Thanks to club-member Stuart, who emailed an article about an American called Vaughn who’s passionate about languages.
Stuart knew it would be of interest, and I’m guessing he also knew it would wind me up, which it did. Large parts of it are total nonsense, and total nonsense that risks depressing the 99.9999% of language learners who are not linguistic ‘savants’.
As a language teacher, language school owner, and learner myself, that annoys me. Sceptical from the start, alarm bells rang loudly when I read this part (my bolding), not far into what is a rather long article:
“A real, live polyglot,” Kelly said.
I’d never heard of that word — meaning, a person who can speak several languages — before meeting Vaughn.
How much credibility would we attribute to a journalist writing about, say, automobiles, if they admitted they’d never heard of Tesla, or Ferrari. And couldn’t drive…
Vaughn himself is modest enough, replying that he speaks eight languages ‘fluently’, which seems fair enough, given that those languages are:
- English and Spanish (he’s bilingual having one English-speaking and one Spanish-speaking parent)
- Portuguese and Romanian (both Romance languages, so similar to Spanish)
- Russian, Czech, Slovak and Bulgarian (all Slovak languages)
If you ever met an Italian who knows some Spanish and French, don’t be too amazed. Languages which come from the same group can often be read or understood WITHOUT ANY STUDY, and at a level that an English speaker (no other languages in that group, sadly) could barely dream of reaching.
But anyway, what does Vaughn mean by ‘fluent’?
Can readily carry on a conversation on any topic, read and write without difficulty
So ‘fluent’ means he’s comfortable in conversation, which I’d argue is not what most people would understand by the word.
By ‘fluent’ don’t we aspire to something like ‘fully-capable’, ‘native-speaker-like ability’, that is to say, a level of confidence that would be sufficient to get a job that would otherwise be performed by a native-speaker?
For example an Italian adult who teachers English in an Italian high school? Or perhaps lives in the USA and teaches Italian, but functions fully in English.
An Italian teaching English in an Italian high school would probably not use the term, though, as I wouldn’t about my Italian. It’s imprecise and misleading.
However well we chat, there are always going to be limits, and these are quickly reached once we step outside of linguistic comfort zones.
Bilingual people, for example, are rarely, if ever, EQUALLY able in both languges. There are four in my nuclear family, so I get to observe this up close. They’ll often flail about for words they never encountered before, or confess to having no idea what something means.
True bilingualism, in the sense of having approximately equal competences in two languages, is rare because people don’t have the same input in both languages.
My eldest daughter is perhaps an exception, having done high school in Italy, and then, having got her diploma with the maximum possible grade, university in Scotland.
She plans to be a lawyer in the UK, she tells us, but if that’s the direction she takes, I’d bet that within a few years her knowledge of legal English will far surpass what she can do in Italian, though she was born in Italy.
It’s totally possible to be ‘better’ in a foreign language than you are in your own. For instance, I have no idea of how to sail a boat in English, though I can do it passably badly in Italian!
“Read and write without difficulty”, well yes, Vaughn, but read what? Academic articles, literature? The business pages of a national newspaper? In all those languages? You must be a busy fellow if you have time to maintain that level of competence.
Or are we talking menus and text messages? Maybe with smartphone backup?
Write what? Frankly, how many people do you, reader, know who write much at all, even in their own language?
Emails, if you work in an office. Instant messaging. Shopping lists, perhaps. Though there’s not much need to write shopping lists in more than one language, right?
In short, apart from the bilingualism, we’re talking Vaughn having a reasonable conversational knowledge of six other languages, in two groups, including the ability to read and write cyrillic script to some extent. That would fox most of us, true, but can be learnt in a matter of weeks or months.
But the journalist gushes that Vaughn actually knows thirty-seven languages, so an additional twenty-nine we haven’t yet talked about.
Credit to Vaughn who doesn’t claim ‘fluency’ in any of them, but the article writer lists them in three further categories:
Conversational’- able to have deep conversations on a wide range of subjects, sometimes have to pause to think of words, can read and write – Croatian, Finnish, Italian, Latvian, Nahuatl and Serbian
‘Conversational’ is a reasonable term, better than ‘fluent’ anyway, but wow – a native Spanish speaker who’s only ‘conversational’ in Italian can’t be that much of a ‘savant’, can he??? Sorry mate but Club members, non-savants to the man and woman I assume, can on-average surely claim as much!
The next two categories, and the languages Vaughn puts in each are below, but keep in mind we’re talking about ‘not as good as conversational’, despite the next group being misleadingly-labelled ‘intermediate’:
Intermediate – can carry on simple conversations about many topics, may require more pausing, can read and do some writing – American Sign Language, Catalan, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Icelandic, Irish Gaelic, Norwegian, Polish
Basic – can speak and understand a wide variety of phrases on basic topics such as daily life and travel, can write and read in some, but not all. – Amharic, Arabic, Estonian, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Indonesian, Japanese, Lakota, Lithuanian, Mandarin, Navajo, Salish, Sinhalese, Swedish, Ukrainian, Welsh
OK, so we’re talking a guy with a clear and obviously-genuine interest in languages, unlike the idiot interviewer.
But – and I think you’d consider this fair comment – he’s probably not the sort of person who is going to hang around and develop an in-depth knowledge of any one of them?
Perhaps I’m wrong, so decide for yourself. The article goes on much longer, but ends like this:
Then he pulls out his phone and opens his Duolingo app. He is on a 330-day streak of practicing Welsh., and he isn’t going to break it.
OMG, Duolingo. Then I rest my case.
A mercoledì, allora.