Thursday, November 03, 2011

Language as Skill

Matthew Yglesias says something important:
"Meanwhile, as someone who “speaks” French and is currently here in France, it’s clear to me that the real challenge is not so much what you can say as what you can hear. Based on years of French classes back in the day, I’m pretty darn good at taking a moment or two to think about what I want to say and coming up with an understandable way to say it. I can read French text, albeit slowly, and more or less understand what’s happening. But the risk of saying anything is that someone might reply! Parsing other people’s spoken language in real time is about 10 times harder than deciphering a text or composing your own statements."

When asked if I know Arabic, I've increasingly taken to given the perhaps annoying reply that sometimes you don't really "know" as language so much as "have skill" in it, and I do have Arabic skills. I can read fluently in my field, and could outside of it if I acquired the requisite vocabulary. I can almost always communicate my ideas to others verbally, as long as I first have a few days in country to get warmed up. Understanding the speech of others, however, is a major pain, especially when colloquial accents enter the mix.



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