"You've been here 20 years? Wow, must be nice to be fluent."
A question and a statement. The first is easy to answer because it's an objective fact. The second is not so simple because "fluent" is almost entirely subjective.
The Holy Grail of language learners everywhere. That magical moment when the ears hear, the brain engages with no effort, and perfect sentences spill forth from one's mouth.
This weekend I went to a church dinner and from the moment I stepped into the church for Mass and the late hour I left the presbytère, it was French and nothing but French. If I hadn't been a francophone then I would have missed 99% of the fun.
But you know what? At the end of the evening I was tired and with fatigue my language skills degraded. My accent became more pronounced and to my horror I had to correct myself more than once. I know enough to catch most of my own errors but I still make them when I start writing checks my body can't cash.
So does that mean I'm not fluent? Not according to my dinner companions. After making one really flagrant mistake, I apologized and the woman next to me said, "Don't worry about it, Victoria. If I could speak English as well as you speak French..." That was nice to hear and made me feel much better.
But I still thought about it as I walked home. With nearly 20 years in this country, why can't I speak as well as a native speaker? It occurred to me as I walked up the avenue de Paris that I needed to apply the serenity prayer to language learning.
The Things We Cannot Change
The Funny Accent: I started learning French at the same time I was learning Latin - mid adolescence (early 1980's). Latin was required at the Catholic school I attended in Olympia, Washington but we were allowed to choose another language in our second year. I chose French over Spanish which turned out to be a serendipitous decision. My French teacher was a native speaker - a war bride who came to the US not long after World War II. Her English was correct but heavily accented and it wasn't easy to understand her. She must have arrived in the U.S. when she was in her early 20's. About the age, I note, that I came to France as a young bride.
There is evidence that there is a critical period for acquiring a native accent but it varies according to the source. Some say it's in childhood and others say the cutoff is roughly mid-adolescence. But most linguists agree that there is one for accent (but not necessarily for other language skills). Karen Lund has this nice but pessimistic article Age and Accent.
No one should ever beat himself up because he or she has an accent in the second (or third or fourth) language. And it should be noted that native speakers often find it very pleasant to hear their native tongue pronounced with a interesting accent. I cannot count the number of times my French spouse has been told, "Don't lose that French accent!"
The Odd Syntax: This is the way words are put together to make meaningful sentences. It's not the same as grammar; it's entirely possible to put together a sentence in the second language that is grammatically correct but rings false in the ears of a native speaker. The evidence for a critical period here is less conclusive but a lot of second-language learners struggle with this one because it's a bit more complicated then just learning the "rules".
Is this a big deal? Not necessarily. Sometimes it's like accent in that a sentence may sound a bit odd but native speakers find that kind of interesting or amusing. As long as the listener can easily grasp the meaning the speaker is trying to convey, then no harm, no foul. Still, those of us who started learning a second language late will more than likely struggle with this all our lives. Syntax can be improved, however, by talking with native speakers (throw out the grammar and focus on how things are really said in the real world) and by reading novels or articles that use everyday speech.
Opportunities Lost: And that advice would be much easier if English speakers didn't have the blessing (or curse) of speaking what is for the moment an international language that other people want to learn. Access to a native anglophone in restaurants, shops, on the street, at work and even at home is seen as a wonderful opportunity.
However, for the novice French (or German or Chinese) speaker, being asked constantly to speak one's mother tongue can be very frustrating. A language student who proudly puts together a sentence in French (or any other language) is very disappointed when the effort is wasted because the co-worker or waiter or cashier replies in English.
The two parties in these conversation at odds with each other because fundamentally they have opposing interests. Both are second-language learners but the non-native speaker wants to use the native language while the native speaker wants to use his second language.
The thing to remember at these times is that you (and I) cannot control what people do. We can ask nicely and we can negotiate, but in the end they are in total control of what comes out of their mouths. And to get mad or frustrated about it is futile. Better to be gracious and serenely accept the situation.
The Things We Can Change
Other Opportunities: The antidote to those missed opportunities is to seek out people and places where using the second language is not optional, it's a necessity. In my case it was working for a very strict French-only company where I had no choice but to use French if I wanted to keep my job. Looking around me today, I see many other possibilities: clubs, churches, volunteer work. This actually serves two purposes: language acquisition and integration. Become a part of the community you live in. Getting out of your usual haunts not only enriches your vocabulary and speaking/understanding skills, but by living a variety of contexts, you learn more and more about your adopted country and just how diverse it really is. The young IT people I used to work with in Paris and the people I know today at my church are all French, but they are very different people who use very different lexicons.
Make a Virtue out of a Weakness: Let's say you are just starting to learn a language or you're like me and second language skills tend to degrade under stress or fatigue and you feel like you've been gagged because you can't keep up with the conversation. Here's an idea: Instead of fuming and beating yourself up, think of it as being liberated to concentrate on understanding the other person and not missing a single word, idea, expression, or emotion. One of the best gifts you can give anyone anywhere is your full attention.
Let Go of Pride and Perfectionism: Learning anything usually starts with swallowing your pride and taking on a "Beginner's Mind". It's a real blow to the ego when you can't do something as simple as ask for bread in a bakery in a foreign land. Hell, a five year old native speaker could do better than you (and me back in 1989). Today my Frenchlings speak much better French than I ever will and that's just the way it is. Comparisons are deadly and all too often unfair. Give it up (I'm trying). This is not a race and nobody gets to be perfect - not even native speakers. Personally, I think Vince Lombardi was full of it and the constant striving for perfection does not make for excellence, it makes for neurotic, fearful, unhappy human beings.
Rightsizing. The average human being is pretty egocentric. We bring that self-centeredness to language learning. It's all about me - two sides of the same coin where we think we are the center of the universe. It's my ability to speak well (pride) and my errors (shame). And as you saw from my description of the church dinner, I managed to feel both in the space of a few short minutes.
I forgot that the purpose of language is to communicate with other people - it's not a showcase for innate (we think) intelligence or a whip with which we can flagellate ourselves . To the extent that communication and connection are indeed happening and that we all understand each other, then there really is no problem at all, is there?
That's the first piece of wisdom I have to offer but there is yet another I found that did even more to put things in perspective.
There are over 300 million native speakers of English and about the same number of francophones in the world right now according to the estimates I found.
English or French, first or second language, not one person on this planet speaks those languages in exactly the same way as any other person. I don't use French the way my Italian neighbor does and my friends in Tokyo don't speak English the way my friends in Paris do. Even native speakers vary as anyone who went from Quebec to France and back again knows. Different accents, levels, experiences and contexts. Close enough so we can understand each other but with plenty of room for improvisation, personality, and "errors" that may one day become standard usage. And that, my friends, makes each speaker of any language wonderfully, deliciously unique.
So let's turn my earlier question on its head.
Instead of: "Why can't we speak the local language just like the natives?"
How about: "Why in heaven's name would we want to?"