Knowing a language
If you say that you ‘know’ a particular language, what does that mean to you?
1. Does it mean that you know some words and phrases and can ‘get by’ in ordinary tourist-type situations?
2. Does it mean that you can participate in conversations in the language on topics familiar to you, even if you stumble over words and make mistakes?
3. Does it mean that you can speak (and understand, read and write) the language with a fluency that you feel is sufficient for your needs?
4. Does it mean that you speak (and understand, read and write) the language with native-like pronunciation and fluency?
5. Does it mean that your knowledge of the language is comparable to a well-educated native speaker, i.e. that you not only speak, understand, read and write the language well, and know how to use it in different contexts (pragmatics), but you’re also familiar with and identify with the culture. The idioms make sense to you, and you get the jokes and references to people, events, places, etc. Maybe you also feel a deep attachment to the language and culture.
Or maybe you have a combination of abilities – e.g. the ability to understand and read the language, at least to some extent, some spoken ability, plus some familiarity with the culture.
No 5 is based on a definition of knowing a language by Claire Kramsch, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley, which I found in Babel No More, by Michael Erard. The other definitions are somewhat similar to those in the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in that they focus on linguistic competence. This one also considers pragmatic and cultural knowledge.
How deep you dive into a language and culture can depend on all sorts of factors, such as how much time you can spare, to what extent you can immerse yourself in the language and culture, whether you want to be accepted as a speaker rather than a learner, whether you want to blend in with the culture, or whether you just want to skim the surface and learn enough for your immediate needs. Maybe you see a language as a tool for communication; as a means to fit in; as a source of inspiration and/or information; as a challenge; or as as fascinating subject of study in its own right.
The languages and cultures I’ve dived most deeply into are Welsh and Irish, and to a lesser extent Scottish Gaelic, Manx, French and Mandarin Chinese. I have a more superficial knowledge of other languages and cultures.
At what stage would you say that you ‘know’ a language?