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How fluent are you in a foreign language How fluent are you in a foreign language
by Joseph Gatt
2020-08-17 08:38:08
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In Europe, there are four levels of language fluency, or six in the UK. In East Asia it's 6 levels, and Korea has up to level 9. In the US, most institutions recognize 5 levels of fluency. Definitions differ.

Here's how I would describe degrees of language fluency.

Level 1: the recent immigrant

lang0001_400Proficiency level: speak with very short sentences. Frequent mistakes. Poor pronunciation. Poor vocabulary. Can often read menus but little else. “Fantasy” grammar use, frequent pauses, frequent barbarisms (inventions of words and grammar patterns).

Understanding: Can understand the general tone of the language. Can detect if people are angry or happy. Can detect (or have the strange feeling) that people are talking about him. But often has trouble understanding the most simple statements.

Social status: either recently immigrated to a foreign country, or occasionally hangs out with people who speak the target language (for example an English speaker who has lunch twice a week with a group of Spanish speakers over a one-year period). Or someone who takes language lessons taught by teachers who lecture in the native language, or give grammar lectures and don't use the communicative approach.

Psychological status: has a strong attachment to the culture of his/her first language. This is why some people, say, from Korea, spend 20 years in the US yet still speak English like they are fresh off the boat. In sum, level 1 speakers strongly identify with their culture of origin, and do not fit into the adopted language's culture.

Common claims: Level 1 speakers tend to be defensive about their poor command of the language. They will tend to make claims like “I can read and write but can't speak” or “I score high in exams but can't speak” or “I used to speak very well but forgot how to speak the language” or “your English is too difficult for me, but when I speak with my friend Jane Doe my English flows better.”

Level 2: the settler

Proficiency level: speaks with longer sentences. Occasional mistakes. Some “barbarisms” (words that only he/she uses in the language, often borrowed from their native language). An accent that can be heavy or light. Intonation, stress, tone and emphasis often borrowed from his/her native language. Occasional grammar mistakes. Poor grasp of the language's cultural references.

Understanding: Understands the general flow of the conversation. But won't understand slang, idioms, cultural references, social references, social codes, and will tend to “tune out” if he/she is being lectured.

Social status: Either watches a lot of television programs in the foreign language, or has a lot of friends who are native speakers. Wouldn't mind the opportunity to immigrate long term, or if an immigrant, intends to stay if provided with the opportunity. Identifies strongly to his native culture and language, but does not put too much emphasis on that.

Psychological status: comfortable using the foreign language, comfortable with foreign cultures. Might “pretend” to ignore foreigners in the presence of his own “tribe” but will open up to native speakers if alone. Has quite a few friends who are native speakers of the foreign language he speaks. But some cultural elements of the foreign language “bother” him/her.

Level 3: the naturalized immigrant

Proficiency level: can hold very long conversations. Tone and intonation closely resemble the local tones and intonations. Slight accent and some residues of his native language. Comfortable with recent pop culture references, but can be confused by “older” pop culture references. Some “mannerisms” reminiscent of his native language. Educated native speakers might notice he's not a native speaker, but non-educated native speakers will mistake him/her for a native speaker. Henry Kissinger famously said “no one in the army told me I had a German accent.”

Understanding: Understands most references, idioms, slang, cultural references, social references. There could be two or three references he/she won't catch.

Social status: either naturalized citizen, or on the path to citizenship. Or has worked for a company overseas for many, many years. Very comfortable with most native speakers.

Psychological status: some aspects of the foreign language's culture could annoy or irritate him/her. Stuck between two worlds, that of his/her native language and his/her adopted language, and wishes he/she lived in a world that combined the best of both worlds. That world doesn't exist unfortunately.

Level 4: The native speaker

Proficiency level: perfect command of grammar. Vast vocabulary. Command of pop culture. Comfortable with the culture of the language. Could have trouble with specialized vocabulary or academic vocabulary. Could be unfamiliar with certain topics he never had any interest in.

Understanding: will understand most things, but could have trouble “picking up hints” or “reading non-verbal cues.” Will have trouble understanding incoherent speech, or understanding lectures about “boring” topics.

Social status: a local, a peer, “one of us.” Either someone who was born in the country, who came to the country at a very young age, or who attended a school in a foreign country where the language was the language of school instruction and the language used in student and teacher social settings. 

Psychological status: No major cultural factors torment him/her. Some economic or social problems can torment them, such as street violence, harassment or unemployment and the like. But the food, the etiquette, the social ways don't usually bother them.

Level 5: The alpha-male/alpha-female

Proficiency level: perfect command of the language, but add to that the ability to “educate” and explain concepts clearly and confidently. Unlike the “native speaker” who sometimes (or often) has trouble being understood, expressing desires clearly and in straightforward manner, the alpha-male/alpha-female often has no trouble being understood, know what they want, and go get it.

Understanding: will understand most topics, even those he/she was previously unfamiliar with. Will tend to be good at picking up most “subtle hints.” Good at reading body language and facial expressions. Can sometimes make sense out of incoherent speech. Will ask questions to further clarify incoherent or complicated speech.

Social status: often very well-connected. Strong ability to contextualize their surroundings. They know what they are doing and their place in society.

Psychological status: comfortable with life. Can have trouble in societies where tribal affiliations are important, and where the smart guys and girls are turned away because they are from the wrong tribe or social background. Has no problems with the local culture, and can even give detailed explanations of how the local cultural codes (food, legal system, shopping, economy etc. work). Can be a victim of harassment in workplace or school cultures where “mediocrity” is the norm.

The exceptions

-If someone spends many, many years outside the country where the language is used, some form of “cultural jetlag” might emerge. That is the individual will start mixing up his native language with his adopted language. Very often, their speech will flow very well, but they will “forget” basic or complicated vocabulary and use that of their adopted language.

-The “dual” work environment. Many people work in two (rarely more) languages. That is they will lead (or work with) a team of, let's say, Arabic speakers, and a team of English speakers, in the same work setting. Such people could have trouble translating Arabic concepts into English and English concepts into Arabic.

-”Dialect” classification and “diglossia.” Some “native” speakers master one dialect but have trouble with the other. In heavily bureaucratic nations (East Asia, many Arab states, a few other nations) bureaucratic administrations will constantly “coin” words and use those coinages in official communications. Bureaucracies expect citizens to understand the coinages. Those bureaucracies have rules and concepts that are so specific, that only bureaucracy insiders know what those words mean.

-”Formal” vs. “Casual” speech. Finally, in many cultures, “casual” speech is either considered “flirtatious” or “an invitation for friendship” and the reaction of some people to casual speech can be one of “rejection” and “refusal to cooperate.” In those cultures, communication is slow, relationships take months to build. For example: when I was in France, Korea, North Africa, I noticed that most of my “good friends” actually spent months (in some cases years) observing me from a distance (without ever talking to me). When they realized I was a “Kosher” and “trouble-free” kid, suddenly they'd start calling me, or subtly suggesting that we hang out. Because their invitations to hang out were too subtle, I often maintained the distance and treated those guys as acquaintances, and I had no idea many of those guys were actually trying to become my “best friend” (or in some cases more than that).

-Social stigma or social admiration for speaking foreign languages. Finally, in some social circles, using certain languages can be considered “rude” or “uncouth” or “unwelcome.” For example, speaking English in some parts of Quebec or France can get you kicked out of restaurants or pubs. On the other hand, in some places speaking foreign languages can be a source of admiration, and some people can “use” you by speaking to you in the foreign language. Those people will have no interest in what you have to tell them, they are just trying to impress their friends (or their boss, or their colleagues). Tip: some guys/girls will go as far as dating you just to impress their friends and family with their foreign language skills. In many cases, they will not work hard to make you happy and provide a happy environment for the two of you. You have the “model trophy wife” but you also have the “language trophy husband/wife.” Careful.  

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