What it Takes

I’ve been thinking recently of lots of the finer details of learning a second language. Maybe that’s because I’ve because I’ve been doing some speaking examining, and that really requires you to pay close attention to what people are (and aren’t!) saying.

The basics of learning a language are pretty simple: learning the vocabulary (perhaps the alphabet too), the grammar rules, and practising. And focusing on those aspects is usually more than sufficient for successfully learning a language.

Still, if you’ve got to formally assess someone’s spoken ability in a second language with a degree of precision, you have to start thinking about things like fluency, accuracy, relevance, development and extension, and interaction.

And it’s these less-obvious aspects of a language that really contribute to one’s ability to engage with native speakers. These are things I know for example that I can still develop a lot more in Italian, and because of this having a full-blown conversation with even one person in Italian is still quite difficult. I find myself looking for a chance to “rest” after producing any kind of extended or complicated Italian, and not extending the conversation in a way I’d be more likely to in English.

Still, important as all these fine details are, we don’t tend to think too much about them. Partly because they’re not obvious. And if we meet someone who’s proficient enough in English to be able to converse without difficulty, we tend to forget they’re not native speakers and carry on with the conversation without grading our speech.

Equally though, we don’t really think about them as we don’t tend to hold non-native speakers to the same standards. Understandably. I’ve found that the layman generally tends to overestimate someone’s ability to speak their language. Probably because we can’t help but be somewhat impressed and flattered that someone’s made such progress in our own language. Even English speakers, who know how widely spoken English is.

And also because you can communicate fairly effectively in most languages without necessarily getting close to the level of a native speaker. Once someone can get their point across without us having significant difficulty understanding them, we’re not going to think about any of the finer details they might be lacking.

A weird flipside to this though, is that when someone does rise above the good enough level, it can sound, well, weird.

Now, if you’re a native English speaker, you can probably think of some non-native speakers who’ve lived in your country for many years, and speak quite naturally. I’m not referring to people like that, because usually their engagement with native speakersover the years tends to make them speak very much like a native speaker.

No, I’m thinking of situations in which people are learning English, but not living long-term in an English-speaking country. These people can still learn English to a very high standard. But without engaging with native speakers and being exposed to English all day, every day, there isn’t the pressure and opportunity to speak English like a native speaker.

Such people can therefore speak quite fluently and accurately, but if you really thought about how they were using English, you might notice they’re not using lots of these finer details, like idiomatic or colloquial language. But most of us wouldn’t notice, because the English they’re using is more than sufficient.

Which is why when people like this use such language, particularly if their level is still not particularly high, it can sound strange. I’ve found myself having this reaction, knowing simultaneously that I shouldn’t, because they’re doing the things we tell them to do, using English in the same way native speakers do.

It’s partly surprise, because it’s rare for non-native speakers to use that sort of language. But I think it’s also because they’re upsetting our preconceptions, stepping out of the category we’ve put them in. We’re used to non-native speakers using somewhat basic English and being impressed by it, but if they start to use more idiomatic language (particularly if it’s very specific or regional), it confuses us, and upsets our view of the scheme of things. They’re using our English, not theirs.

The first time I had this reaction, it was an eye-opening experience for me, making me realising I was thinking in terms of our English and theirs. I’ve been trying to be more accepting and encouraging of non-native speakers pushing themselves in this way, and if you’re learning English, don’t be afraid to push yourself and experiment!

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