Why Being ‘Fluent’ is a Stupid Goal
When deciding what language course or book you are going to pick off the shelf or add to your cart on Amazon, the first thing people often look for is how quickly the course or textbook will help them become ‘fluent.’ Language learners are always trying to find the *best* way to learn a new language, and for whatever reason, people aim for this dream of becoming fluent in Japanese.
This goal in of itself sounds lovely. Imagine some nice-looking human being talking about you and how attractive you are, wishing that you speak said language (Japanese) only for you to turn around and speak to them in polite and fluid Nihongo. Or traveling the Japanese country-side intermingling with the locals, sharing in stories and wonderful food. Maybe even having people confuse you for a native speaker when chatting jovially over the phone, etc… etc…
These are all wonderful goals and exciting/enviable experiences that you can do when you learn enough of the target language. But ‘fluency’ in the language, whatever that actually means, is an aimless and often fruitless pursuit. This is because there really isn’t a way to decide if someone is fluent or not.
How do You Become ‘Fluent’
If I told you that after 1 year of living in Japan you could be fluent would you believe me? How about 10 years? What about 30 years—would you be fluent then? Maybe. The reason being is that time and fluency are not directly correlated. Just because someone has lived in one place for a long time does not mean that they are wonderful speakers of that language. In fact, I interviewed a gentleman on my podcast who runs a blog and translated science fiction. He has never visited Japan until this summer, yet he has wonderful spoken Japanese and he is a thought leader in Japanese translation. If time was the deciding factor then he wouldn’t be fluent.
How then do you know if you are fluent? If you cannot get fluency through simply living in a country or spending time there, then there has to be some other way to decide if someone is fluent or not. I mean, if I am studying Japanese every day, when does the magic fluency card get bestowed upon me? Do you wake up one day magically fluent? Do you run a language race, memorize so many flashcards, or pass N1 of the JLPT ? Do Japanese angels descend from Mt. Fuji and crown you with the mantle of “Fluent Japanese Speaker-Sama?” As expected, tests, papers, and diplomas don’t equal proficiency. You can read 100 grammar books and follow 1,000,000 accounts on Instagram (follow me) and be no better than the day you started, if you never speak.
Language learners of all levels aspire in one way or another to become good at Japanese. We see people who are ahead of us in a specific linguistic area and often see ourselves considerably further behind them. That does nothing for your linguistic ability. Fluency is like saying you are going to be a pro at basketball without points, another team, a league, a court, and a million exceptions to every rule.
Without a clear and easy to understand goal in mind, saying that you are fluent in Japanese is a phrase without meaning. I believe in most situations my Japanese ability would be sufficient to allow me to do most everything that I would want to do in Japan. However, if I needed to visit a mechanic I would have to idea how to express what was wrong with my car, even if I knew it in English—despite my language ability.
What I’m getting at, is that in order for language learning and language teaching to move past its current constraints, we need to abandon meaningless jargon. The foremost among those hindering words and concepts is the bitter label of fluent—an arbitrary, and honestly, relative term.
So how do we move forward? The first step would be to stop contrasting fluency with Japanese grammatical accuracy. For anyone who has ever actually learned a language, you will find there is a difference between a good language learner and those who are the most grammatically accurate. In fact, they can fall on opposite sides of the ability spectrum. Every Interpreter and Translator that I have worked with or met (aside from bilingual people) has relayed to me in some fashion or another that the ability to speak like the target group is true fluency. Hence why interpreters and translators are taught, correctly I might add, to translate the meaning and not the objective vocabulary.
In Universities and High Schools, we Pidgeon-Hole students into matching words and choosing the ‘correct’ verb tense. Yet we often neglect the true spoken forms and function. An example of this would be Japanese adjectives. Any traditional Japanese teacher worth his/her salt would tell you that using an exclamative adjective like ‘yabai’ should not be pronounced ‘yabee’ or ‘yabaa,’ yet ask as any proficient non-linguist in Japan and you will undoubtedly find these forms very frequently. This is not incorrect grammar, it is prescriptive linguistic elitism masquerading as objective grammatical accuracy.
Because of the pervasive testing culture and the need to rank students, universities often run themselves away from actually helping people learn a language.
Where to go from here.
After 10,000 mistakes you become fluent. That was the best language learning advice I ever received. It is the motto of the Manga Sensei, and what I believe to be the only way to encourage people to actually progress in the language.
At Google software engineers are encouraged during their first 6 months to make as many mistakes as fast as possible to catch up with the programming that the rest of the team is working on. The American Air-Force is taught that in dog-fights they should not to worry as much about ammo preservation or initial shot accuracy, but should become experts at adjusting and getting on target before the enemy. In other words, make mistakes fast and self-correct.
Google and the American Airforce both encourage mistakes, even push their members to make mistakes as quickly as possible. Why then do why hold up student’s bad work in front of the class to berate them due to their obvious incompetence in a completely new language?
On the same token, LDS missionaries are spoken to exclusively in their target language at the Missionary Training Center, with locations all over the world. This intense training starts alongside religious study from day one. Then for the next 9-12 weeks, all while being religiously required to work, speak, and talk about religion in their new tongue immediately. These young 18 to 26-year-old young adults are vigorously encouraged to “open their mouth” before even stepping foot on the area of which they have been called to serve. They are even required to knock on people’s doors with little ability in the language. They are expected to make these mistakes in order to progress faster so they can do their job.
Maybe the Mormons have something here. Instead of shaming and condemning failure, they expected and encouraged language students to make mistakes? What if fluency, whatever that means, was no longer the goal—but progress was?
If you love a language and culture, I doubt that once the sacred fluency staff is granted to its honorary wielder that you spontaneously stopped studying and diving deep into your chosen culture. Instead, people passionate about a language, tend to be those who more profoundly drink from the cup of meaningful conversation and immersive experience.
People who love a language don’t ever stop learning it.
The third and final step that I can see is a reinvestment in goal setting and purpose-driven language study. As I have mentioned in a previous article on bad habits, if you want to achieve your purpose in Japanese or any other language your goals must properly align with it. What if we evaluated ourselves not on translations of vocabulary words, or how accurately you can quote arbitrary poetry, but on how well you—the language learner—could accomplish a task?
In summary, if you have a plan or goal to become fluent you might want to step away from the amorphic and meta, and onto the solid ground of actual language learning. Set goals, try to speak like a native, expect progress not fluency, and strive to make mistakes.