When I first started writing this post, I was full of frustration.
Frustration that people often judge my online presence and opinions based on an American standard because I’m fluent in the language and (part of) the culture, yet people also dismiss English as a foreign language, calling it “easy”.
But I let my frustration cool off and returned with a clearer mind.
First, let’s differentiate between second language and foreign language.
A second language is a language that isn’t the mother tongue of the speaker, but is used for public communication, trade, higher education, administration etc. By contrast, a foreign language is any language other than the one spoken by the people of a specific location (i.e. the one you live in). The lines are blurry, to be sure, but with these definitions in mind, English qualifies as a foreign language for me. Even though Danish children these days learn English alongside Danish from their very fist school day (as with a second language), this is a recent development and thus not my experience. Besides, English is still officially labelled by the government as a “fremmedsprog” (foreign language).
While interning as an English copywriter, I was also frustrated. English was constantly dismissed because it was viewed as the dominant lingua franca of the modern age. This mentality was corrosive, resulting in poor professional copyediting because “well, anybody can write English!”
Did I mention feeling frustrated?
Let’s dig into that.
“But English is easy to learn…”
This mentality is offensive to me. This mentality is offensive to any foreign language learner in any language, trust me, so it bogs my mind that I encounter it so often on social media.
I’ve studied English, German, French, Spanish, Japanese—and they’re all hard. To become fluent in them, they’re all hard. To learn cultural equivalence, they’re all hard. To understand regional dialects, they’re all hard. The Japanese language, as an example, doesn’t use articles, nor does it have a future tense. That’s all derived from context, not grammar. Danish, as another example, doesn’t have the present participle that English has.
Learning within the same language family will always be easier, of course. Learning Spanish when you already know French will always be easier (Romance languages). Learning Danish when you already know German is easier (Germanic languages). Stepping outside of your native language family will always be harder than staying within—when we’re talking grammar and vocabulary.
But language difficulty isn’t solely derived from grammar and vocabulary.
Language has a historical and cultural aspect as well.
To become fluent in a language you have to also know the history and culture behind the grammar and vocabulary. It’s about understanding cultural equivalents, regional dialects and much more. It goes beyond language families.
And, I should add, being able to communicate by speech in one language is not the same as being able to write coherently in it, much less the same as being able to write a piece of fiction on par with native speakers.
During my MA in English & Cultural Studies, translation studies was a recognized academic field for a reason. Translation isn’t “just” translation—not even for English. There are direct translation theories (borrowing/calque/literal translation) and indirect ones (transposition/modulation/equivalence/adaptation). As these theories indicate, learning a language also means learning a history and culture that’s not your own.
That’s no “easy” feat.
During my MA, I was also graded on my consistency in oral English. I was told to choose either British English or American English, and then I got graded on my oral proficiency in the one I choose. Having lived in the US and being married to an American, I’ll tell you right now that few native English speakers bother learning that distinction the way I was forced to learn it as a foreign speaker.
And it’s not as simple as knowing whether it’s “colour” or “color”; it goes beyond grammar and vocabulary.
What is foreign language fluency, really?
Fluency has stages. Levels.
I think this is something people need to talk about more.
Fluency is an ever-developing thing, connected to more than just the language it denotes.
I first considered myself fluent in English when I stopped translating a Danish sentence in my head before I said it aloud in English. Then I considered myself fluent when I began thinking in English at random. Then when I began dreaming in English. Then when I was able to seamlessly code-switch (i.e. changing between languages in one sentence/conversation).
Which leads to another point of mine: how bilingualism creates separate identities.
How every language does this, “easy” or not.
A growing number of scientific studies claim multilingualism creates separate personalities.
I agree with them.
Having lived in the US and being married to an American, my own experience with this is primarily Danish versus American.
I find that the culture of the language I’m speaking highlights different parts of my personality, particular those parts that the culture in question values. For example, I’m fairly extroverted in American and readily engage in small talk/new friendships, but I’m generally very introverted in Danish and avoid interacting with strangers whenever possible. This difference is stark enough that it left my husband confused when we moved from the US to Denmark because I treated my Danish social circle far more selectively than my American. I didn’t do that consciously. It was just how my personality panned out as it developed while I lived in the US.
Now, yes, personality changes/nuances/etc. don’t have to be triggered by language, that’s true.
But the fact remains that my own Danish/American personality shift specifically occurs when I shift languages. And it occurs consistently as I fly back and forth between the two countries.
I suspect part of this difference may also be that interacting in a foreign language creates a “false you”, a more objective you, so it’s easier for a habitual introvert to act as an extrovert because you feel “less real”. It’s for this same reason that I’ve always written in English rather than Danish. It’s easier to be truthful when the truth (in the shape of language) feels farther removed from you.
But let’s end on a note that draws us back to my reason for writing this post:
Engelsk er ikke “nemt”.
I agree. I took Latin in high school. I took Russian in college. I was never fluent and it was never easy. I can’t imagine learning English as a foreign language! Talk about difficult! With all the idioms and regional differences it is a wonder anyone can learn it!!
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