Education Opinion

Bloomberg’s Spanish and Huntsman’s Chinese

By Anthony Jackson — November 11, 2011 4 min read
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As I mentioned in my last post, being globally competent includes being able to communicate ideas effectively. In a global age, this increasingly means being bi- or multilingual. I’ve asked my colleague Chris Livaccari, the director of Asia Society’s Education and Chinese Language Initiatives, to share his thoughts on this issue, particularly as it has been in the headlines recently.

by Chris Livaccari

Linguists are seldom called upon to weigh in on political debates or controversies, so it was quite surprising several weeks ago when discussions of language “fluency” emerged prominently in the Republican presidential race. A set of statements—in Mandarin Chinese—by presidential hopeful (and former U.S. Ambassador to China and Utah Governor) John Huntsman brought language professionals into the fray arguing about just how good his Chinese is, and whether or not he is truly worthy of the title of “fluent” Chinese speaker. Much of this discussion has simply missed the point.

The bottom line is that “fluency” as a concept is grossly misunderstood. Many people seem to think that there is a flash of lightning at some point in the language learning process that marks one’s magical entry into the realm of “fluency.” For those of us that have struggled to learn multiple languages over the years, however, we know that there are seldom such flashes, and even when there are small ones, we can wait a lifetime to hear the clap of thunder that follows and marks our transcendence into fluency. “Fluency” is not like getting a 100 on a test. It is a spectrum along which we are constantly moving, but can never quite reach—much like the cosmic speed limit of the speed of light. It is an idea based largely on perceptions of how native-like a language learner’s vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation are. But it should be said that not even native speakers are completely “fluent” in every aspect of their own language. An astrophysicist might be quite fluent in discoursing upon the significance of the speed of light for the theory of relativity, but don’t expect your child’s third grade teacher to be.

Some people are completely fluent in one register of a language, but not others. For example, children who grow up in the United States speaking a second language at home are often fully comfortable with the everyday expressions of their home language, but don’t ask them to write an essay or make a political speech in that language. Since they’ve had no access to academic or professional language, their ability to speak is largely relegated to social conversation. Conversely, academics or diplomats who learn a language with specific professional purposes in mind often can speak in a highly formal and sophisticated way, but don’t ask them to curse at someone on the street or rant to their bartender about how bad their day was. Languages like Japanese have extremely complex systems of honorifics—to the extent that you will often use completely different verbs when saying the same thing to your dog, your child, a co-worker, your boss, or to the Emperor. Many foreigners who achieve very high levels of proficiency in Japanese may find themselves utterly lacking when it comes to one or more of these levels. They might be fine talking to co-workers or their boss, but in the presence of the Emperor they just may sound too casual, or when speaking to a child somewhat ridiculously formal.

So instead of talking about “fluency,” we should really be looking at different levels of language “proficiency.” What is clear in Jon Huntsman’s case is that he has some level of Chinese proficiency, even if his Chinese is not completely native-like in terms of accuracy of grammar or depth and breadth of vocabulary. And what is encouraging about Mr. Huntsman is that he is one of the only American politicians who speak an Asian language. Many people grimace when they hear George W. Bush or New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg give remarks in Spanish. In August, when Mike Bloomberg delivered remarks about the approaching hurricane in Spanish, his mispronunciations and lack of “fluency” were lambasted across the internet. But the fact that he is trying is a wonderful gesture that many other politicians are simply not capable of—and a wonderful message to students that there is great benefit in doing your best to learn another language, even if you can’t speak like a native.

And regardless of whether or not Bloomberg’s Spanish is “fluent” or accurate, or Huntsman’s Chinese is grammatical or well pronounced, their engagement with another language and culture gives them an important perspective on the world that many monolingual people simply do not have access to. Both Bloomberg and Huntsman came to second languages relatively late in life. If we want politicians with high degrees of proficiency in other languages—and we should—then it is vitally important that we invest in language education in the early grades. How good would Huntsman’s Chinese be if he had started the language in kindergarten? While there are many examples of learners who have achieved high levels of proficiency later in life, the research shows that starting early gives students the best chance to develop native-like pronunciation, an intuitive feel for the language, and strong knowledge of a rich range of vocabulary. So let’s look forward to a next generation of political leaders whose multilingual credentials will be unassailable—whether they’re yelling at their dog or bowing before the Emperor.

Chris Livaccari is Director of Education and Chinese Language Initiatives at Asia Society. He is a Chinese and Japanese language educator and a former U.S. Foreign Service officer in Tokyo and Shanghai.

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