Tuesday, November 27, 2012


I've been thinking about language a lot lately, as half my A-100 classmates are studying foreign languages at FSI (and the other half have mostly gotten off language probation already). As I may have mentioned, FSI uses the ILR (interagency language roundtable) scale to rate language users. The scale has 5 levels.

It may interest you to know that we mostly only teach languages to a level 3 - professional fluency. (1 is the beginner level and 2 is intermediate.) So that begs the question, what's higher than 3? Well, 4 and 5 obviously, but more specifically, real fluency - the fluency where you can talk about almost anything with comfort, where the grammar makes sense to you and you use it without thinking. That's approximately what level 4 is all about. Level 4 is for native speakers and really, really hardworking language students. And those occasional obnoxious people who just 'pick up' languages easily. Whatever.

Level 5 is more mysterious. Level 5 is the 'educated native speaker'. You don't have to actually be a native speaker to achieve this, but you have to sound like one. So no mistakes, no accent, no 'quaint' ways of phrasing things. You might assume that you are a level 5 English speaker - I've certainly always assumed that I was one. But the instructor that day said something very shocking (at least to me). Apparently only 2-3% of the population speak English at a level 5. So there you go. Unless I am completely misinterpreting here it sounds like I'm not at all guaranteed a seat at the ultra-exclusive level 5 table. Now some of that is just because not everyone is very well educated. And it's true that it's very hard to lose an accent. Arnold Schwarzenegger isn't a level 5 and wouldn't be even if he were an excellent orator - he just doesn't sound like a native speaker. But apparently even those of us born and raised in the US, and educated within an inch of our lives don't necessarily cut it.

And once that little doubt crept in I started noticing tiny little things about the English language that actually do cause me to stumble a bit. Is it 'have drank' or 'have drunk'? Gray or grey? Traveller or traveler? How do you pronounce chaise-lounge? Hell, I didn't even know how to pronounce Lagos until a month ago. (It's LAY-gos, not LAH-gos, or at least that's the word on the street.)

I have the sinking suspicion I might not qualify as an educated native speaker after all.

All I can say is that I blame the Twilight movies.

1 comment:

  1. I figure my English is probably at a 4/5. My writing is pretty good (or at least I like to think so), but there are times beyond counting when things have come out of my mouth that make NO sense at all, in ANY language.