Hello world! Today I’m going to continue the discussion of language fluency and perceived fluency that we began in the last post. In that post, I was discussing some double standards that people hold regarding fluency. For instance, I have small communication problems with speakers of other dialects in English, my native language, on a fairly regular basis. But when I experience the same kinds of problems in Russian, I worry that I am “losing fluency”. Today I want to go more in-depth and discuss what causes these communication problems in greater detail.
Of course, often communication problems arise simply because we have never learned particular words or phrases in the language in which we are trying to communicate. This is normal, and it is why studying languages is necessary. However, communication problems can also arise for a couple of other reasons that I will touch on here. First, a second-language speaker may be able to express a concept in the language they are studying, but still be unfamiliar with how it is expressed in other accents, registers, and dialects of that language. Second, a second-language speaker may have a certain concept, expression, or word in his or her memory, but simply not be able to access it and use it in a conversation (the “tip of the tongue” phenomenon).
So what are accents, registers, and dialects? The New Oxford American Dictionary defines accent as “a manner of pronunciation peculiar to a particular individual, location, or nation.” In other words, our accent is not the words we say, but rather how we say them. People with different accents in the same language might speak or read aloud the same exact words, but sound very different. This is because they might pronounce vowels and consonants differently, put more or less stress on certain syllables, and vary the tone of their voice more or less (this is called prosody). We are so attuned to accents in our native languages that we can usually guess where somebody is from even just after we hear them speak a few basic sentences. Understanding different accents is an important part of learning any language, and for students who want to sound more native-like in the language they are studying, learning how to reproduce accents accurately is critical. While I have a lot of tips for both understanding and reproducing different accents, these are both topics for future posts.
It’s hard to find a more concise definition for register than the one given by Wikipedia: “A variety of language used for a particular purpose or in a particular social setting.” Basically, a language can have different registers on a scale between “formal” and “informal”. For example, many people who learned a language as a child but then attended university in another language are “fluent” in the more informal registers in their first language, like talking about their families and their daily activities, but “non-fluent” in the more formal registers, like reading and writing literature, news articles, and academic papers. Alternatively, people who have learned a language primarily through reading materials like newspapers in more formal registers often have trouble following conversations in more informal registers, which might include more humor, slang and vulgar language. Two famous examples of informal registers in major world languages are French verlan and Russian mat’. Verlan is a register in which speakers reverse the syllables of standard French words (like cefran for Français or ripou for pourri ‘rotten’). Mat’ is a Russian vulgar register that developed from prison slang, in which four main (vulgar) words are turned into verbs, nouns, and adjectives and can be used to form full sentences.
Finally, dialects are varieties of a language that are used by a particular group of speakers of that language. Most of us are native speakers of one or two of these, but it is impossible to be native in all of them. I experienced this a few years ago when I visited some relatives in County Cork, Ireland. On the day of our large family gathering, I greeted the various members of my extended family and we started talking about our lives. As one of my cousins, Rob, started telling a story about being lost at sea, another cousin, who had just arrived, approached him and started talking extremely quickly. As Rob had been telling us the story, I had been able to follow and understand most of what he was saying. However, as he greeted the new arrival, he seemed to speed up and switched to using more of the local dialect. As they greeted each other, I realized that, although they were technically speaking English, I was able to understand very little of what they were saying. Because I had never had any exposure to their accent or any of their expressions and idioms, I was not “fluent” in their dialect.
Because of the huge variations between dialects, we need to be specific when we’re discussing fluency. As I mentioned in the last post, there are differences between “linguistic” fluency and “cultural” fluency. As non-native learners, we usually learn the most commonly spoken variants of a language (“standard” dialects), and mostly neutral or more formal registers, while neglecting to learn more informal speech and non-standard dialects. As a result, we might have almost no problems communicating in standard dialects, such as Standard American English and Standard British English, and understand nothing in other dialects until we have more exposure to them.
Many communication problems arise when we are exposed to accents, registers, and dialects that we are unfamiliar with. Often people confuse a person’s lack of familiarity with an accent, dialect, or register with a lack of fluency in the language as a whole. Even though I was unable to understand what my Irish relatives were saying to one another, I would almost certainly be able to express all of the same things in my own dialect of American English. This has happened to me in Russian or Spanish or Italian, when I’ve heard a slang word or just a word that is different in the speaker’s native dialect. Often I can express the concept in the standard dialect of the language, I’m just not familiar with how it is expressed in the other person’s particular register or dialect. (And to make matters even more confusing, most of the world’s 6,000+ languages are not standardized, and many have as much or more dialect variation than large languages like English, Spanish, or Russian)
Another reason why communication problems occur is more complicated: it has do to with the difference between accessible language skills and inaccessible language skills that I mentioned in the last post (“tip of the tongue”). This is something that I will discuss in the next post, along with the different steps that I propose as an alternative to thinking about fluency.
I want to help encourage everybody who is studying languages to not worry so much about perfection, and realize that there will always be new accents, registers, and dialects that will be difficult to understand. When it comes to languages and communication, the perfect is the enemy of the good. Instead of becoming fluent, we should use the terms non-communicative, partly communicative, fully communicative, native-like, and native to describe language ability, and focus on progressing to the next step. I’ll go more in-depth with these terms in the next post.
All languages have many different accents, registers, and dialects
Many foreign language students have problems when they are exposed to new accents, registers, and dialects
Language learners shouldn’t get discouraged by communication problems; there are always more variants of a language to learn, even of our own native languages