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?

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

7 Responses to Knowing a language

  1. renato says:

    “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?”
    This is my KNOW of a language, a higher level only can get, if I could live/work/study in the target language country for some years; as a time in a university.
    I don’t believe in people who says that they are fluent level C1, C2 if they never went to the target language country, or have a closer daily contact with natives.

  2. bulbul says:

    I never use that particular phrase.
    To me, the ultimate goal in learning a language would be to be able to pass off for a native speaker in fluency, the use of idiomatic language and pronunciation. I can maybe do that in English and German and could probably do it in Czech, too, if the very thought wasn’t so ridiculous. Then there’s what I’d call ordinary fluency, the difference being that with ordinary fluency, your pronunciation is clearly not that of a native person and you have some difficulties using or comprehending idiomatic language, slang and alike although I don’t like . There are about five or six languages I can do on this level and for both these levels, I’d say (with some hesitation) that I speak them. For the rest, I say I can only read and understand them even if I’d of course be able to communicate on a very basic level. But anything below fluent communication just isn’t worth mentioning.

    Does it mean that you know some words and phrases and can ‘get by’ in ordinary tourist-type situations.
    But you don’t really get by with the language, do you? Because the crucial part is not asking the question, the crucial part is understanding the answer. And I’d really take a good look at what role does language really play in those touristy types of situations because in my experience (like this year’s vacation with my parents in Malta), those were resolved through extra-linguistic means.

    a higher level only can get, if I could live/work/study in the target language country for some years
    A common misconception used, in my experience, to justify or explain away one’s lack of dedication and/or adequate strategy in language learning. Here’s why: ‘live/work/study’ can only mean two things: 1. level of exposure (see: lack of adequare strategy), 2. the necessity of using the language (see: lack of dedication). You can get both at home, sometimes even without leaving your house.
    I spent total of maybe four weeks in an English-speaking country and maybe two-months in Germany and Austria and yet you’d better believe I’m full C1* in both.

    *I really don’t like CEFR. It makes no distinction between the three skills that together make up language proficiency and there’s a world of difference between understanding, speaking and writing. Also: Can express him/herself fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions or Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices? Donnez-moi un break, there are a lot of people who can’t do that in their mother tongue.

  3. Seumas says:

    I never use ‘know’ in that context because (in my experience, anyway), it is usually said by Americans to convey that they have learned a few words but cannot actually speak the language in question.

    I once watched a conversation between two students in Edinburgh – one American and the other Dutch.

    American: “I know Spanish, French, Chinese, Japanese and Swahili.”
    Dutchman: “I can speak Dutch, English and French fluently. If you heard my German you would also call me ‘fluent’, but I don’t think it’s that good.”

    The American really only did know a few (badly pronounced) words in each of the languages. The Dutchman was far more reluctant to affirm that he could ‘speak’ German, even though he could cope very well in German conversation.

    A major difference between these two students, it seemed, was that one had spent a considerable amount of time amongst native speakers of his foreign languages, whereas the other had only encountered his foreign languages for short periods in classrooms: hence the quite different categories of ‘fluency/lack of fluency’ and ‘to know/not to know’ a language.

  4. Andrew says:

    I would never say that I “know” a language, that’s a horrible choice of words, worse even than “fluent”. The right way to go about this is to have a set of levels of competency that very specifically test a certain number of very specific areas of ability in very specific and measurable ways, that way you’re really quantifying someone’s skill in the language as best you can. The best system I’ve heard of so far is, as you already mentioned, the CEFR.


  5. When I think about it, I only really “know” my native language, English. All the others that I can speak or read or comprehend are just languages that I’ve studied (or, in one case, grown up with) to varying degrees of fluency. A foreign language I’ve studied for the better part of a decade, French, I still wouldn’t say I “know”; I’ll never understand French the way a native French speaker understands it. This isn’t just about idioms or slang, for some reason it feels like there’s more involved.

    At the same time, the question itself must be taken into consideration; if someone asked me, “Do you know French?”, I would hesitate and maybe reply that I’ve studied it and describe my level of competency. If the question were, “Do you know how to speak French?”, then I wouldn’t hesitate but would give the same answer. But if someone asked, “Do you know any French?”, my answer would be a definite yes. And then, there’s,
    “Do you speak French?”, and this last one seems just as frustratingly vague as the first.

  6. Adrienne says:

    Like the others I would never say I “know” a language without qualifying that statement. (and BTW, Seumas, I’m American, and don’t resemble your stereotyping comment above.) I know quite a bit of Spanish. (used to be near-fluent but have lost some). I know a few word & phrases in German and Portuguese. English is my native language so I guess I could say I “know” it but that strikes me as a strange thing to say.

  7. David Eger says:

    If I am ever asked how many languages I know, or speak, I can never give a straight answer The most concise answer I can give is the number of languages that I have, at some point, been able to converse in. (I am reasonably quick to pick up lanuages – for a layperson – but I am even quicker to lose whatever degree of fluency I had, as soon as I am no longer immersed in the language.). I think, however, that the verb ‘to know’ (which translates into most European languages as at least two separate words, anyway), can have a multitude of shades of meaning, which are understood according to context. If I were in a situation where there was, say, a monoglot Russian person in desparate need of help and somebody were to call out, “Does anyone know Russian?”, I would raise my hand and say, “Yes, a little bit.” – although I have never been able to hold more than a very rudimentary conversation in Russian, I would probably know enough to be able to ascertain a few essential facts about the person and, perhaps, help them out of their predicament. If, on the other hand, I were asked to proofread a text or compose an official letter, I would be unlikely to be of any help in any language other than my mother tongue (English). I would not say however, that English is the only language I ‘know’ – I know different languages ‘to varying degrees’, or ‘in different amounts’.

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