On languages & fluency

Something interesting I learned about languages today:

Italians are some of the fastest speakers on the planet, chattering at up to nine syllables per second. Many Germans, on the other hand, are slow enunciators, delivering five to six syllables in the same amount of time. Yet in any given minute, Italians and Germans convey roughly the same amount of information, according to a new study. Indeed, no matter how fast or slowly languages are spoken, they tend to transmit information at about the same rate: 39 bits per second, about twice the speed of Morse code.

And there’s this thing about not one language is better than another:

The “crystal clear conclusion,” he adds, is that although languages differ widely in their encoding strategies, no one language is more efficient than another at delivering information.

The real problem, isn’t about delivering the information, but it’s this:

… he says, instead of being limited by how quickly we can process information by listening, we’re likely limited by how quickly we can gather our thoughts.

I figured I should pick up Spanish back again now that I have started watching Spanish series on Netflix — first Elite, and now La Casa de Papel. In entirety, I could speak and understand about 4 languages — although 2 native and almost native (English and Malay), and the rest are conversational (Spanish & Turkish). I also found it funny that due to the fact that I am a Muslim and we are taught to recite Quran from as early as we could remember, a lot of us non-Arabic speaking Muslims could read some of the Arabic words and letters but have no idea what they mean, unless we learn the Arabic language from the start.

We always think of ‘fluency’ to indicate ‘native-level proficient’, but it turns out even the most eloquent speaker in another language which they were not raised with were still not perceived as ‘fluent’ by their native speakers, as in this case:

A “heritage speaker” of Italian, I’d been living in Italy for two years when I overheard a receptionist refer me to me as “that foreigner who doesn’t speak Italian”. I was confused, then gutted. That one casual sentence launched a journey that resulted in my being forced to acknowledge that while I had grown up speaking Italian at home and was fluent, I was not by any means proficient.

Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English – a popular chain of English schools in Italy – says that fluency actually refers to how “smoothly” and “efficiently” a second language (L2) speaker can speak on “a range of topics in real time”. While fluency may denote a degree of proficiency, it does not automatically imply accuracy – the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences – nor does it imply grammatical range.

Fluency is then, gauged through The Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of References (CEFR) for Languages, which groups language learners into concrete proficiency levels:

A1: Capabilities range include basic introductions and answering questions about personal details provided the listener speaks slowly and is willing to cooperate.

A2: Can describe in simple terms aspects of his/her past, environment and matters related to his/her immediate needs and perform routine tasks requiring basic exchanges of information.

B1: Can deal with most daily life situations in the country where the language is spoken. Can describe experiences, dreams and ambitions and give brief reasons for opinions and goals.

B2: Can understand the themes of complex texts on both concrete and abstract topics and will have achieved a degree of fluency and spontaneity, which makes interaction with native speakers possible without significant strain for either party.

C1: Can understand a wide range of longer texts and recognise subtleties and implicit meaning; producing clear, well-structured and detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

C2: Can understand virtually everything heard or read, expressing themselves spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, while differentiating finer shades of meaning even in highly complex situations.

With the exception of Malay, I am still not fluent in any of the rest of the other languages, so it seems.

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