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When do you “speak” a language?

Each year we invite IB alumni to share their experiences, interests and advice with our global community in the graduate voices series. We welcome Diploma Programme (DP) graduate from Steyning Grammar School, England, Berit Braun as she shares her thoughts on when you truly “speak” a language.

Hello in many languages written with chalk on blackboard

By Berit Braun

“Answering simply with a number will always somewhat undermine the complex and intricate process of learning a foreign language”

“So, how many languages do you speak?” is a question I have been asked endless times. It is a question I am more than just familiar with. But somehow, I still don’t have an answer ready. Every time, I end up saying something convoluted and confusing like “Two and a half and two quarters, maybe?” and then get so lost in my own train of thought that the person asking regrets having done so. I could, of course, take the easy way out and just list all the languages I am in the process of learning. I don’t quite dare to. What if I am ever exposed? That would be like basking in the respect of being a ‘doctor’ only to have to reveal, when being called upon in an emergency, that you are not, in fact, a medical doctor. Just set the record straight from the beginning, I say (it’s still impressive!).

And so, the questions remain: When have you ‘completed’ a language? At what stage can you claim to truly ‘speak’ it? Maybe when you can speak a language without having to translate in your head. Or maybe when you start dreaming in another language, although this would be frustrating for those that seldomly remember their dreams. Or when you can read a newspaper or a book, cover to cover, in that language. Or when you are able to deal with an unforeseen situation that you have to respond to immediately—be it a phone call from your landlord or a stranger asking you for directions in the street. All these would be good metrics but answering simply with a number will always somewhat undermine the complex and intricate process of learning a foreign language.

“For me, the signs that I am beginning to really grasp a language, beyond standard phrases and grammatical structures, are subtle.”

Another issue with the question is that speaking is only one of the four skills required to effectively use a foreign language and it is usually the skill it takes me longest to learn, which means that I am hesitant to proclaim that I ‘speak’ Spanish, for example, even though I can confidently read, write and understand it. For me, the signs that I am beginning to really grasp a language, beyond standard phrases and grammatical structures, are subtle. They are also, to a large extent, why I love learning languages. Discovering, for example, that the word for ‘flame’ and ‘llama’ are the same in Spanish, and that Danes use the same word to mean both ‘expensive’ and ‘animal’. Understanding that words bear different connotations in different languages, even when they are direct translations: In German, for example, the word for ‘dinner’ literally translates to ‘evening bread’, containing not just the assumption that bread will be the main component of your evening meal, but also implicit biblical connotations. Grasping regional variations, too, is a sign for me that I am getting familiar with the intricacies of a language. Learning that a ‘thong’ is a very different thing in the UK and Australia, for example, cleared up a lot of confusion for me.

I simply don’t want to quantify this experience. From now on, I will start my response to the question with “I am learning … ”, instead.

berit square

Berit Braun is a former student of Steyning Grammar School in West Sussex, England. She is currently an undergraduate at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and will graduate with a degree in Hispanic Studies and International Relations in 2020. Alongside her studies, Berit helps run a charity bookshop and spends her summers teaching English to teenagers from all over the world. She is equally passionate about closing the gender wealth gap and keeping up with the intricate dramas of Australian reality TV. You can connect with her on LinkedIn here.

To hear more from Diploma Programme (DP) graduates check out these IB programme stories. If you are an IB grad and want to share your story, write to us at alumni.relations@ibo.org. We appreciate your support in sharing IB stories and invite you to connect with us on LinkedIn, Twitter and now Instagram!

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