polish numbers, I thought I was heading backwards, but suddenly was able to perform the requirements of the learning software (particularly the dictation) far better than I had previously been able to.

A moment of reflection had me realise that my Chinese (while still thoroughly limited) was becoming slightly more fluent. The handful of phrases that I am supposed to know, now come ever so marginally more smoothly to mind – and to mouth.

With Polish, I am starting to translate more easily the Polish sounds into the odd combinations of consonants that attempt to transliterate a Slavic language into a Latin alphabet. I have also noticed that I am able to hear slight vowel differences in Korean that would have all blended together a couple of months ago. I can even recognise a few of the Devanagari letters while reading Hindi.

None of these improvements adds up to me being able to speak fluently any of the above languages. I am still clunking around at the beginners stage. But I think that I may be able to say that I have elevated myself from level 0 to perhaps level 1.

I am not sure if there already exists a system of marking language capability on a scale. I would be interested in my readers’ thoughts on this. Do you know of any scales that measure language competence (and do they work across all languages?). If you had to score your language capabilities, what score would you give (and why)?

And Nigel – if you are out there reading – I hope that you are ready to take it all the way up to 11.

This entry was posted in Chinese, Hindi, Korean, Lessons learned, Polish, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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