Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The danger-zone skill level in language learning

When you're learning a language, there's a level of skill that I like to refer to as "the danger zone".

To show you where it comes into play, I would say that your ability in a language roughly progresses as per the following graph.

You start with the obvious beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels. After that, you get to proficient, where you can use the language to get done whatever it is you need to get done, but you're still obviously not fluent. At this level, and those below it, your lack of fluency lets you make mistakes that would otherwise be considered rude without you being considered rude; fluent speakers will generally assume you just don't know enough of the language to speak with sufficient social grace.

To skip to the top of the skill chart, you've got the native level—which very few language learners ever obtain—and fluency. At the level of fluency, they may still be able to tell that you're not a native speaker, but you're language skills are so good that they assume that if you say something rude, you're actually being rude—as opposed to it just being a linguistic screw-up. And, since you're fluent, they're probably right.

Between proficiency and fluency, you've got what I've cornily designated "the danger zone". At this level, you can easily communicate just about whatever you want to communicate, and some fluent speakers will start to think that you are fluent as well. However, in reality, you're not, and some of the mistakes you're making—which may be considered to be rude—are merely just you mangling the language.

This is just where I find myself in certain areas of Japanese. In casual conversation, I might have punched through to fluency. However, in the formal business Japanese that I constantly need to use at work, I find myself smack in the danger zone; I'm probably just about good enough to fool some fluent speakers into thinking that I'm also a fluent speaker in this regard, but in fact I'm still learning to smoothly use the various polite forms that are necessary in these kinds of communications. I probably get some leeway simply because I'm clearly not Japanese, but I definitely need to be careful because once in a while I screw something up that would obviously be considered rude if said by a native speaker.

So that's the diagnosis, but what's the cure? Well, it's really no different than learning anything else in a language: exposure, exposure, exposure. I'm constantly hearing this language around me, so I'm pretty confident that I'll get it sooner or later, but for now I'll just have to struggle through and try not to offend anyone too horribly.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic observation. I've found that language is very topical as well. In some conversations I can be nearly native; in others, far from it.

    I'm lucky in that Brazilians are very forgiving of mistakes. On the other hand, I tend to run with folks who are very proper about their grammar so the "danger zone" still exists for me.