If you asked me yesterday, I would have said I speak one. One language. One measly little language of the approximately 6,500 languages spoken in this world. One world. 196 countries, give or take.*
But if you ask me today, I have a different answer.
I speak two languages. Yesterday I was studying Japanese, and today, I speak it. Obviously, this isn’t something that actually occurred overnight. In fact, I know no more Japanese today than I did yesterday. But I had an experience today that changed what I think it means to speak a language.
Yesterday, I thought that it meant fluency. That to speak a language, one must feel comfortable in every situation. That one’s vocabulary includes every imaginable word, that one’s understanding of grammar is impeccable, that one never makes mistakes.
Today, I realized the failings of that definition. Does a ten-year old not speak his own language? If a woman stumbles over her words, does she not speak? Of course not. Speaking a language requires an ability to communicate. Nothing more, nothing less. It requires the vocabulary to talk about whatever you want to talk about, or the vocabulary to talk around whatever word you don’t know.
It requires a grammatical understanding to express more complexity than “this is …” or “I am doing …” Truly being able to speak a language requires the ability to express the innate nuances of thought through speech, which is impossible when the level of mastery is limited to a few basic sentence structures. Grammatical nuances include the ability to relate one thing to another; to indicate capability, causality, and conditionality; to express past, present, and future events; to differentiate between objects and subjects, between quotes and implications.
But speech doesn’t require grammatical perfection. Or fluency. Today’s new definition of speech is the ability to get your point across.
I just walked out of my Japanese conversation midterm, where I sat in an office, and was tested on my ability to hold a coherent conversation one on one with my Japanese professor for 20 minutes. We talked about Japanese religion, American religion, my opinions on religion. We talked about the Northern Lights, and traveling to Thailand, why bicycles are a good form of transportation, and what I had for lunch. I’m not really sure what else we talked about, but there was a lot of it, with a few stutters and incorrect grammar usages, but nothing major. She even ended our conversation by telling me I consistently make one mistake, but that its not a big one and that it doesn’t even hinder comprehension.
I left that test feeling like it was shorter than any other conversation test I’ve taken, even though the others have all been 5 to 15 minutes long. So I guess I speak Japanese.
*I find the inability to know with certainty the number of countries in the world a bit disconcerting. Pretty much everyone agrees that there are 195 countries in the world. That doesn’t count Taiwan, which pretty much everyone agrees ought to be a country (hence, 196). The CIA World Factbook includes entries for 267 “localities,” which includes places like Puerto Rico, and the Gaza Strip. I’m pretty sure the number 196 doesn’t include South Sudan, Mongolia, or Palestine. Why it counts Taiwan, but not Mongolia is beyond me, and a topic for another day.