Fluency

4 March 2010

I write often, here, or at least it seems like often, about how indeterminate fluency in a language feels, like kneeling down to grab fistfuls of water, how speaking well approaches & recedes in equal measure. This is maybe something only us monolingual kids get really neurotic about, because up until Language No. 2 it’s all binary, you speak or you don’t, & I don’t know if this is really a noticeable preoccupation (in the same way, I mean) for people who live & speak in multiple languages.

These are a few things I think about: The way that, if I speak English heavily for a day, I have a kind of linguistic hangover, & my Spanish comes out more sluggish & grasping than usual the next morning. The way that a conversation is like a dance, it depends to an extent on your partner filling in the gaps or adding on or following you, so that you speak better & more fluidly with native speakers than with your foreign friends, unconsciously emulating or echoing them.

It’s funny, too, the way that people modulate the way they speak depending on how fluent they think you are, which if they don’t know you can swing on things totally unrelated to your actual speaking ability, like your accent, or whether you make a small error too early, or whether it’s loud in the room & you don’t hear what they said the first time and ask them to repeat it.

Accents, actually — rhythm, language-as-music, sounds between words — make a big difference. Last year I could pass for a local for five or ten seconds at a spell — I had the local Jaén accent, a few expressions & fillers pitch-perfect, & while over a long conversation I’d show something, a word slightly americanized, a misgendered noun, etc etc . . . here, I’ve had to relearn my fillers, pronounce the s at the end. Asking for things & being immediately understood is getting the rhythm right, not the words, because it’s a certain formula that’s expected, not content, & if you deviate from that, if you haven’t learned it, then they have to slow down and dial in & listen to what you’re saying, it’s harder. Little things, like asking for un crianza instead of una, because the gender comes from the unvoiced part of the phrase, you’re really asking for un tinto de crianza.

You can tell you’re getting better when people stop saying, Pero hablas muy bien, eh? People tell you that you’re speaking very well when they notice the effort, they’re encouraging you. After a certain point, after they’re understanding you without effort, they forget that you’re a foreigner speaking the language, they stop saying so altogether.

I know I’ve been speaking too much English when someone compliments me on my Spanish. I smile, say thanks, inwardly I’m saying to myself, Natch, not again. I must have messed something up.

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