Just How Fluent Am I?

June 15, 2011

Korean(Hanguel) Typography

I was reading over hikosaemon’s Japan blog not too long ago and came across a very interesting entry on fluency in foreign languages:

You see, it is quite plausible for someone to be fluent in some situations, and not in others. This is particularly the case in Japan, where even vocabulary customarily used can vary dramatically between different companies, meaning that you might be completely fluent at one company or in one job, and struggling for a time after you change. The change from college life to the business world is even more dramatic, where most people have to use honorific Japanese for the first time, which is completely different, and where a foreign exchange student was completely comfortable sitting in Japanese lectures and drafting term papers in Japanese, they are struggling for correct termination to address customers and superiors in a company.

Although the Korean language doesn’t exactly have honorific like Japanese, I found his argument over situational fluency to be right on the nose. After all, on a given day, in a given situation, I can fool quite a few people into thinking I’m completely fluent in Korean (not just foreigners, either). Take a recent conversation I had with expats on my trip to Ulleungdo.

“It just seemed like your Korean was a lot more fluent that mine.”

“Oh no, far from it. I’m not very good at Korean, but I am very good at knowing the key phrases to fake fluency.”

And that’s exactly what it comes down to when learning a foreign language outside of the classroom. Hikosaemon calls it situational fluency, I call it faking complete fluency, but the progress of someone’s language skills is determined solely by experience: you can repeat phrases in your apartment until the cows come home, but until you test them out in the world, they won’t be added to your language skills.

In that sense, I was fluent at Pusan Airport ordering some bibimbap, in that I was able to communicate my order and answer a question the cashier had for me (“Can you speak Korean?”). I’m fluent at my neighborhood supermarket, Home Mart, in that I can say “hello”, ask for a bag, understand how much money my purchase costs, and thank them when I leave. I’m fluent at the bus terminal by being able to pronounce the name of my destination (though I still have trouble with 강릉) and understand the departure time.

But in most situations? My Korean is laughable. I still struggle with some given names.

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4 Responses to Just How Fluent Am I?

  1. Hiko on June 15, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    Ha, thank you for the reference, and your term “faking complete fluency” I completely agree with.

    When I was invited to be a guest teacher on Gimmeabreakman’s Japanese lesson series, that is exactly what I called it, and dedicated my lessons to

    I’ve only been to Korea two weeks, but I’ve learned from travelling about 10 phrases you can use over and over again – “excuse me, hello, how much is this, yes, no, cool, my name is, where is, thank you, goodbye”. I met some Koreans who taught me these phrases and I practiced and memorized them by ear – so when I was out shopping, I would walk in and when I saw something, I would casually say “shillye hamnida…”, then point and say “olmayeyo?” and 9 times out of 10, they would jump startled, and shoot back in me in rapid fire Korean… after which I would have to point out that what I just said is as far as it goes (although I learned the numbers so I could understand prices). It seemed that at least just using a handful of phrases, and emphasizing trying to sound like a Korean, I was able to fake it in a limited way, which is fun to do, and motivates you to want to learn more.

    I found this same technique helped me hit the floor running in Romania, Spain, Argentina (with Brazilian friends), and with Chinese friends in NZ. The moment you can create any kind of higher expectation and get praise, your entire brain clicks into ‘desperately want to learn more quickly’ mode, which I think changes the experience of studying completely.

    I realize it is hard to help a class of 40 students practice faking techniques at the same time, but my practical experience is that faking easy phrases of a language is one of the most rewarding and important ways to begin learning.

    So yeah, I completely can relate, both to your experiences and your take. Good post, man.


  2. Alice on June 15, 2011 at 5:58 pm

    Very true! I’m great at small talk and restaurants, so I’ve had coworkers that I met at parties who thought my Japanese was perfect. Then at work when it was time to do complicated paperwork, they quickly realized that they should probably get a translator! I still remember the look on one guy’s face, you could very clearly see “But, she understood everything at dinner! Where did her Japanese go?” written all over him!

  3. Jimmy on June 16, 2011 at 10:04 pm

    Spot on! Fluency is determined almost entirely by contex, unless you’re at a very high level. That is one of the reasons it’s so difficult to determine.

    When I met my Spanish conversation partner, he thought I was fluent after 2 hours of chatting. However, the next time we met up we began talking about things more complicated than our general lives and so on. I very quickly went from fluent to intermediate.

    In my last post I wrote about Ziad Fazah. He claims to be able to speak 56 languages. Even though he his more critics than fans, he’s probably telling the truth if we consider it contextually. But, if we think of it in turns of ‘general fluency’ or ‘conversational fluency’ then I’m sure his list of languages is far smaller.

  4. Khadijah Anderson on June 17, 2011 at 9:53 am

    I agree. It’s all about context and you truly don’t learn a language until you use it. I use phrases like “Hello” “See you later” “Goodbye” “Thank You and “sorry”. I think it’s cool I know how to say them and which form of one to say depending on who I’m speaking too. I would like to learn a lot more Korean during my third year. I get a lot of “You’re Korean is good” but that’s because I say those phrases everyday and after a while I don’t have to think in English to speak them in Korean. I’ve got a long way to go in terms of conversational fluency, but I’m sure if make it a point to speak Korean out of school and during the weekend, I’ll pick it up quicker than the short lessons my kindergarten and elementary students sometimes like to give me!

    Thanks for sharing!

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