Why fluency doesn’t matter

I’ve been told that dreaming in a language is the greatest indicator of fluency. I find this wisdom confusing, because I have never understood what it means to dream “in” a language. My dreams are strings of ideas and emotions, and the conversations they contain never occur in a specific language. Since dreams convey the activity of our subconscious mind, it makes sense that mine aren’t in any one language, because I am not even sure what language that would be.

My first words were in Tamil, a South Indian language I speak with my family. Tamil contains words that have no English equivalent, and heavily relies on context and connotation to express meaning. Thus, translating between Tamil and English is a matter of explaining ideas rather than defining terms. My favorite Tamil word, paavam, for example, describes something that elicits pity due to its endearing helplessness. Whenever I see a wet dog or a crying baby, my emotional response stems from the idea that the word paavam represents. During the course of my childhood, I also learned Mandarin and French. Studying the Mandarin script introduced a new version of reading that involved characters rather than a phonetic alphabet; French exposed me to unfamiliar structures such as its complex orthography and gendered nouns. These new languages served not only as methods of communication, but also as new frameworks in which to organize my thinking. I became aware that the unfamiliar concepts I found in these languages also offered me insight into the minds of their native speakers. This realization motivated me to try learning a new language, and in fifth grade, I began studying Japanese.

At the end of my eighth grade year, I traveled to Japan as an exchange student. This trip culminated three years of language study, and involved staying with a host family and attending school in Japan. The first few days of the trip were challenging, as I struggled to communicate with my host family due to my lack of confidence. I panicked when I wanted to ask for a towel for my shower, not because I didn’t know how, but because I was afraid of stumbling or making a mistake. Within a few days, I overcame this fear out of necessity, and was able to ask for what I needed. As I became able to communicate my needs, and as my practical Japanese improved, I became more aware of my very rudimentary capacity to describe emotion. My vocabulary consisted of “happy,” “sad,” “tired,” and “lonely,” leaving me with no accurate way to explain feelings such as homesickness to my host family. I remember calling my mom and tearfully telling her that I felt trapped by my inability to convey my emotions to those around me. My time in Japan did vastly improve my Japanese, but not beyond the conversational skills brought on by daily interactions. The experience of being unable to share aspects of my internal dialogue transformed my understanding of the relationship between language and communication. Even within my multilingual upbringing, I had never been forced to communicate in a language in which I could not express emotion, and experiencing that challenge instilled in me a powerful empathy for people who regularly speak an unfamiliar language. Learning a new language teaches you that your own thoughts, feelings, and internal existence far outsize the simple concepts you can verbalize.

The infamous American attitude toward people who speak English “imperfectly” makes sense. In a society that doesn’t value learning second and third languages, it’s easy to believe that another person’s entire ability to think and feel is represented by their ability to speak your language. When we look down upon people who speak English as their second language, we tend to forget that they have a first language of their own, in which their thoughts and emotions are as colorful as ours. We convince ourselves that broken English equals a broken mind, because we have nothing to remind us that our own intelligence does not manifest in any language other than English. The value of learning a new language, as an American, is thus not to aspire toward fluency, but rather to embrace difficulty. The struggle to express ourselves, and the feeling of being unable, is in itself the value of language learning. In a society that tells us we ought to focus only on things we’re good at, that value is often overlooked.

I don’t ever expect to become “good” at a language I am learning by choice. I am “good” at English, and I am decent in Tamil, but ultimately I know that my Mandarin, my French, and my Japanese will never be above the bottom ten percent of all speakers worldwide, because no amount of studying can make me a native speaker. Learning languages certainly isn’t the pursuit for those seeking eminence. Accepting that the purpose of learning a language isn’t to become good at it opens the door to learning language for its own sake, which is what motivated me to study Arabic. The wisdom offered to prospective Arabic students is that it is a very hard language (especially for English speakers), that there are many dialects and you will never learn them all, and that it will take ten years to reach meaningful proficiency. People imagine that learning a new language is a get-rich-quick scheme, and they’re upset when they find out it’s not. It isn’t quick, and you’ll probably never get rich. None of this matters if you don’t care about getting “good.”

Arabic, in addition to being another language in which I can’t express complex emotions, has taught me the value of accommodation. I studied Modern Standard Arabic in Morocco, where the local dialect uses French and indigenous Amazigh words as well as grammar structures not present in other Arabic speaking regions. Someone from Jordan might not be able to understand Moroccan Arabic, despite the fact that they technically speak the same language. I had spent a long time wondering how people speaking different dialects of Arabic communicate with relative ease. Having overheard countless conversations in which Americans refuse to understand someone speaking English with an accent, it was difficult for me to imagine people unfazed by such strong dialectical differences.

The key is that Arabic speakers expect to accommodate one another. They are aware of the unusual aspects of their own dialects, and try to speak without those variations in order to make themselves more easily understood. They use the highly formal language of the Quran when necessary, tapping into the base of common knowledge held throughout the Islamic world. They speak slowly, they repeat themselves when necessary, and they do all of this with genuine patience and a compassionate smile. They find these differences interesting, and ask questions about each other’s background. They laugh about the absurdities of their shared language, and make fun of their own miscommunications.

What we can learn from Arabic speakers is that perfection is not a prerequisite to comprehension. Americans don’t accept accented English, let alone broken English, despite the fact that with just a change of attitude, we could understand both. If we start to value learning other languages, we’ll see the direct benefit of being able to communicate in small ways, and the indirect benefit of building empathy towards people who are doing their best to communicate with us.

Our goal shouldn’t be to dream in a foreign language. Our goal should be figuring out ways to share our dreams.

Why fluency doesn’t matter

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