What does it mean to know a language?

There weren’t very many foreigners in the first city I lived in China. I sometimes was amused when someone would compliment my Chinese even if I hadn’t opened my mouth. In other cities where there were more foreigners, I might say a short phrase to a taxi driver and be told that my Chinese was excellent. Another time, I had to get the person who was speaking to me to repeat themselves several times because I couldn’t understand what they were saying. When I finally figured out that he was complimenting me on my Chinese, we both felt pretty embarrassed. So it’s a good rule of thumb that if someone is praising your language skills, don’t bask in that for too long because often the better compliment is no compliment at all.

But what does it mean to know a language? We might say someone can speak a language if they can hold a conversation. But if they can only talk about familiar topics, can we say they know it? What about writing? Does knowing a language require you to be able to write it as well? And to what extent? If I can fire off some WeChat messages in Chinese using romanization and the powers of AI, am I really writing?

It’s actually not a very straightforward question. However, I wish to propose that rather than finding some objective line in the sand, we can frame the question around whether the learner’s needs are being met as a result of the amount of the language they already know. Let me explain.

Travelers, with their mobile phones and Google translate, can more than make do these days in foreign locales. They might even get away with a compliment, as I did in China.

Many business people have acquired a sufficient amount of another language to communicate when dealing with others. This kind of bare bones language is known as a pidgin. Visit the biannual Guangzhou Trade Fair and you’ll hear it in action as traders, fixers, and buyers operate in their second, third, and fourth languages.

Written language requires a much higher degree of accuracy than spoken language. I’ve heard it said that a misspelled word is like a stain on a shirt. The shirt is still functional, but it now stands out, revealing a kind of uncouthness. Sometimes these uncouth misspelled words can lead to hilarious results, such as in the following picture of an apartment complex sign in China.


These types of grammatical and spelling errors are colloquially called Chinglish. And they are very, very common. In fact, when I was living in China, it wasn’t unusual for me to see typos and other formatting inconsistencies in my contracts, and I am thankful I never had to dispute any of the terms.

While these sorts of errors are more common in a country where English is not the national language, educated folk in English speaking countries often like to make fun of the uneducated with their curious spelling habits and sincere efforts at political discourse via Facebook, for example. Much of the time the meaning is clear, it’s just “stained”.

This idea of knowing a language has become more important as schools in Anglo countries and international schools around the world have increasing numbers of English Language Learners. In the classroom, we want our students to attain the highest levels of proficiency. Ontario, for example, is guided by the Steps to English Proficiency policy guide which articulates the types of skills students should demonstrate before they can be considered fully competent in English. And certainly there are advantages for students that have become proficient at English. The IELTS and TOEFL tests for English proficiency often serve as defacto gatekeepers to Western universities and colleges, and some more elite schools even require an additional interview with prospective students.

All language learners would likely wish to improve their proficiency, but the reality is we often proceed in a language as far as we need to. I think this partly explains why Anglophones have such low levels of bilingualism. English is just so widespread. Another consequence of low-levels of bilingualism is that Anglophones are more likely than not to view language as being an all-or-nothing type of endeavor: you speak it or you don’t. This contrasts strongly with many of the multilingual people I’ve met who describe their language ability in terms of degree, or the contexts they wish to use it in.

I don’t mean to suggest that we language teachers should lower our expectations for our students. It’s always possible to get better. But we may need to alter our understanding of what proficiency is and more carefully separate style from content and from syntax. We humans are good at coming up with prejudices, and because language is so intertwined with culture and identity, it’s not difficult for prejudice to develop around it. So we just need to be careful.

The value and purpose of English and the types of English being spoken around the world are changing. English is no longer the language of the elite outside of the west. A burgeoning global middle class has increased demand for English Medium of Instruction schools and spots in western universities and colleges. It’s not clear what long term impacts these changes will have, but it is likely that faulty notions of a pure English may fall to the side.

Which may be just as well.






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