It’s June 4th as I start writing this, so about 3 years and 1 month after I first opened a book called Teach Yourself Dutch and started my multilingual journey. Thus time for an update.
Three years ago I was in Tallahassee, Florida, getting ready for my first stint living in the Netherlands and traveling abroad by myself. Today I’m 24 and have lived in the Netherlands twice for a total of almost three years. In the last three years I’ve traveled to 15 countries on 3 continents, and am now living in Mexico. I’m now a confident speaker of Dutch, a perhaps quirkier-than-before speaker of English, and some kind of speaker of Spanish.
Parts 1, 2, and 3 of the series detail how I got language #2 ‘under the knee’, as the Dutch say, as well as the approach I took to learning #3. This post is about what it means, or whether it actually means anything at all.
My Spanish journey
In high school in Florida I took four years of Spanish classes. I almost always got A’s and did well on my exams and could even read and write really well and comprehend pretty okay at one point.
I have a ridiculous memory of sitting in the car with my Nana one afternoon in my third year of high school, talking about school and what classes I liked and didn’t, and self-assuredly nodding and making the absurd assertion that I was “almost fluent” in Spanish now.
At university I took one more semester my third year, but it was really just to check off a foreign language requirement from the College of Arts and Sciences. At that point I was studying (and geekily enamored of) linguistics, the science and systems of language, and in some superficial way I felt like I liked ‘languages’, but I wasn’t quite ready to launch a blog called Globalect yet.
While I was taking that required class, I was also working as a bank teller. We were in the Florida Panhandle, pretty far removed from the immigration hotstpots of South Florida, but now and then we did get the odd immigrant from Cuba or Puerto Rico or Mexico who just didn’t speak English. One day I had such a customer in front of me, and my hands and voice tremored while I forced out my basic nouns and unconjugated verbs, replacing prepositions and conjunctions with vague hand gestures, to help the man.
This all seems like some silly past life now. But I still remember saying, thinking, and feeling that I was “almost fluent” in this language, despite the fact that I nearly fell into cardiac arrest when presented with a Spanish speaker who couldn’t speak my language.
I wouldn’t have that problem anymore. I may need to ask him to repeat himself or speak a bit more slowly or use another word, but we’d work it out sans panic attack. Does this mean I’m ‘fluent’ or ‘proficient’ or now finally ‘trilingual’? I’m still not sure.
‘Fluency’ in North America
In Trilingual Part 3 I talked about the concept of fluency and why it’s vague and unhelpful. To be ‘fluent’ in a language has nothing to do with perfection or accuracy, but instead means something like being able to engage comfortably in conversation, with a speed and range of expression that doesn’t limit spontaneous social interaction, and with such grammar and vocabulary that native speakers never or rarely have to consciously work to understand what you’re saying.
But this is still unhelpful: it’s relative, individual, and cultural.
Last year while helping a German friend prepare her application for an internship with a museum in New York, we talked about what to do with her language skills on her CV. When she visits France she can usually order her food, ask for directions, introduce herself and tell where she’s from, and understand the basic responses French people give in these kinds of conversations. So I told her she speaks ‘intermediate French’.
Of course if she’d been applying for a job in the Netherlands I would have encouraged her to use a term like ‘elementary’ or just entirely omit it. Language proficiency is partly culturally defined: when 17-year-old me thought he was “nearly fluent” in Spanish, as much as grown-up me wants to giggle and condescendingly toussle that head of 17-year-old hair that has since mostly disappeared, teenage Jake maybe wasn’t necessarily wrong. He was just being kind of American.
And when I say American, I mean North American. Canadians, US-Americans, and Mexicans make up a 500 million-person chunk of astoundingly monolingual people. Outside of francophone Quebec, the hispanicized southwestern US and South Florida, and areas with large bilingual indigenous communities in the south of Mexico, none of us are very keen on languages. Most of us speak an important lingua franca as our mother tongue, which understandably hinders our multilingual ambitions and lowers the fluency bar.
Even in my first weeks navigating Mexico in broken Spanglish, I heard so many times, “tú hablas muuuuy bien español!” And it was always a sincere compliment. What it means in American English is “you speak really good Spanish!” But what it means in World English is “you know several words and phrases of Spanish!”
So now that I’m here in Mexico City, trying to figure out if I’ve become ‘trilingual’ in three years, when I thought I was almost bilingual 7 years ago and people have been telling me that I speak great Spanish for months, it’s a bit difficult to gain perspective.
Defining (yourself with) useless terms
Questions of ‘fluency‘ or ‘proficiency‘, being ‘monolingual’ or ‘bilingual’ or ‘trilingual’ or a ‘polyglot’, speaking ‘intermediate’ or ‘advanced’ or ‘professionally proficient’ or ‘near-native’, all plague the pursuit of language learning. But most of these terms are pretty arbitrary, and while they’re helpful as benchmarks and gauges and approximations, they shouldn’t steal the focus.
In Part 3 I talked about avoiding these terms by being practical about language learning: what can you do and what do you want to do? These should be the guiding questions for language learning.
During my time managing this hostel in Mexico City, I’ve talked to the owner frequently about getting ‘functional bilinguals’ on the staff. We’ve got one or two people who are more or less completely monolingual in English or Spanish: they may know a few basic ‘hello how are you’ words, but they can’t answer the phone or help guests in the other language.
The functional bilinguals are then, to me, those people who can communicate and function in both of the languages we use day to day here in the hostel. Despite improperly conjugated verbs and grammatical errors and gaps in vocabulary, they can communicate and accomplish a task in a different language. They may not be able to give a rousing speech or write a play, but they can do what they need to.
When I said that I wanted to become ‘trilingual’, I think this is what I meant. I wanted to be able to do, relatively comfortably, whatever I felt I wanted or needed to do. So now as I give myself this evaluation, that’s what I’m asking: puedo hacer lo que quiero hacer?
So am I trilingual?
Well, that depends on what I want to do with Spanish. In Part 3, here’s how I defined that:
What I’m looking for in learning Spanish is to become a confident and expressive speaker of the language. I’ll definitely work on not sounding embarassingly gringo, but my main priorities are to be able to navigate social situations easily without needing English and to be able to live most of my day-to-day life in that language without it being a constant mental struggle.
Today, five and a half months after that post, I’m mostly doing this. I now understand most of what is said directly to me, and I can almost always express at least a semantically watered-down version of what I want to say. I have a few monolingual Spanish friendships, and most of the time they’re not difficult. I work at and even manage a backpackers’ hostel where I answer phones, help guests, write emails, and pay bills all in Spanish.
Sometimes all this makes me feel like yeah, obviously, I’m a fluent (if imperfect) Spanish speaker. But then when I look at it all relatively, I get discouraged.
In Dutch, I can be gezellig and partake in just about any kind of social activity. I’ve had close friendships and relationships. I read serious journalism and political satire and watch documentaries. I’ve read literature and watched movies and TV series all with passive, mostly effortless enjoyment.
I can’t really do any of this in Spanish.
But if it’s all relative, then what about English? In my mother tongue I can come up with a specific, situationally-appropriate word for nearly anything I want to express. I can barely pay attention to someone speaking to me while I do three other things and still hear and comprehend what they say. I can express and understand the tiniest nuances of mood and connotation, understand implicit relationships between words, adopt an entirely different vocabulary for different social and regional settings.
These are things I can’t really do in Dutch or Spanish.
So clearly I’m not monolingual, but just as clearly I’m not equipped with three entire language arsenals, perfectly prepared to move through three different cultures and languages without mental or social friction. It’s all relative, and it’s always ongoing.
The neverending journey
For now, in all its useless arbitrariness, for the sake of feeling like I achieved some arbitrary goal I set out to accomplish within an equally arbitrary timeframe, I’ll go ahead and stamp it on my forehead: trilingual, drietalig, trilinguë.
But it doesn’t mean that much. Languages two and three and all the way down the line will always be less complete than English. Even in my strong second language that I’m so proud of, I still can’t do everything I want to: there are things I still don’t understand, I still hate talking on the phone, now and then I hear a word come out of my mouth dripping in American accent, enzovoort.
In Spanish, there’s yet more work to be done. I’m still not super comfortable in groups. I still have no sense of nuance, or register, or connotation, or what’s Mexican Spanish and what’s universal. I can’t be very clever, and attempts at word jokes normally go amiss. Sometimes (more often than I like), I just don’t understand a damn word someone says to me. And some days I can barely string words together into one of the simple sentences I was once so proud of in 11th grade Spanish.
But even my mother tongue is always in endeavor. My communication skills are always growing, I learn new vocabulary here and there, and I’m becoming a better writer. Just like in Dutch and in Spanish, only with a twenty-one year head start.
Regardless of whether I choose to see myself as ‘trilingual’ or a ‘polyglot’ or ‘fluent’ in several languages, it’s all paying off, practically as well as in the gushy ‘learning for learning’s sake’ sense. New parts of the world have opened up to me, I can meet new people and learn about new peoples, and my capacity for social and cultural empathy is ever-growing. Whatever my level of Spanish or however I describe it, I’m gonna keep traveling the world, learning languages, and writing about it here.
If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the original ‘Trilingual in Three Years’ series, where I detailed my approach to rapid and efficient language learning: Part 1 on Learning Language like a Baby, Part 2 on Social Language Learning, and Part 3 on Talking like a Native.