Native fluency: A naively native response

Posted on Fri 21 Oct 2011 @ 4.06pm HKT



AN ESTEEMED SUBSCRIBER wrote a superb comment yesterday on our featured article “Native fluency, or just naive fluency?” It deserves a dedicated response.

N.B. The subscriber’s comment relates to Chinese learners and about learning English, but the theme of the comment is valid for all nationality of learners and the learning of any language.

I have to say, the comment was brilliant.

* * *

On what non-native speakers can do to achieve native fluency (not just in English, but any language):

“It’s strange because many of the non-Chinese people I’ve known who have studied another language intensively throw the book out the window almost immediately, preferring instead to learn language that is current and useful. I did the same, for the most part.”

LEOS writes:

Like I explained in the original article, people still believe in the mad idea that anyone could achieve native fluency just by instruction — and instruction well after early formative years. People like that need to relearn the meaning of the world ‘native.’

This crazy idea is more strongly developed and reinforced by dint of history and culture among the Chinese than any other nationality.

Education systems worldwide also reinforce and perpetuate this madness because, ultimately, it provides for teaching jobs and help garner income from fee-paying students in the private sector. It’s mostly a matter of economics more than of education, linguistics or language acquisition. No kidding.

In those places with multiple national cultures and national languages (such as Europe), people quickly wise up to the idea that the language being learnt must be useful, useable and current. (‘Current’ is not quite the same as fashionable or trendy or ‘hip,’ although lots of brain-damaged people think it means that.)

The Chinese (or all Asians, for that matter) need to take a leaf from ‘foreigners’ about how to learn a language. After all, especially in the case of Europeans, they speak more languages on a daily necessity than do the Chinese/Asians. *Snorg*

* * *

On the hidden dangers of learning a foreign language through one means and one register:

Whenever I spoke Mandarin and encountered a word that my friends, neighbors, and co-workers told me sounded strange or overly formal in the context within which I was using it, I would immediately dump that word in my mental recycle bin. As we discussed before on Tom’s blog, many of my colleagues learning English, on the other hand, would constantly second guess my advice and would choose the often laughably outdated textbook as the final arbiter in any language-related question.”

It is amazing and astonishing that the Chinese could correct you about Chinese with such commonsensically good practice — but simultaneously be in a state of semiconsciousness about themselves when it comes to their learning of English.

I myself have encountered the exact same situations before — I spika dah lingo, I outtake such an outdated textbook as the tiebreaker, I upstand and proclaim whatever the hell is in the textbook, and hey-ho! they say mah book’s a shambles and irrelevant for modern usage.

Odd that they could do that on foreigners learning their language, but can’t do it for themselves about the foreign language(s) they’re learning.

It isn’t a case of hypocrisy — more a case of retardation and retardedness.

* * *

On the mesmerising quality of ‘native fluency’ (or how the words ‘native fluency’ turns you into a naïve rube):

Regarding native fluency, I can’t begin to tell you how frustrating it was talking about ‘fluency’ with my colleagues and friends. I remember one meeting involving a discussion on how to improve the fluency and accuracy of the employees’ American and British English accents. You could taste the disappoint[ment] when, after hearing them give extremely brief presentations, I announced that absolutely no one had sounded even remotely like a native speaker.”

This is a very common reaction from Chinese, Korean and Japanese learners. Paradoxically, we get less of this kind of ‘disappointment’ from those same learners for French, German, Spanish, Russian or other European languages.

There’s something about English that just shakes and rattles them not being able to sound like a native speaker.

Linguists (as in the perverse field of linguistics) have never been able to explain why Asian learners of English as opposed to other European languages would react this way. There’s nothing in psychology on it either. In that sense, then this area is ripe ground for groundbreaking linguistics or psycho research that could bring fame and fortune for the researcher to the level of linguistics luminaries like M.A.K. Halladay.

Gratuitous self-promo: Whatever little French, German and Italian that I could manage, I speak them with a decidedly English accent — even having lived in those countries during my formative years. The funny thing is that people (mostly Chinese) wondered why it doesn’t bother me to ‘achieve’ native fluency in those languages:

  • Duh, ‘cos I’m no native from there.
  • Duh, ‘cos I never stayed long enough to speak like their natives.
  • Duh, ‘cos I do fairly okay listening to those people already.
  • Duh, ‘cos itsa bitta too late for me at my age to wasta mah time on achieving dah impossible.
  • Duh-uh.

* * *

On being told that communicability trumps accentability:

“But, I assured them, as long as they were able to communicate effectively and make themselves understood in another language, I didn’t care how they sounded, I told them as bluntly as I possibly could, ‘You’re learning English in China, so you’re going to have a Chinese accent.’ Indians speak English with an Indian accent, but they make themselves understood just fine. Australians, Canadians, Brits, Kiwis, and Americans all have different accents, but they understand one another just fine.”

This is perhaps the worst-possible answer these people (especially the Chinese) ever hoped to hear.

It’s also the one response I love to lay on these people — exactly because they don’t want to hear it. Their poe-faced expression is pricelesssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.

Truth be told, even when a John O. Chinaman is learning another Chinese dialect, the idea that (say) a Mandarin-speaker can’t handle (say) the Cantonese accent 100% is shameful — deserving to be stigmatised as an irrelephant (see Glossary) in the Chinese mind.

This ‘One Hundred Percent or Bust’ mindset even amongst the most liberal-minded Chinese carries over to their learning of ‘outside’ languages like English, etc.

Again, it comes back to their warped understanding of the word native.

“I tried to help them understand that, once you leave your country of origin, your accent of English is often your identifier when you encounter people abroad. Americans sound American because they’re from the United States and Chinese people sound Chinese because they come from China. They don’t expect me to sound like 53-year-old pot-bellied, cigarette-smoking, Erguotou-swigging, man-purse-carrying Beijing native, so why should I expect them to sound like June Cleaver?”

Again, it comes back to the Chinese idea of ‘One Hundred Percent Or Bust.’ My own observation has been that, when a homegrown Chinese person wants to learn (say) English, said person DOES NOT want to be identified as a Chinaman speaking English.

Those who have a smattering of second-hand understanding of popular psychology can readily see there is an inferiority complex going on here.

Not to put too fine a point on things — after long living in this part of the world (the Far East) more as a local homeboy and less of a (semi-)expat — I have to say most Asians would actually prefer to sound like June Cleaver than June Chi-sin (chi-sin being Cantonese for ‘bonkers’). Which is pretty chi-sin any way you look at it.

* * *

On the ‘facts’ and factuality of authentic language acquition:

“I’ve forgotten how many times I tried to explain the most basic ideas of first and second language acquisition. Children acquire languages when they’re young or, to borrow a linguistic term, are in the middle of their critical period of language acquisition. I never went to class to learn how to speak my own language, I simply acquired it by being immersed in the pre-existing language environment.

“But for many Chinese parents, with their emphasis on classes, classes, classes and keeping up with the Wangs, telling them that language acquisition happens on its own through exposure to a foreign language is the equivalent of sitting in front of the fire and divining the cracks it makes in a tortoise shell.”

Those are good and commendable intentions, and it shows a genuine helpfulness and forthrightness. However, faced with the attitude of ‘every vision is met with an equal and opposite revision’ from bozos like that, it’s obvious the effort to set the record straight is — how shall we say? — wasting your breath.

Despite the seemingly introverted disposition of most Far Easterners, they are not particularly insightful about themselves, I have to say. The Chinese and the Koreans have numerous blindspots about themselves. It’s no f@#king ray of sunshine living with these people’s attitudes to language learning.

By contrast, the Japanese are relatively less stuck — and less stuck up — about ‘chasing after native fluency’ than the Chinese are. Once they realise native fluency can’t be learnt, the Japs are surprisingly comfortable with the ‘Japaneseness’ of their English. It’s mainly because of the much tighter cohesiveness of Japanese society than Chinese society. The gaijin don’t understand us, so we don’t need to understand or speak to the gaijin so well. The Japanese value their Japaneseness more than scoring high in native fluency in some gaijin lingo.

That self-realisation of the Japanese that they speak Japlish with a Japanese accent actually tidies up a lot of time-wasting blindspots for them. The Japanese psyche is ingrained to cultivate or nurture creativity and resourcefulness (notwithstanding its highly regimented social order). So they channel their energies more usefully into discussing highly complex ideas using highly simple English — it doesn’t always work, of course, but they try. The Japs want to get the message in first: the Chinese want the language, then the message.

Reality check: 19 Japanese Nobel prizes vs. 12 Chinese Nobels (4 being for non-Chinese born in China born pre-1949, and 6 for homegrown Chinese also born pre-1949).

The biggest limitation of the Chinese mentality language-wise is their attitude: with 5,000 years of civilisation under their belt, who are we laowai/gweilo/gaijin/mun-oehan/orang luar/tagalabas/bahari/chaw tang chati to lecture them on how to learn a language — especially a 700-year-old one like Modern English?

* * *

An insight on the effortless effort to dispense with common sense and go for total abdication of parental responsibility, language-wise:

Being the resident foreigner in my neighborhood, I’ve had this conversation many times:

Parent: Why isn’t my child speaking English? He has English classes at school AND we enrolled him in night and weekend classes, but he never speaks English!

Me: Do you speak English with him sometimes at home? Maybe a few hours each week?

Parent: No, of course not! My English is bad.

Me: But you’re speaking English now and I can understand you just fine.

Parent: No, don’t be so polite, my accent is very strong.

Me: How will your child learn English if he’s conditioned to think of it as the language he speaks during English class at school and/or the language he speaks with white-faced foreigners?

Parent: I don’t know, that’s their job.

You wouldn’t believe how common THAT dialogue occurs even in a bilingual English/Chinese place like Hong Kong! The last line from the parent is stark naked reality. Zombie parents like that are childish and irresponsible, and don’t deserve to have kids, if you ask me.

“As long as a child is receiving positive input in the target language and is in an environment in which they feel comfortable enough to produce language, there’s no limit to how much they can learn. Many of the younger foreign children in my complex attended local schools where the language of instruction was Mandarin. Given that they’re living in China, they’re encountering Chinese absolutely everywhere, so, naturally, after a few years they’re basically native speakers. They’re completely immersed in a Chinese-language environment AND their parents make sure to speak to them in Chinese as well.”

Precisely. There are loads of ‘white’ kids here in Hong Kong who speak perfect, unaccented Cantonese because they were born here, grew up here, schooled here, lived here, hung out here and pretty much be part of the life here. I know thirtysomethings who are for chris’ sakes whiter than the whitest snow and can bang out the localest of local Cantonese — because they grew up here. And in return, their English is not so hot. You win some, you lose some.

“Another example of this would be the millions of Asian Americans, Asian Canadians, European Asians and ANZ Asians who have acquired English as their first language, but have also acquired their parents’ or grandparents’ native language as their second language, making them multilingual at a young age. In both cases, their fluency was mind-blowing for many people, who would marvel at the child’s language ability and typically ask, ‘What class did they take? Where we can we sign up? How much does it cost?’ ”

The overriding factor affecting many locals’ perception is that these kids are Asian-blooded after all. Because of that (so their warped mindset tells them) these Asiatic kids must have ‘achieved’ native fluency through classroom learning or somesuch nonsense (like YouTube!).

It completely escapes these retards that these ‘Asian’ kids are nothing of the such — they’re actually Yanks, Canucks, Eurofags, Pommies, Aussies, Kiwis, etc, who just happened to be Asian by blood. Indeed, they just don’t get it that Yanks can be rainbow-coloured.

If blood really is linked to language acquisition, then I’ll just take take off now and get a blood transfusion from a linguist (a polyglot: not someone from linguistics).

Shameless self-plug: I myself spent a lot of time growing up in several different countries, invariably in boarding schools and almost invariably the sole Chinky-looking face in the school population. My sole talent in my miserable life is my ability to speak Chinese fluently and flawlessly even after years-long stretch of speaking nothing but English, French, German, Italian, Arabic or whatever.

The moment I come off the plane back in Hong Kong, and I’m hit in the face with derogatory remarks like, “How come you cannot read Chinese? But you ARE Chinese by blood after all, aren’t you?” As if my Chinese blood (or cat fur on my head, or ponytailed hair, or size 8½D cowboy boots) actually contributes to my ability to automatically know Chinese writing.

Just for the lulz (see Glossary), I’ve learnt to respond to these people about classes, etc, with a flippant remark, said with a seriously straight face:

“It’s very expensive and takes a long time. You need to have
lots of money and own a time machine. You need to send
your kid abroad, and also back in time, so that he/she may
grow up there and live a proper, easygoing childhood
among those foreigners to get that skill — and also to get laid.”

Naturally, I’m not very popular with those people just about that moment. But then, they’re douchebags to me anyway, so there’s no love lost.

“A few years ago I read an article on CNN detailing a Chinese adoptee’s trip back to China to visit his biological parents and their family. They were stunned that he couldn’t speak Chinese. Although they were from the countryside and they had had little in the way of education, I’ve found the idea that language is inherently connected to race (in this case Chinese) oddly prevalent even among modernized, middle-class city-dwellers.”

Totally proves my point above. Yes, I too believe ‘One Hundred Percent Or Bust.’ It’s just that my 100% ain’t their 100%.

Language-through-race is oddly prevalent too in a modern, bilingually educated place like Hong Kong, despite our schoolchildren and regular people have the highest exposure to any kind of foreign language than any other Asian country.

* * *

On how to be a smart aleck the dumb way:

“Unfortunately in China at least, English students spend far too much energy memorizing reams of useless vocabulary and grammar rules, running through accent reduction exercises, and attempting to quantify what little English they do know (‘I know 15,000 words, how many do you know?’) with an air of authoritativeness that grows annoying over time, rather than seeking to acquire a language they can actually use.”

That is 101% abso-effing-lutely true.

Honestly speaking, though, I can’t blame people for doing courageously stupid things like that. After all, there is a penchant (especially among the Chinese) — nay, a requirement — that an unending piss-stream of words, adverbs, adjectives, phrasal verbs, idioms and metaphors must be splattered over the place in order to ‘achieve’ that socially acceptable aura of being ‘cultured and learned.’ (Like the sentence just now.)

Oddly enough, this kind of faggotry is quite common in Hong Kong too, even when the average Hongkonger already gets the most amount of formal English-language instruction than any other Asian country (and that includes Australia, New Zealand and Singapore!).

In Hong Kong, English instruction starts right at nursery or kindergarten level (around 3-8 years old), working its way to primary school (8-14) and secondary school (14-19). During the 10 years’ free secondary education guaranteed to all bona fide Hong Kong residents/citizens, the average brat gets a consistent diet of 8 hours a week of English instruction at secondary level. That comes to around 8 hours/week × 40 weeks = 320 hours a year — or 3,200 hours over the entire 10-year span of schooling for the average acned brat. No other non-English-speaking country comes this close.

After thousands of hours of English instruction, with shabby English to show for it, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to explain to us that the whole mentality the Chinese, Koreans and Japanese have taken on about language learning is just what it is — Deadsville.

Another shamefully shameless self-plug: Some years ago, my own English vocabulary had been officially tested (hopefully, objectively so) at 10,000 words. (I can’t remember or search for the actual name of the test anymore.) Ten thousand words basically puts me in the top- or second-top-tier editor ranking (which I was before I went rogue and gone over to printing instead).

I get quite a fair bit of the N number of words” attitude as well. The smug look on their faces makes me want to stick an ice lolly in their eyesockets. Being a motorcycle-riding wuss that I am, here’s a flavour of my comeback (real convo, from memory):

Barnacle Breath: I achieved 10,000 words in my vocabulary in written and oral English.

Me(smirking): Oral???

Barnacle Breath (switching to Cantonese): How to say it then in English?

Me (in English, changing the focus): How long did it take you to ‘achieve’ 10,000 words?

Barnacle Breath: I achieved my vocabulary all my life during my education in school.

(See what I mean about textbooky English?)

Me: You — 10,000 words. Me — only 700. But I can USE every single one of those 700 words — and I can use them without thinking. Which you can’t because I see you’re running rivers.

Barnacle Breath: Rivers?

Me: See what I mean?

* * *

(hat tip and bows to NiubiCowboy for the comments)

© Learn English or Starve, 2011.

Images: Bricks as binos via Seth Goldstein ♦ ‘I sound so fluent’ via Scholastic ‘100 or Bust’ via Squidoo The French They Never Taught You via Canadian Scholars Press Venn graph of fluency factors via University of Texas at Austin.

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