Aug2120091:11 pm

How fluent do we really need to be?

Retired Foreign Service Officer Ken Yates, writing at WhirledView, provides an interesting and well-reasoned take on the necessity of linguistic fluency to be an effective FSO. Despite passionate calls from the Hill and other places for more FSOs to be native in several languages, for Yates, it’s not feasible or reasonable to expect that the majority of FSOs will have the time or resources to become that fluent in one language, let alone several:

For me, training in Japanese, Korean, Dari, Icelandic and Mandarin Chinese, in that order, resulted not in approaching the desired level aspired to in Congressional speeches, yet it did help to sensitize me to the important cultural and personal understandings that were essential to developing and maintaining professional contacts.

[...] It soon became clear to me that just about all of my most important contacts had English competence far beyond what I could realistically hope to achieve in my scant months of study of their language. After all, many had studied English from their early school days, or even studied abroad. My linguistic struggles were more effective as an “icebreaker” than as a means to communicate substantively. When real substance was discussed, I found it essential to have a competent translator on hand. The advantages to that was a more formal discussion at a slower speed that could focus better on the issue at hand than on the imprecision resulting from my usually lesser competence in their language than they had in mine.

The full post is worth a read. Having studied a few languages myself, I would agree with Yates that “fluency” is a ridiculously tough thing to achieve—and it’s very subjective. I’ve had people, after seeing me speak in French or Chinese, comment, “Wow, you’re pretty fluent, huh?” I would shrug and say, oh so modestly, “Well, not really…” But the truth, of course, is that I’m not even close to fluent, in a professional sense, in either language. [Why do people think I'm fluent? Most likely because 1) they don't speak that language at all so don't have a frame of reference and 2) when I do speak my intermediate Chinese or my once-advanced but now intermediate French, I do so in a confident way that makes it seem like I really know what I'm doing.] Despite my lack of fluency, my language studies and skills have helped me in my career in, as Yates notes, cultural understanding and ice breaker type situations. But certainly in professional settings, especially when using Chinese, I’ve always, without question, relied on my counterparts to use English or on translators. 

So, getting back to the main issue, is it a bad thing if our FSOs aren’t native-level in several languages? Not necessarily, it seems. As Sherry noted in a discussion we had about this article and this topic, she has often thought that genuine curiosity and keen interest in learning about others (including their language) are even more critical to success than fluency in a language. Of course, she said, we want our FSOs to be as proficient in languages as possible—but other skills (such as cultural and historical understanding) are also essential. That’s not to say that we don’t want Americans studying languages to the point of native fluency—we certainly do. But it’s just to note that 1) it perhaps doesn’t need to be a requirement of all FSOs to be fully fluent in the language of the country in which they are serving; and 2) just because you aren’t fully fluent in a language doesn’t at all mean that the knowledge you do have of that language and the effort you’ve spent studying it is wasted.

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