My personal identity has always been a complex cultural melting pot. I have been able to mix and match different cultural ideas and integrate them into my own way of life. I am deeply aware that many people don’t have this kind of opportunity, so I am very grateful to have lived and interacted with people from all walks of life. When I describe my multicultural background, people immediately ask me, “How many languages do you speak?” I avoid answering the question by responding with, “a few.” I understand why I am asked this question, but I also find it a little one-dimensional. It is a classic problem between quality and quantity.
First, let’s define exactly what language is. Any skill is a construction of several interrelated subskills. The four subskills of language are speaking, reading, writing, and listening. However, language skill is mainly associated with oral communication since speaking is our default communication style. Students view speaking as the holy grail of language. People usually ask the question, “How many languages do you speak?” and not “How many languages do you read?” or “How many languages can you understand?”
My conversational fluency and listening comprehension are quite high in all the languages I speak. The most underdeveloped area is writing, simply because (1) I haven’t practiced it as much, and (2) I don’t need it. Necessity is a huge motivator; and it’s never been necessary for me to write in a different language. In terms of reading, I only struggle with Chinese. Reading in my parents’ native language is the same as doing a 1,000 piece puzzle – word by word, puzzle by puzzle. It’s a laborious and time-consuming task which I would rather avoid. I am glad no one asks me how many languages I can read effortlessly in. I can assure you that the answer would not be impressive. The point is that my level of competence, i.e. quality, varies depending on the skill and the language. Maybe, people should also start asking me, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how would you rate each of the four subskills in those languages?”
The problem with assessing myself is subjectivity and superiority bias – a tendency to overestimate desirable qualities and underestimate undesirable traits. So you need to allow for that, maybe, reduce one or two points for each rating. The problem with testing is that it only captures your fluency at that point in time. Another problem with tests is that they are not always accurate predicators of real-life performance. Personally, I have never found the actual need to take a test. An experienced teacher could, in theory, assess my skill level but I have never met anyone like that either. For now, I guess, you just have to take my word for it.
What about languages that I dabble in? I can read some French; and words that I don’t know, I can guess from the context mainly because French is a Romance language – related to Portuguese and Spanish. I know several useful and many other useless words and phrases in Japanese and Korean because I have many friends and students from those two countries. I am good at copying sounds and mimicking body language, which gives me the ability to appear more fluent than I am. I call it, “the illusion of fluency.” Should I also mention that I understand three different Chinese dialects? In the end, most people will be happy with the answer: “I speak 5 languages.”