When is a foreign language one learned ‘good enough’?
This paper was written in 1999 for the subject of Sociolinguistics, taught by Dr. Gerrard Mugfford.
University of Guadalajara, School of Modern Foreign Languages.
Learning a foreign language in the present had more implications and ramifications than the desire of learning the tongue of a culture we are fond of or interested in. While people might be learning Mandarin for it is the language most people speak in the world, others might learn English as it is the language most people use as a lingua franca when doing business and traveling, and some others might desire to learn Spanish due to the role Latin America is currently playing in the world’s economy and as a de facto second language in the USA. Nonetheless, learning the language one chooses solely for communicative purposes can be said to be a limited intention for there is more to a language than its spoken format, and talking to native speakers.
Part of a foreign language teacher’s duty is to understand the reason why students have chosen to learn a specific language, and to determine how they have sketched their learning experience in order to devise a way for them to maximize the ways in which the learn it for communication purposes, but also understand the newly defined role they will have as a new speaker of the language.
As students acquire a language and start performing successfully through it, they automatically have access to the legacy and richness of its culture, and to the value system prevailing in the geographical latitude where the language is spoken; needless to say, a learners will gradually become a part of the evolution of the language they are learning. Thus, it can be argued that the language one is learning is good enough when one has developed a good degree of receptiveness of its linguistic, social, and cultural traits. However, this is just an initial stage.
As stated above, acquiring a language implies becoming an active part of its evolving culture; for this reason, one could contend that the foreign language one has learned is good enough when one is able to understand the information describing new developments that emerge within the culture where the language is spoken, and when one is able to comment on them and, whenever possible, to contribute to the discussion about them. Likewise, considering how diverse language can be, considering in how many countries it is spoken, one’s language can be said to be good enough when one is able to experience communication without interference with both native and non-native speakers alike.
While grammatical concepts and their combinations permit the creation of meaning, an extensive range of vocabulary and grammatical knowledge do not guarantee successful communication. Likewise, when language users commit mistakes in their written or oral production, many times their statements can be fully understood despite the flaws. In other words, accuracy does not guarantee successful communication not the lack of it hinder the message conveyance.
Language accuracy and precision brings about the comparison of a native speaker’s competence and performance with that of a language learner. On one hand, language learners might acquire solid grammar foundations as they learn the language, and native speakers might at times ignore rules. On the other hand, while some language learners’ handicap might be pronunciation, stress and rhythm, a native speaker will always possess this as an advantage. Yet, when it comes down to the ability to understand and convey meaning in various language format, both native and non-native speakers can be found at the same level, depending on how developed and enhanced their language skills are.
Therefore, the language one has learned can be said to be good enough when one is able to operate in the culture where it is spoken by interacting with others in situations requiring different language levels; by being receptive and responsive to all language stimuli and productions; and by understanding the evolution of language as time passes. Moreover, acquiring a new language invests learners with the duty of developing their knowledge and life skills, while enhancing one’s cultural awareness.
Conclusively, the language one learns is good enough when it allows to emulate all the behaviors and interactions we take part in our native community, while also being able to use it as a means to participate in any learning experience.