Over 20 years ago, with a couple years of college Spanish under my belt, I left to study for the summer in Spain. I remember actually saying these words: I can’t wait to just be fluent by the end of summer. As if it were a chore, something I had to gut through. As if it were possible! After that, I spent an academic year at the University of Costa Rica, graduated with a B.A. in Spanish, and worked a lot on improving my second language before I finally had the fluency to work as an interpreter. Even then, there was a steep learning curve for the first couple of years. That was in 2002.
Without much to push me forward, I felt like I’d sort of reached a plateau a few years ago with my Spanish language fluency. I’d been working for some years supervising a language services department, and while I was evaluating interpreters and generally involved in their work, I was not doing much interpreting work myself, which is really the only thing I’ve ever been interested in doing.
So like any normal person, I quit that stable job and went to graduate school to receive training in medical, court, and conference interpreting, and eventually a graduate degree in conference interpreting. Ever since, I’ve been having a very interesting experience in terms of how I think about fluency in my second language.
Before grad school, the problem with the not-interpreting job was not necessarily that it wasn’t offering me room for growth as an interpreter, but that it wasn’t offering me any chances to put myself in a position where–aside from some terminology here or there–I could really expose my weaknesses and even understand where I needed to grow, which is the first step.
Before the Big Grad School Adventure, I would have told you that speaking Spanish was effortless for me. And of course it was. I was not being put in any situation that required much effort.
I now bristle any time I hear someone say something like, “I’m totally fluent in X language” or “I’m fully bilingual.” Really? Because if that’s what you think, then you and I most likely understand something completely different by what is meant by “totally fluent”. And that is fair. I don’t think most people purposely overstate their language fluency. It’s that I use my languages in a totally different way than most people who speak a second language. And I’m still not sure I entirely understand what fluency means to me.
During grad school, a trainer recognized my what-have-I-done-with-my-life distress, and told me, “I bet you’re doing this because people have told you how good you are with languages.” I felt at once exposed (he’d hit the nail on the head), and silly. It was true–I’d left everything to gamble on my abilities as a conference interpreter, based on what other people had told me.
But what other people tell us about our language can feel crucial. Personal. It’s up to us to decide how we’ll interpret (so to speak) what others think of our language skills.
I took my husband to Mexico City for a vacation earlier this year, and after a very rich experience of interacting with people in the city as only someone with a good command of Spanish can have, I got a “Oh, you speak a little Spanish!” from a Mexican woman at the airport when we were leaving. A little Spanish. Sure. Sometimes it can feel a little personal when someone casually judges our second language skills at a level much lower than we know them to be. Like, I did not dedicate my entire life to learning this language so that someone at the airport could tell me I speak “a little Spanish”! And it’s true, checking my ego; I did not learn another language so that someone at the airport could tell me anything.
I’m living in Spain this summer, and I’ve met a few people who are non-native Spanish speakers, who (upon my very basic assessment) may not have the command of Spanish that I do. But I’ve seen them navigate Spanish society and social situations effortlessly–Something that has been a real struggle for me. My own discomfort socially makes me feel like I’m not quite as fluent as I thought I was. So these other maybe-not-as-fluent-as-I people likely can’t work as interpreters, but they’re having a different (better?) experience than I am living in Spain because they’re more culturally savvy. I guess sometimes you can’t have it all.
Earlier this week, I went to my favorite café and ordered a glass of wine. I asked for a vaso of wine, which is the wrong word in Spanish. I know this. It’s a copa of wine, which is a bit of trick as a native English speaker, since copa sounds like cup, and we don’t drink cups of wine. We drink glasses of wine, and cups coffee. Asking for a vaso of wine is like asking for a cup, or maybe a tumbler of wine [insert your own joke here]. I noticed my mistake because the waitress was kind enough to correct me–“Una copa de vino–Y hablas muy bien el español, eh?” I just wanted my copa de vino, and took that compliment at face value rather than mentally flying into a I-know-I-speak-Spanish-well-my-Spanish-has-been-tested-over-and-over-again-for-the-last-twenty-years tirade.
There are so many things that make up language fluency. I suppose a lot of it is how you need to use the language, and how you’ve learned it and used it. Many interpreters have a more complicated relationship with language fluency than I do, having grown up speaking more than one language.
So what is the truth about language fluency? After formal education in Spanish, 15 years of working as an interpreter, nearly every day in a bilingual environment, a graduate degree in interpreting, with several stints living and studying in Spanish-speaking society? If you ask how my Spanish is, I’d say: I’m working on it.
I’d love to hear your stories about that time you discovered you were more, or less, fluent than you thought you were. Share in the comments!
P.S. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has an oral proficiency chart that’s really helpful when defining oral proficiency in the workplace (court interpreters are included!). You can find it here.