An old teacher used to tell me: practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.
As a kid, I took that at face value. But as an adult, I have questions about it. What does “perfect” practice mean? How can I be perfect if I’m just starting out? Why do we value perfection so much?
When I was learning French, in high school, I kept that advice in the back of my mind. It discouraged me from speaking. I was always chasing perfection.
And then I realized something important.
If I can’t be perfect, maybe I can be good.
“Fluent” is a bad goal.
Here’s the thing about perfect and languages: it’s not attainable.
Think about the word fluent. What does that even mean?
BBC reports that fluency is hard to define. In 2012, Muhammad M. Mahmoud Abdel Latif asked in the Oxford Journal of Applied Linguistics, What Do We Mean by Writing Fluency and How Can It Be Validly Measured? A few years earlier, Alex Housen and Folkert Kiuken, researchers at the Free University of Brussels and the University of Amsterdam, in an paper called Complexity, Accuracy, and Fluency in Second Language Acquisition wondered “what makes a second or foreign language (L2) user, or a native speaker for that matter, a more or less proficient language user?”
The ACTFL has created a distinction between separate levels of language proficiency, but even then, the levels fall apart under closer scrutinization.
There’s also the classic “studying for the test” problem, where the test is only a proxy for fluency, not a measurement of fluency itself. (Becasue fluency is not measurable.)
Introduce the issue of bias within the test questions and you’ve got yourself a very difficult problem.
But let’s ignore those measurements for a second. When I say “fluent,” what comes to mind?
Perfection, no? We expect perfection. I can write perfect English. So if I were to call myself fluent, shouldn’t I be able to write perfect Spanish?
The problem with Fluent=Perfect
First, there’s the nebulous definition of “perfect.” What does perfect mean, and what does it encompass? Is it just being able to use the 10 more common verb tenses, the 5000 most common words, and being able to read and write and speak at “standard” pace?
But what if I encounter words I don’t know? I can throw out the English words absquatulate or gwenders or alysm and you likely don’t know what they mean, but they’re English, so…the perfectness of your English gets thrown into question.
And then there’s the obscure grammar—which is correct: (a) It’s important that you be on time, or (b) It’s important that you are on time? (It’s technically (a).) How many native English speakers misunderstand effect vs. affect, in that I can effect a change that affects a phenomenon (which could potentially be a person’s affect), causing a new effect in their behavior?
All this is made more complicated by the fact that, in English, we don’t even have a standard governing body of how the language should be used. English is democratic: the common usage becomes the “correct” usage, as far as its speakers are concerned. (See: irregardless.)
What is the value of having 100% perfect Chinese versus 95% perfect Chinese?
To put this in perspective: what’s the benefit to knowing the perfect usage of “then” and “than” in English, especially if the cases where that actually matters are so few that you can look them up? (And how often do your co-workers mess it up in emails anyway?)
Or, looking at the last sentence—what if I had said: “the cases where that actually matters are so little” instead of the proper “few”? If I used the adjective that describes uncountable nouns (little) instead of the one for countable nouns (few), that would have been “wrong.” But would anybody have misunderstood me? Absolutely not.
And in a foreign language, unless I have some compelling reason to learn each grammatical nuance like this, it is simply not worth the stress of becoming perfect.
(The catch? After enough exposure, you’ll learn the little grammatical tweaks like this. But they are not worth stressing over.)
My question is: is the effort you’re putting into being perfect worth the return on the investment? Or could you spend this effort on better things, like learning more vocabulary, spending more time practicing speaking, or reading a novel in the language?
Class, Race, and Privilege
This is all ignoring use cases along class and race entirely. For example, is the African-American English Vernacular (AAEV) any less “correct” than “standard” English? Absolutely not. Both are English. Does someone who grew up speaking the AAEV have “not perfect” English? When they code-switch into “standard” English, is that what we measure as “perfect” or “good”?
Alice Walker’s The Color Purple was difficult for me to read because the dialogue more accurately represents how people who aren’t like me talk, but that doesn’t make them incorrect. To say that I have “perfect” English and but that they don’t opens up a litany of concerns about language’s place as a tool to protect privilege, whiteness, class, and socioeconomic status, and as a tool to punish or exclude people who are “not like us.”
That does not interest me. Are there certain grammatical and syntactical rules that need to be followed for comprehension? Sure. Is it more useful for a traveler or a student to learn standard Portuguese and ignore the street dialects of Ceará? There’s a compelling case for that. But, with everything we just discussed in mind, should I pride myself on having perfect Portuguese? No. At least, perfect is not the word for it.
To be clear, I don’t have the answers to these questions. But they are worth bearing in mind as we consider the fluent=perfect model.
So let’s throw that out altogether. Instead of worrying about our fluency in terms of tests and levels, why don’t we gauge it off of our own comfort and abilities?
This is my proposed solution. Instead of measuring by someone else’s test, why don’t we measure by our own feelings?
For the record, I’m not saying tests are useless or even bad. But for the individual language learner, I feel like they’re hardly scientific.
I know, the irony. But work with me here.
Self-report and self-measure are tools with decades of scientific measure and backing in the Psychology community, and many analyses have found that self-reported measures correlate reasonably well with “impartial” measurements.
But let’s look at this with our end goal in mind. The result of learning a language is comfort with the language—mastery, confidence, ease of use. Do these things result from calling oneself “fluent”? Absolutely not. They come from having used the language.
And since “fluent” is such a nebulous and immeasurable yardstick, I propose we reclaim it for ourselves and self-report our own fluency levels.
And here’s the question I propose we use:
Can I accurately understand what I need to and fluidly communicate what I want?
If so, then I see no reason why someone would not call themselves fluent.
Who gets to decide if you speak this language, anyway?
This is a question I like to ask my students: who gets to decide that you speak this language, anyway? Who decides if you’re fluent?
The answer is that you do.
Nobody else gets to decide.
Let’s remove foreign language fluency from the pedestal and strive for proficiency instead.
You do not need to be fluent. You do not need to be perfect.
Let’s settle for good and comfortable, okay?