What does it mean to speak a language? In my experience, most people have pretty extreme views when they mention how many languages they speak. On the one extreme we have the people who are quantity oriented. They’ll tell you that they speak ten languages when in truth they can do little more than repeat about a dozen memorized phrases that allow them to greet people, talk about the weather and order a meal. This group often consists of bourgeoisie travelers who like to show off for their monolingual friends who don’t know the difference anyway.

On the other extreme you have the linguist Nazis who think that people shouldn’t say that they know a language unless they can speak it will no foreign accent or grammatical errors and can converse about any subject from string theory to social etiquette of the 19th century. This group is commonly comprised of bilinguals, often academics, who are extremely competent in their two languages and will correct your speech, even if you are speaking in your own native language.

I like to think of language mastery as more of a process with various stages or levels of competency. The US government has its own evaluation (see here) and Chinese Pod’s John Pasden has a fun way of describing the process of learning Chinese (see here). I thought that it would be fun to make my own five-stage break down about language mastery.

0. The Monkey Gibberish Stage. It’s all Greek to me.

Yes, there is a stage zero. You’re in it when you see two people speaking what seems to be absolute nonsense to one another while nodding in agreement. You can’t begin to imagine how what they are saying could form part of a language that expresses the same ideas and feelings as English, or whatever your native language is. This is the default stage for people with little to no contact with the language or its corresponding culture. This is where most people are when it comes to languages like Malagasy, Pashtu, Finnish and even Mandarin Chinese.

It doesn’t take much to get to the next stage.

1. The Stage of Discovery. Como vai?

Everyone has been at this stage. You memorize a bunch of phrases, a new alphabet or at least new sounds for your same alphabet, and boring words like conjugation, particle, and glottal stop. You get discouraged because, even after many hours of work, you still think that you sound like Tarzan. Unfortunately, this is the most difficult stage, especially if the language is not related to your native language or another one that you might know. This stage is kind of like the first cut in football tryouts. You either become intrigued by the language and the people who speak it or you take the class because you have to because of work or school and then promptly forget everything.

2. The Stage of Enlightenment. Ich mag diese Sprache.

Maybe you spent some time abroad in a country that speaks this language. Maybe you had a boyfriend or girlfriend who speaks it. Maybe you had an enthusiastic teacher who inspired you. For whatever reason you pressed on and took the bull by the horns! You’ve studied all of the grammar principles and can use them pretty well. You can talk about a few subjects without thinking too hard and can usually get your point across when speaking about something that you’re not too familiar with or that is new to you.

It takes so much work to get to this stage and foreigners are often so nice and patient that many learners lose sight of their original goal, even people that I’ve met who have college degrees in a foreign language. It takes a lot of discipline to get to the next level since the learner has to spend many hours interacting with the target language and correcting him/herself.

3. The Stage of Fluency. Я понимаю.

This was where you wanted to be in the first place when you started along on this journey. Your pronunciation is rarely a problem and you make few grammatical errors when you speak. You can tell jokes, understand double meanings and most likely write better than a lot of native speakers. You probably aren’t afraid of making phone calls in this language anymore and can sit down and enjoy movies and TV shows with little or no extra concentration involved. Your mastery of the language is enviable and your world has become greatly enriched, even in ways that you weren’t expecting.

Getting to the next level is only for the truly diligent and mildly obsessed. It requires lots of dedication and often some formal coaching.

4. The Practically Native Stage. 我中国人。我不美国人!

You probably live in the country and have no intention of ever going back to where you came from. Your spouse is probably from there too. Your knowledge of the language is usually much better than the locals’ and certain people will go hours, sometimes years, before they find out that you’re not from there originally.

If I’m at a stage 1 in a language, I feel safe saying that I’ve studied it, but don’t really speak it or understand much. If I’m at stage 2 then I say that I speak and read it but that I’m definitely not fluent. Only at stage 3 do I feel okay saying that I’m fluent in the language. There ought to be a club with T-Shirts for those who begin learning a language in adulthood and reach level 4 (no, I don’t think that I’d be a member). What are your thoughts about mastering a language?


3 Responses

  1. My thoughts on mastering a language… are that I wish I could more thoroughly master languages.

    I think the fluency scale is also dependent upon subjects. There are some subjects that I can very comfortably pontificate upon in Spanish, but there are others that I sound like a second-year Spanish student trying to talk about.

    Of course, that’s true in English (my native language), too. Just ask all the people involved in my purchase of a house for the first time.

    I’d say your scale, in general, is pretty accurate. I’d agree that there are plenty of casual foreign language speakers that aren’t really at your level 3 despite having a degree in the language. I guess that’s what happens when you go to BYU and see return missionaries trying to cruise thru a Spanish degree (or a minor, which is usually a case with the cruisers).

    It definitely takes someone “diligent and mildly obsessive” to get to that level 3. There are times when I feel like I’M not even there yet, and I work as a translator. (And, based on some of your level 3 criteria, I’m NOT there).

    The most frustrating thing is not being able to get to level 4 and knowing, deep down, that I will probably never get there — because I’m probably never gonna live in a Spanish-speaking country for long enough (again), because I don’t have enough contact with the Spanish-speaking community here in the U.S., because I started learning too late (a reason you pointed out).

    Though, Ryan, let me note that you don’t sound too far off level 4 on Spanish. Your accent is that of a Chilean. I guess we probably haven’t had enough deep discussions in Spanish for me to know your command of numerous topics in Spanish.

    And your Portuguese sounds as good as native speakers I’ve conversed with, though I don’t know nearly enough Portuguese to say for sure.

    So let me laud the language humility you showed in this post.

    Anyway, good post. Keep ’em coming. I may or may not end up having more comments to write for this one.

  2. Travis,

    You’re right, I didn’t talk much about vocabulary after levels 0, 1 and 2. This is because I think that once a person is fluent in a language his/her vocabulary starts to come more naturally, whereas, in the first three stages, vocabulary is almost a forceful effort.
    You bring up a good point though. The government has plus signs to indicate that someone is on the verge of bumping up to the next level or perhaps is strong in one area (such as vocabulary) but weak in another (such as syntax). Maybe that would be valuable here as well.

  3. I like the names and the descriptions you came up with for each stage. I’m at base camp Stage 3 with base camp Stage 4 way off in the distance like the summit of Mt. Everest! 🙂

    Great post!

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