There is a point in learning a language when your difficulties suddenly become larger than wondering how to ask if those flowers are Begonias, because you have no idea how to say Begonias in the first place. When your vocabulary and grammar problems are mostly cleared up (because let’s be honest – they’re never going away entirely), a surprising issue rears its head: Are you properly conveying yourself in your foreign language usage?
Language is an incredibly complex system, dripping with social signals – unconscious or not. Our language use is how we signal our peer group memberships, our social class, our education, our location, and even our interests (for rizzle, y’all).
At an individual level, language use is highly specific. This is one place where you ARE a special snowflake – no one uses language in the same way you do. Our linguistic quirks become an integral part of our personal presentation, and lend themselves to function as handy personality markers. Maybe you like unnecessarily large words, or odd syntax, or puns – and your consistent usage of these linguistic mannerisms blends seamlessly into your social presentation. It’s almost like we develop an individual linguistic phenotype; and indeed, the sharing of this individual variation in language is what drives language change and growth.
So then, what happens when you’re less concerned about conjugating a verb correctly, and more concerned about communicating effectively and authentically with others in a foreign language?
[WARNING: Anecdotal evidence ahead] Over the years I’ve had many friends for whom English was not their first language. There’s an interesting dynamic in relationships with people who are actively working on improving their English fluency. As their language skills improve, their personality begins to shine through their language use in stronger & richer ways. When I sat down to have a proper think about this, I realized that with increased fluency came an increase in personalized language use, or the linguistic quirks I mentioned earlier. Weirdly enough, this increase in individualized language use serves as a shortcut for personal relationship development.
It can be incredibly difficult, bordering on impossible, to determine whether you’re using a foreign language in a personal way that reflects your 1st language’s phenotype/profile – or if you just flat out sound ridiculous. Unfortunately, I don’t have the ultimate solution for this. I think this is an innate ability that emerges naturally with a concurrent level of fluency. It’s something that you have to stumble along towards, passing different milestones along the way – the first time you laugh at a joke; the first time you make a joke; the first time you are successfully sarcastic; the first time an idiom makes perfect sense; the first time you successfully make a terrible pun and no one assumes it was a language error.
I’m definitely at varying degrees of distance from this stage in the languages I infrequently study, but it is nice to see that end goal somewhere in the distance…even though sometimes it’s far enough away to start shimmering like an irritable mirage.
And then there are these guys.