Sunday, April 6, 2008

What is the measure of fluency in a foreign language?

When I moved with my family to the US at the age of 10 I did not speak English.  It would be inaccurate to say that I didn't know English because I studied it for almost two years in school in Russia and knew some words and expressions.  However this was the first time I had to speak English with native speakers.  Having to live in South Carolina added an another challenge, though I was not aware of it at the time.

I remember asking my dad to translate songs that were playing on the radio in the car.  Everytime he would listen for a few seconds and then answer - its about love.  I thought it was strange that all songs would be about the same thing and decided that he was just being lazy and didn't want to explain what they were really about.  So it became my goal to understand the words in songs.  

My sister and I would record songs from cartoons and Disney movies by holding a tape player set to record up to the TV speaker and then listen to these songs repeatedly to figure out the words.  Of course we wanted to be able to sing along, and we did, with the words we thought be heard.  Nowadays I always find it amusing when I hear some of these songs and realize that we were way off in some parts, although the words we used did make sense in the context of the song. It was a couple of years before I could understand the songs on the radio.

For a long time I considered that fluency in a language is reached when words in songs could be freely understood. Why am I rambling about this? Because right now I am learning Japanese. Well, I have only just begun, and I am wondering how long it will take me to become fluent. I became interested in the language after getting somewhat addicted to anime. I love listening to Japanese speech; it sounds so lovely and resonant.

"Learning a foreign language as an adult is difficult." People say this to me all the time. However I have enough arrogance, or self-confidence in my brain power, not to get discouraged. Even when I am faced with the overwhelming reality of the amount of information that needs to be assimilated in order to achieve any kind of respectable fluency of speech and proficiency in reading/writing. I look forward to the day when I can sing along to the anime opening and closing theme songs!

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