When I was in China, I was admitted into the hospital, suffering from severe stomach issues and dehydration. The doctor asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know how to say diarrhea. So, instead, I said, “Last night, I went to the bathroom twenty five times. And now there is no water in my body.”
The doctor understood what I needed and he treated me. Then he called the police and tried to have me locked away. I had to rip an IV out of my arm and escape, but you can read that story in “The Monk from Brooklyn.”
The point is, what I said wasn’t academically correct, but the communication worked. This is called linguistic risk-taking.
Being a linguistic risk-taker can increase your functional fluency. Linguistic risk-takers are the people who, after only a few weeks of studying a foreign language are out talking to people, making friends and living in the language. These people function at a level much higher than their academic fluency. For example, my functional level of Mandarin is much higher than my academic fluency level. But the down side is, because I never finished my academic training, I can’t work as a Chinese translator.
Part of why risk-takers can function so well in the foreign language is because they are not afraid to make mistakes. And they don’t care if they say something completely wrong, as long as they are understood.
“Me want cookie” will be universally understood, but it isn’t right.
Linguistic risk taking and the ability to manipulate a small vocabulary to express advanced concepts are excellent survival tools. They increase your speaking, BUT they don’t increase your listening. The native speakers who you interact with will still be saying things correctly and using advanced grammar and concepts, but you won’t understand them. This is the issue with most Asians who have studied English to a high degree in Asia. They speak much better than they listen. They can explain, in detail how to do complicated tasks in their work, but they misunderstand even the simplest questions.
The westerner who is a linguistic-risk taker will generally be a happier person than someone striving for academic correctness. He feels validated when people can understand him. He has a lot of friends and a lot of fun and can even count his bar-time as study-time because he is “practicing.”
The problems with this type of risk taking are: First, You fossilize your mistakes, by saying the same things wrong, over and over again.
In my case, I taught school in Taiwan for three years before I discovered that the word “open” as in “Students, open your books” was different from “Open the door.” I said it wrong for years, but my students just figured out what I wanted and responded by opening their books.
The second problem, of course, is the lack of listening or reading comprehension. In Europe, I would go in for translation jobs, and based on my speaking, they would hire me. When I went home and started working on the texts, I often found I was in way over my head.
Being able to speak and communicate in a languages, is not the same as being able to speak and communicate at the level demanded by your age and level of education. Your speaking level may have no influence on your listening level, whatsoever.
In Germany, I worked with a graduate of the Defense Language Institute (DLI). He had passed a rigorous, forty hour per week, year-long program for German, but he had an accent like an Alabaman who went to town once a month to buy gunpowder. He also didn’t know a lot of common words for small things around the house and words necessary for everyday interactions and conversations with German people. All of my German friends said I was the more fluent of the two of us. But, when it came to listening, he was light-years ahead of me.
DLI is heavy on listening training. And if you learn listening first, all of the other skills will come. If you don’t learn the listening first, you will never learn it. To truly train listening, you almost need to be in a synthetic, school environment rather than in real life because in real life, you don’t have the opportunity to put on headphones and listen for specific information. A typical DLI exercise might ask you to listen to a conversation between two native speakers, coming over a crackling radio, and you have to pick out very specific information. That type of intensity is hard to recreate outside of the classroom, unless you are already doing the job that DLI trains you for. You certainly won’t get that type of listening intensity from conversations with friends.
People who have read some of my previous articles know that I support a learning method called ALG (Automatic Language Growth) which requires students to listen for 800 hours before they start speaking. Most learners find this number extreme and will argue against it. The majority of people think the sooner they start talking to native speakers the better. So, they don’t want to sit in a classroom listening. They want to go out and speak.
I have found that selling people, including myself, on the 800 hours of listening only, is extremely difficult. So, let’s take another approach. I strongly believe that you have to have a solid foundation before you start speaking. The foundation includes both listening and academic training. Independent of ALG, most linguists say the longer you wait to start speaking, the better you will speak. There are various linguistic reasons why we need to have excellent listening and grammar before speaking. But there are psychological issues as well. Most people will reach a level of fluency, which they find acceptable, and then stop learning.
They don’t have to stop learning. And this is why I am now supporting a mix of ALG and speaking. But the reality is most learners will choose to stop learning when they feel they are functional.
If we track immigrants or if we track Asians who are studying English in order to get a job, when they reach a level of functionality which they find acceptable, they stop learning. In Asia, the job is money. You get the job by getting the certificate. Whether you are good or bad at your job is not relevant, only that you have a certificate. If you have a paper which says you are fluent in English, then you are fluent in English.
If immersion and contact with the English speaking public was enough to learn the language, then every Korean hair cutter, Vietnamese nail tech, or South-Asian dry-cleaner who has already lived in New York for ten years would be fluent. But most of them are at best, marginally functional.
Four months ago, when I moved into my hotel in Vietnam, the English speaking staff didn’t know what a “towel” was, when I asked for one. They also didn’t know what I meant when I asked them to empty the trash. I said empty the garbage, empty the rubbish, empty the bin, remove the trash, garbage, rubbish, waste…over a period of months, I have tried more and more phrases, but none of them have worked. And of course, four months later, they still don’t know “towel” or” trash.”
I am often the only guest in the hotel and don’t need too much attention. So the staff have about 23 hours of downtime per day. They watch TV, smoke, drink, gamble, and play video games. I have never once seen them studying English. You would think they would at least try to learn the words “trash” and “towel” since they come up all of the time.
This example is extreme, but it illustrates a point. People who are judging their fluency by their ability to function will stop learning earlier than people who are shooting for academic fluency. Nearly all people will reach a certain level, and then stop studying. Some stop sooner than others.
To be a translator — to be truly fluent in the language, at a level appropriate for your age and education — will take between two and four years of solid, academic study, depending on the language and a number of other factors. My theory is that no matter how well you function, no matter how good you are at manipulating the language, you don’t cut any time off of the amount of study needed for true fluency. If anything, by speaking and functioning better, you will be less focused on academic fluency and you will stop developing.
When I was studying at Germersheim, I broke off my formal studies early because I landed an excellent job as a translator. I continued to learn because I read constantly and worked as a researcher and translator for the university. I lived with Germans and attended corporate meetings held in German. I watched German TV and movies. I lived as much like a German as I could. But I didn’t develop as academically as I would have had I continued formal study. A friend of mine, call him Chicago, was not nearly as functionally fluent as I was. He also didn’t know small words for things in the house or for interactions between friends and family. But he studied constantly and finished his translator exam. In the end, he was a much better translator than me because he focused on academic fluency. Now, fifteen years later, he is headed back to Germany, to work as an instructor at a translator school.