Does Fluency Matter?

I had a dream . . . that one day I would rise up from my nori-thin futon and speak fluent Japanese.  I had a dream . . . that I would one day live in a nation where little children would judge me not by the color of my skin, but by the breadth of my vocabulary and fearsome accuracy of my grammar.  Yeah okay, so maybe that was asking a bit much.  But anyway, I had a dream.

Fluency is the dream of many people studying Japanese, on par with winning a gold-medal or climbing the rope ladder at the carnival.  That is, by the way, really freaking hard, at least after two fun-sized beers and a large, buttery corn on a stick.  I mean winning a gold medal; the rope ladder’s a piece of cake.  But where were we?  Oh yeah, fluency.  Well, it seems that Japanese fluency has become such a coveted commodity that an entire industry has sprung up to deliver it fast and hot to your door, like pizza.  Mmmm, mouth-watering fluency.  So crispy and delicious.

But What if Fluency isn’t all That Great?

I suddenly became fluent three years ago, while staying in a minshuku in Nagasaki, with a Japanese lady of questionable attractiveness but unquestionably large breasts.  (Apparently God does this to maintain equilibrium in the universe.)   A minshuku, as I’m sure you know, is like a cross between a rundown B&B and some old Japanese family’s house.  It’s quintessential Japanese budget travel, and when I arrived they acted like I was the first white guy who’d ever stumbled through the front door dripping with sweat and cradling a bottle of sake.  My lady friend and I had a pretty sweet tatami room for 14 bucks apiece, which included breakfast.  Such a deal.  I mean, the window faced a concrete wall and the breakfast eggs tasted like they came from a thirty year-old chicken, but still, jeez, fourteen bucks.  I’ve stayed in campsites that cost more.

And after several days of speaking constant Japanese with minshuku guests and staff, taking tours of Nagasaki in Japanese, and conversing with my amply-appointed companion who spoke only her native language, I realized I had ceased to use English altogether.  I just literally stopped thinking in English.  If I wasn’t awesome, at least I was functional.  Well, okay, maybe I was a little awesome.

Now, to be fair, it wasn’t exactly like getting struck by lightning.  I’d spent a number of years prior reading Japanese books, watching Japanese dramas, and eating boatloads of brain-boosting sashimi.  Not to mention all the Japanese beer I drank.  No doubt that helped.  I took classes and did Rosetta Stone and slept with A Dictionary of Basic Japanese Grammar under my pillow.  (By the way, best book ever.)  Not to mention that rainy evening in Louisiana with a fortune teller trying to sell me some black cat leg bone: “This gon’ make you fluent fo sho!”  Right, lady, that’s totally a chicken drumstick.  And it’s more than a little lumpy under my pillow at night too.

But for some reason, I thought being fluent would mean I was finally done with studying.  Japanese?  Excuse me while I check that off the list.  I’ll just be heading to the park now with these books, CDs, and a can of gasoline.  Done and done.  Unfortunately, the reality had a little less earth-shattering kaboom.

What is Fluency?

Okay, before delving into why fluency isn’t the neko‘s pajamas, let’s define what it is and isn’t.  It certainly isn’t knowing all the words in a language.  It doesn’t even have overly much to do with grammar.  Many native speakers have abysmal grammar and pedestrian vocabularies.  Hey, we can’t all be linguistically-enhanced Ken Seeroi.  Me gets that.  But then, what is it?  Certainly one overriding characteristic is the skill of thinking in a language without translating.  That ensures that both input and output occur relatively smoothly and with a minimum of processing time.  And in order for that skill to develop, two prerequisites must be met.

The first is a vocabulary sufficient to enable thinking in Japanese without reverting to one’s native language, drawing pictures, or employing a series of grunts, clicks, and whistles.  While those may be effective for communication, they certainly don’t qualify as fluency.  Thus if a word hasn’t been learned or can’t be recalled, one simply “talks around it,” and arrives at the same idea through the use of other terms.   If you can’t remember how to say “grape,” then at least you can say “that round fruit used in the making of sweet, sweet wine.“  If you forget “zebra,” just say “that black and white donkey-looking thing like they paint down in Mexico.”  You may have done this when trying to recall actors or movie titles, which draw upon rarely-used memories that are harder to access.  Like who was that guy who played Peter Pan, with the green tights and all?  No, the guy—you know, Peter.  That was a woman?  Get the hell out.

The second prerequisite would be grammar sufficient for comprehending and expressing concepts, such as who’s doing what to whom and when.  Did cousin Joe eat an entire cow’s worth of beef in the preceding twelve months, or did he fall victim to being devoured by a cow last year?  Those  details make a bit of a difference.

Those two abilities, along with practice applying them in real-world situations, are what lead to fluency.  But, still, what’s so great about it?

What Japanese Fluency Feels Like

After my Nagasaki miracle, I realized fluency shouldn’t have been my goal, because it wasn’t a goal at all, and here’s what I mean:

Have you ever talked with a seven year-old?  Like, I’ve got a nephew who’s seven, and I can tell you, it’s great.  For about, oh, a minute.  Sure, he’s completely fluent, but all he wants to talk about are fire trucks and cartoons.  He’s got a head full of cotton candy.  But ask him who he wants to win the U.S. election and he runs outside with his skateboard.  I don’t even know if he’s a Democrat or a Republican.

That’s what it’s like to be fluent in Japanese.  Speaking is one thing, but having something to say is quite another.  I’ve found myself in this situation hundreds of times, where I fall into a conversation with a stranger and they’re amazed.  Wow, you’re from America, yet you speak fluent Japanese!  And for a while, we have the best conversation ever.  We learn about each other’s backgrounds, interests, and opinions.  And then the novelty wears off and we run out of common ground.  Suddenly, it’s like being on a first date, where you’re just poking at your salad.  Sometimes it takes five minutes, sometimes a weekend, and sometimes a month, but it’s hard to stay fascinating forever.  Then it comes down to, What can you really talk about?

Information Silos

Many people studying Japanese know quite a bit about subjects related to Japan, such as anime, gaming, martial arts, maid cafes, whatever.  This single-subject expertise can be thought of as a vertical silo, and as long as you’re speaking to someone who shares the same expertise, who’s in your silo, you have something good you can both discuss.  If you’re into Japanese horse racing and the dude sitting next to you turns out to have that same passion, you are, perhaps literally, off to the races.  See ya.  The problem lies in talking with people who aren’t in your silo.  If that person doesn’t know diddly squat about horse racing, well, what else you got?

A Lack of Stuff

This is not a problem of language.  It’s one of culture.  It’s not a deficiency of vocabulary, grammar, or fluency.  It’s simply being outside of the shared understanding that comes from years of living within a society.  Rather than a series of vertical silos with specific information, native speakers share a broad, horizontal base of common knowledge.  Simply put, everybody knows the same stuff.  If you’re American, you know why Mr. T pities the fool, what Cheese Whiz goes with (everything), and understand why Sammy Hagar is incapable of maintaining a constant speed of fifty-five.

Even with a shared base, it’s not uncommon for communication gaps to develop within native populations.  A good example is a generation gap, where older and younger people don’t share common references because their accumulated knowledge is different.  They may both be fluent, but it’s hard to talk about music when one person thinks Maroon 5 is a paint color.  Information silos also frequently occur, such as when men talk about football and women talk about, well, who knows?  Shoes or something.  Eh, probably men, huh.

This brings us to the classic party problem.  It may be easy enough to have a conversation with one person, but when native speakers get together, how do you follow them?  It’s like listening to Australians talk about rugby.  Sure they’re speaking English, but if you know none of the teams, none of the players, and none of the terminology, how do you participate in the conversation?  All you’ve got is a head full of cotton candy.

The typical way non-native speakers approach this challenge is by asking questions.  You may be able to coax out a conversation simply by making queries and listening to the replies, although answering a string of questions can become boring very quickly.  Not to mention that a group of Aussies having a discussion about rugby does not equate to wanting to spend half an hour explaining the rules to your gaijin ass.  Unless you’re a pretty girl, in which case some footballer will gladly volunteer to spend all evening describing the sport in intricate detail.

Conversations in Japanese are also hindered by cultural customs and norms.  Now, this may come as a shock, but the nation isn’t exactly known as being the most expressive on the planet.  “Westernized” Japanese people (i.e. all your Japanese friends who speak English) may be accustomed to speaking openly with strangers, but for many Japanese people this is possibly something they’ve never done.  They may ask few questions of substance, or reply with short, dead-end answers.  Not the greatest conversationalists really, the Japanese.

Putting Fluency in Perspective

Fluency, in popular books and on the web, is frankly a bit overrated, for at least three reasons.

1. Fluency isn’t exactly a goal, since it’s closer to the starting line than the finish.  Whether you can become fluent in three months, three years, or whatever is immaterial.  In your native language, it took years of formal and informal exposure for you to amass a sizable base of cultural knowledge, and you shouldn’t underestimate the time required to do so again in Japanese.

2. Facts may get you further than linguistic ability.  Knowing the names of players and teams is far more helpful when talking about sports than the ability to construct a proper sentence.  Consider ways of supplementing your overall knowledge base with widely-known and often-used information.  How many prefectures can you name?  Who are the top Japanese singers and actors?  Who are the key government officials and newsmakers?  Historical figures?  What are the popular television shows, movies, and songs?  How many can you sing?

3. How you approach conversations is important, since it’s possible to be too “Japanese.”  You may find that the more of the language you learn, the more the customs of and behaviors of the society you acquire, which is not always a good thing.  Americans tend to greet all news with, “What the eff? Say what? Why?” which are great for promoting discourse.  Japanese, on the other hand, more typically respond by looking thoughtful and mumbling “heeeeey” and “huuuuum” a lot.  Conversations flow a lot better with meager Japanese and more of a “Western” attitude than with perfect Japanese that ends in a culturally-appropriate mumbling and starting at one’s shoes.

Beyond Fluency

Fluency is a useful skill, no doubt.  It smooths interactions and makes life in Japan a lot easier.  It also promotes learning directly from native speakers.  But fluency alone won’t make you a stunning conversationalist.  But never fear, because as always, Dr. Seeroi’s gonna fix what ails you with his patented miracle cure:

1. Watch a ton of TV.  If you have access to Japanese television, there’s no better way to mainline popular culture into your veins than by watching TV.  It’s an extremely lightweight way to pick up information, since it comes with moving pictures and pairs nicely with malt liquor and dried squid.  Oh, how I love you, breakfast of champions.

2. Read the news headlines.  Now the hard way to do this is by using that giant paper thing that people used to look at before Al Gore invented the internet.  The easy way is to read Yahoo News in Japanese.  Use Firefox as your browser with the Rikaichan add-on and Boom! you’re a freaking kanji master.

3. Get out of your silo.  Cultivate widely useful information that’s known by everyone.  What do people talk about when you’re not around?   What types of knowledge would be helpful in conversation, with anyone?  Figure it out, find it out, and learn it.  Also, “get out” in general:  out of your apartment, out of your circle of English-speaking friends, out of your comfort zone.  You can’t go back in time and thoroughly acquire what it took other people a lifetime of growing up in Japan to learn, but you can go forward.

And if all that seems like too much work, then, ah hell, just choose a group that’s already in your silo.  All you can talk about is Naruto?  Hey, just hang out with folks who talk about Naruto all the time.  See?  Now you’re the most knowledgeable and interesting person ever.


13 Replies to “Does Fluency Matter?”

  1. This is so true and relevant to my own problems that half of the time I was reading this, I thought I was the one writing this article. I seem to have a subconscious ability to stuff vocabulary and grammar into the corners of my brain such that when the time comes, I can think in Japanese with startling efficiency. It tends to give native speakers a shock, until I start tripping over a verb I’d really like to have, but am forced to get around it on an inane-sounding detour.

    Part of the problem is, as you put it, is that I have a vertical silo. It stretches into the heavens. And it’s name is the “video game industry.” It usually works well as it ties into my hobby/self guided Japanese practice that is ゲーム実況, or the ironically Japanese sounding “Let’s Play” in English. The equation to know is game footage + funny commentary = well recieved type of video series. Most of the enjoyment of it, I think, comes from wondering “I felt this way at this part; how will the うp主 feel?” (not a typo)

    But how am I supposed to create funny commentary after my repertoire of funny Internet slang and thought invoking comparisons is exhausted? Once the silo empties, I have no cultural foundation to fall back upon. I like to consider myself decently fluent, but that doesn’t make me a good speaker… Or a good jikkyousha.

    1. Yeah, I think this is really a common problem with non-native speakers the world over (and, as I mentioned, quite a few natives as well). I’ve seen it happen countless times in the U.S., when Japanese people come to parties. They do great for a while, as sometimes their English is perfect, but once folks start making Simpson’s jokes or debating which breakfast cereal is best, they become marginalized. Not a lot of Japanese people out there capable of discussing whether Count Chocula would be better or worse off without the addition of Boo Berries.

      1. And the fact that I know what both those cereals are, despite having seen neither of them in reality, only serves to prove your point. Must be television, eh?

        1. It’s weird, huh, how we pick up bits and pieces of knowledge, seemingly out of nowhere. TV is certainly part of that process, as is the ability to read. Like maybe you saw them on a supermarket shelf.

          When I first came to Japan, I immediately realized how much my reading skill was impairing my ability to absorb information from the environment around me. In the U.S., I could walk without stopping down the Breakfast Foods aisle, and at the end of the aisle name twenty types of cereal I’d seen. In Japan, even now, given the same situation (the Rice aisle?), I’d be lucky if I could manage half of that. Reading is so important.

  2. You know you have arrived when you start thinking in Japanese all the time and find it hard to go back into English when talking with friends. My Japanese teacher gave us a great tip at school that was “beer loosens the tongue” and I have always abided by her rule.

    1. Ah, words to live by. I know what you mean; I often find it hard to switch to English, partly because of the language, but also because of different way in which people interact with each other. It’s not just switching languages; it’s switching personalities. But, as in all things, beer helps.

  3. Very nice article.

    I think one is close to fluency when one stops thinking about it.
    When I first came to Japan it was my biggest goal to become (somewhat) fluent in Japanese. I spent almost all of my free time studying like crazy after a long day at work.
    Of course, living in Japan and being surrounded by the language every day helped a lot.

    I never offically reached fluency and I simply stopped studying as I didn’t have the time anymore and also explored other things that I wanted to focus on while in Japan, but I speak Japanese every day.
    I think it’s the language I use the most besides English.
    Neither of them is my mother tongue (which is German).

    I find a lot of truth in what you wrote in this article.
    It’s pretty much the same conversation I have with people I meet for the first time (I could simply copy one of your previous articles in there to cover that *g*).
    I do have the feeling that I can talk about almost everything with my Japanese co-workers, though.

    1. Glad to hear the article resonated with you. I think it’s really impressive that you have two languages you use above your native language. It’s amazing that a person’s thinking, in one’s mother tongue, can gradually be replaced by a new language and a new way of thinking. It’s like getting a brain transplant.

  4. You had me at “unquestionably large breasts.”

    I’ve discussed this phenomenon with my friends before, and we usually refer to it as ‘cultural literacy’ – the startlingly huge amount of trivial details about your culture that sometimes even a native speaker can lack (e.g. the kid who wasn’t allowed to watch TV, someone who was in a coma, my cousin who we keep in the basement and feed a bucket of fish heads every night, etc.). I always figured that the best way to get this knowledge (for America) is to marathon watch every season of The Simpsons. Even if it didn’t work, at least, you know, you got to watch a metric f***-ton of sweet, sweet television.

    Btw, I’m going to hop over to Japan at some point in the next few months, I’d love to grab a beer with you if you aren’t too weirded out about meeting up with a rando from the internet.

    1. A whole bucket of fish heads every night? Man, that seems like some good eatin’ right about now. Sure beats having nothing but potato and onion curry three meals a day for a solid week just because one somehow disposed of all one’s remaining cash in a dive hostess cabaret during a boozy night of indiscretion. I mean, theoretically speaking, of course.

      Yeah, “cultural literacy” is exactly the right term. Wish I’d remembered it when I was writing. I’m too weak from lack of nutrition to remember them big multisyllabic words.

      Beer always sounds like a plan. Let me know when it gets closer to the date.

  5. Very interesting read!

    “Certainly one overriding characteristic is the skill of thinking in a language without translating.”

    I don’t consider myself fluent, but I can do this (^_^). However, what’s blocking me from considering myself as fluent is that I can’t understand novels 90%. I’m close to that with listening to TV, but I’m still far from that with novels.

    I think there are two definitions of fluent. One being you can use the language fluently without having to stop and think and translate. The second is being fully capable in the language, understanding almost everything you come into contact with. The way I differentiate these two words is: one is being fluent, and the other is speaking fluently. I know a lot of ESL speakers who speak fluently, but who aren’t fluent.

    And then there’s even a third definition I’ve heard out there, that even native speakers in America aren’t even fluent in English because we make a lot of mistakes in grammar and don’t know advanced vocabulary. I personally disagree with this definition. I don’t think being fluent means mastering the language.

    Another way I say speaking fluently is “conversationally capable”. People always ask me if I’m fluent, but I could never say that. I just tell them I can converse fine.

  6. So, if you can become somewhat culturally fluent in american culture by binging on Simpsons, what do you binge for Japan?
    Somehow, I don’t think Crayon ShinChan cuts it.

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