how long is a piece of string?

I recently read a TED piece about a young man learning to speak 20 languages. It is a good article which raises some interesting points for both the student and teacher, and I was struck by this sentence: “saying you “speak” a language can mean a lot of different things: it can mean memorizing verb charts, knowing the slang, even passing for a native”. I have come across so many different types of English over the years: from the students who have been forced to memorise complex structures but who cannot hold even a basic conversation, to those who can hold complex discussions despite never having studied any grammar, via some who have vast vocabulary but so little confidence in their pronunciation they would spell words out instead of saying them. How do you measure a language? What is fluency? What is “knowing a language”?

I was also struck by the author’s thoughts about fluency in your native language. It is so true when he suggests that even most native speakers are not actually completely “fluent” in their own language, giving his lawyer father’s mystifying legalese as an example. Our language reflects our own experiences, culture and expertise. It is for this reason that I hate teaching business English, an area of life that is completely and utterly foreign to me, which often means that most Italian students are way ahead of me when speaking in English about this topic. The same goes for lawyers, or engineers, or even kids talking about basketball. They often know far more about the language than I do. So who is fluent in that case?

This brings me on to the two questions that are guaranteed to baffle/annoy me; questions I am asked on a regular basis, and which I think reveal a great deal about attitudes to language learning:

The first is How long did it take you to learn Italian?

Where do we start with this one?! This question assumes that “Italian” is some sort of finite thing, with a beginning, middle and – absurd! – an end. I never know how to answer this. I usually say something like “you never stop learning a language”, which although true, sounds really trite when you say it. But I am still learning my own language, so the idea that I have somehow “finished” Italian is laughable! When I try and point this out I often get “but you know what I mean”, and frankly, no, I don’t. What kind of markers are we using here? What counts as knowing a language? When can I say that I finally “knew” Italian? When I could ask for a coffee? When I could say something about myself? (but what?!) When I could go to the cinema and enjoy a film (a big landmark moment for me, I must admit)? Flirt? Complain in a shop? Give someone directions? Talk about my regrets? The truth is, I don’t know Italian, I’m constantly learning, and there is no end in sight. It’s a wonderful thing.

The second question is How long will it take me to learn English?

I really shouldn’t be allowed to greet prospective students at the door of our school but sometimes it happens: alone in the school, the doorbell rings, here is someone wanting information about learning English, we chit chat a bit (all in Italian) and then this question inevitably pops up. I can’t give an answer to this. Not even vaguely. And the people who ask this are the ones who won’t accept my reply that I can’t give them an answer. Apart from the fact that we have that same idea here as before, that a language is a finite, delineated thing, I’m afraid that without knowing what point you’re starting from, where you want your English to take you, how you learn, how much time you have, how motivated you are, to name just a few factors, it is literally impossible for me to make even the vaguest estimation. Don’t ask me that. English is not a sweater that you buy and put on.

The beautiful thing about language is that it has no boundaries, it is a fluid and ever-changing thing, it is a tool to be used for whatever you want, an instrument to be played, it is a door, a journey; an endless, exhilarating cliffhanger.

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