Do you (really) speak Swahili?


Some people just ‘know’ English, French, Spanish and Italian (or a similar mix of several languages): they can say hello, thank you, good bye, I love you, and a few other silly things. Others can say much more but they claim they don’t know the language.
What is wrong here? Who knows the language after all??

I’m a bit sceptical when I hear people not worrying about language problems, for example when applying for a job. They may sound quite confident that they ‘know’ the foreign languages concerned, although their knowledge may only be enough to understand the instructions to use a hair dryer.

On the other hand, there are the unnerving guys who can handle practically any typical situation using the foreign language, but they claim ‘they don’t REALLY know’ the language, just because they can’t write intellectual essays in it.

When would someone ‘know’ a language?

If you need a clear set of skills, or a certain type of vocabulary, for instance to answer calls in the reception of a multinational, or to order spare parts with a foreign supplier, then it is reasonable to say you know the language if you can fulfil your role successfully. But then of course, claiming you know the language in completely different situations, like going to a cocktail party where you need to make small talk, or handling customer complaints, is no longer true. The full claim would probably be: ‘ I can use English / French / Norwegian etc. for my needs’.

If you don’t use the foreign language for anything in particular, then claiming you know it needs to be just as general. It should reflect your ability to stay above water in any common situation of everyday life, like giving directions on the street, making a telephone reservation, explaining to a doctor what is basically wrong with you, understanding key news or news highlights on the radio or in a newspaper, giving opinions about the film you saw last night etc.

Of course, some people object, there’s also the quality of your performance, in other words, not just what you manage to do, but also how reasonably well you do it. If you can explain where the nearest bank is in a sequence of words like ‘go…then (one, two) three…left, then you – here and the bank – there’, then claiming you know the language may sound a bit hilarious. But if you can only give directions like this, you probably won’t be able to do all the other things that I listed above: you won’t be able to explain what is wrong with you (in a way that the doctor understands), or to talk about the film you saw last night, or to understand that your favourite footballer is banned from the next match.

Basically, people’s claims to a foreign language reflect their expectations from communication in general. Those who can live with speaking about something without having the slightest idea about it, will always pretend they know any language in which they can say a few words, no matter how appropriately. Those, on the other hand, who can only live with themselves if they produce error-free, complete statements, will hardly ever accept that they do know a language.

Which languages are you not sure you ‘know’?

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