Speaking (A) like a (B)

Ever heard that classic eighties The Bangles’ song “Walk Like an Egyptian”?*

If you’re a nineties kid, odds are you haven’t, so if this is the case scoot your honorable derrière over to Youtube and get your 80’s pop culture on before proceeding, s’il vous plaît. 

Now… regardless of the absurdity of implying Egyptians walk like they are flesh and bone hieroglyphs just by virtue of being part of their country, “doing A like B” essentially implies imitation, one of the best and (for me) most valued tools in language learning.  If you have fluency in a language as your ultimate goal, being able to speak said language “like a native” is sure to hold a certain appeal for you, as long as you keep in mind that you’ll never actually BE a native (re-enter keyword “imitation”). But have you ever thought about the people who have studied several hundred hours, attained a relatively high level in this language and yet speak it *gasp!* like they would their own language?

“You speak Italian like a Mexican.”

While I’ve yet to be told this, I must be honest: I sort of want to avoid that situation.

Italian, while not as popular as English or French, is still incredibly popular here in Mexico, so I’ve had many chances to talk to other Mexican students of this language. This, in turn, has brought me to the realization that there are quite literally oodles of people who, in spite of having learnt it for years by now, speak a fun mixture of both that I’ve baptised “Ita-xican”. That is, they use verb tenses used in Mexican Spanish but not to Italian, or are in the habit of translating incredibly local Spanish expressions literally into Italian, or just speak Italian with a Spanish pronunciation and accentuation. This usually derives into conversations with natives that are pretty amusing to watch (because one of the speakers will unavoidably end with a large question mark above their head), but not particularly fun to be part of (because you end up feeling a bit bad for the side that got misunderstood).

Over the years I’ve realized that one thing is to speak a language, and a very different one is to absolutely rock that language, and that these two have absolutely no relation with one’s level, but instead have everything to do with cultural awareness.

Cultural aware… wait, what?

I think I’ve mentioned before (or maybe I haven’t?) that one of the aspects I enjoy the most about using a language is reaching not the point when I’ve achieved mutual understanding, but rather, when I start understanding cultural aspects that aren’t that readily available to learners. Making people laugh or reflect about their own culture isn’t so easy when you’re not part of it; however, if you have some intent to become culturally aware of the differences, it will affect your language learning positively.

Why? Because “speaking” a language doesn’t necessarily mean you can connect with its speakers in any meaningful way, unless you put yourself in their (social and cultural) shoes.

Practicality vs. elegance

Now, in my experience, there are two types of language-learner who aim to be able to speak: the communicator-at-all-costs and the self-aware imitator. Both have things going for them and against them, and both originate from the same “learner prototype”, the person that sits in front of a book or at a class and constantly mutters to him or herself, “what have I gotten myself into?”

Communicator-at-all-costs types are people that are content with functional use of the language, and communicate by “translating” their thoughts into the target language, resulting in the mistakes I mentioned before–depending on the language, they can be few and far between, or incredibly evident, but they’re still there. Imitators, meanwhile, are aware that their target language may not share certain characteristics with their mother tongue, and are also usually overly sensitive to cultural differences. Therefore they try hard to imitate the speech patterns of the people they talk to, until they get to the point where those patterns become mechanized and they can think in that language with a certain level of fluidity. The funny part is, they also make mistakes, but the kind of misses they incur in are usually of a completely different nature to communicators.

As these two types of language learners have different goals and intents for their target language, you could be either one or the other and neither is a bad thing. One is more practical, with a focus on getting their meaning across–the second is the kind of person that is probably aiming for fluency and wants to be able to speak elegantly.  What’s important is being able to decide what you want to do with your language: after you do that, your whole routine will be modified by the way you learn to communicate.

Are you an imitator? A communicator? Have you ever made a funny mistake speaking your target language because you were thinking in your mother tongue? I’d love to hear your stories!

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