As I mentioned yesterday, in addition to speaking English, I also speak French. Why, you ask? Well, when I was a kid my mom was a big advocate of learning a foreign language, to the point of starting a foreign language program at my elementary school. I was lucky enough to keep up with my studies all through middle and high school, and French even ended up being my “major by default” for undergrad (but that’s a story for another time). I even managed to study abroad twice: for a semester in high school, and a full year in college.
Why French? To be honest, the choice was fairly arbitrary. My parents had decided they wanted me to learn a foreign language, but they left the choice up to me. At the time, I was given the options of Spanish and French. Now, while Spanish may have seemed like the more useful option, I wasn’t exactly thinking like that at age six or seven. No, to me, I just liked the sound of French better. I tried a few weeks of Spanish, but it didn’t take. The rest, as they say, c’est l’histoire.
I think it’s safe to say that at my peak level of practice, probably just after coming home from a year in Paris, I was fluent in French. I haven’t kept up with it, unfortunately, but I’d like to think that my skills, while rusty, wouldn’t take that much polishing to get me back up to snuff.
What does “fluent” mean to me? Well, I don’t consider it the same as “bilingual.” For me, someone who is bilingual has been raised in two (or more) language since birth (or a very early age), and is easily comfortable in either. They effectively have two (or more) primary languages. Fluency, on the other hand, implies a favoring of one language above another; a primary and a secondary (or secondaries), if you will. If I lived in France, for instance, I’d likely make it to “bilingual” without too much trouble. But since I don’t, I remain merely (heh) fluent.
But being fluent in another language is an interesting experience, especially from inside one’s own head. If you speak multiple languages at an advanced level, you likely know what I’m talking about. There comes a point, I find, where you start thinking in the foreign language. You no longer have to translate things in your head: you can go directly from concept to object. Maybe I can illustrate the difference.
Translation-based knowledge: “’Chat‘ is ‘cat,’ which is the animal that goes ‘meow’ and the Internet seems unhealthily fascinated with.”
Fluent knowledge: “Chat est l’animal qui dit ‘miaou’ et par qui l’Internet est obsédé.”
Does that make sense? It’s like having two different discrete modes of thinking. To put it into nerd terms, it’s the difference between running a virtual machine (like Parallels) and dual booting (a la Boot Camp).
This has some interesting consequences. For instance, it can be hard for me to translate things from French to English, a skill that most people think would be fairly simple. But in order for me to translate something, I have to use a completely different process than I used to understand the phrase in the first place. A process I’ve spent years training myself out of.
So what does this mean, in the long run? Probably not much. If you don’t speak a foreign language (you should), this may not make much sense. If you do, then hopefully you understand my pain. I’d like to explore knowing a foreign language in the future, but that’s all I’ve got right now. I’d be interested to hear other people’s thoughts on the matter.