06 Mar

On Fluency: Spanish, BYU, and All the Words

My first Spanish class in college was during the fall. It was my second year at Brigham Young University (a year which was unexpectedly abbreviated due to having my “ecclesiastical endorsement” revoked for lack appropriate levels of Mormonality). I had taken some placement test that seemed remarkably easy, but it turned out that without taking a much more intense test, the best I could place was in the high-intermediate class. I had taken three years of Spanish in high school, but decided to roll with it.

At this time in my stint at BYU I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be Mormon anymore, but I was telling people I was “taking time off” to evaluate my positions. Participation in Mormonism is not measured on a spectrum, but uses a binary. You are Mormon or not. Something is of God or of Satan. So, things were not going that well in terms of interpersonal relations. The problem with being halfway out of Mormonism at BYU is that there are so many ultra-Mormon things happening that everything begins to grate.

And so it was that I was in this Spanish class. It was, naturally, taught by a returned missionary and one of the requirements for the class was to get a hymn book in Spanish. I seem to recall buying a tiny one. It probably matched my scripture set. In BYU language classes, it’s customary to pray at the top of the class in the target language (as we did in my intermediate Arabic class, much to my annoyance—Arabic is not the language of Mormon god, in my view) and sometimes there are hymns. What better way to immerse yourself than with church? It really engages the students, I’m sure.

This class had one of those people in it, as all classes do. So self-important and self-assured, she would act the expert and make claims about things like always using the subjunctive mood at the appropriate times in English. Predictably, I found myself contradicting this girl with frequency. What can I say, it was a rough time and there was little to lash out at. My anti-prescriptive grammarian nature obligated me to that I tell her that it was highly unlikely that, were she to even use the subjunctive in English, she would always apply it where prescribed. She didn’t like that.

cover of the

The offending textbook

The worst of her pronouncements, and the one that I remembered today which spurred this post, was the time we had a chapter’s worth of vocabulary about banking. I won’t defend banking vocabulary as interesting. It’s hard to make much out of terms like ‘checking account’ or ‘mortgage’, but I will defend the importance of such terminology. If you want to be fluent in a language, well, you better know how to get money to and from the bank.

So when she indolently raised her hand and asked “Why do we need to know words about banks? I mean, seriously?” I obviously could not ignore it. “Are you serious?” I called from my back-of-the-classroom perch at the very moment the thought entered my mind. With my now much-improved swearing skills I might have said “Are you fucking serious?” because that’s the level of ridiculous it was. I probably also would have rolled my eyes and mentally appended “This bitch,” but I still had a lot of catching up to do with the vulgarisms of English.

This Bitch (I wish I remembered her name, but for narrative purposes, we’ll go with the aforementioned) was stunned. She turned around to look at she who would dare issue a challenge to someone righteous enough to sit in the front row. I, probably really assholishly, said, “Do you think you won’t ever need to go to a bank?” We engaged in mutual scoffing and class continued. I think our instructor ended with a scripture about Joseph Smith’s first vision. Typical BYU.

What I like about this story (other than everyone, myself included, being a bitch) is that even though I had only just started studying linguistics, I feel like I had a pretty good attitude about fluency. In fact, my basic attitude still hasn’t changed. For me, the goal is to know as many words as possible. Duh, that’s being fluent. However, I will say that I have added some depth and contour to my opinions in the intervening eight years. Banking terminology is pretty essential if you want to be a functioning adult in a society. If you ever moved to Ecuador, you would probably have to deal with money and the bank at least once in a while. I mean, if you wanted to be able to eat and stuff.

But here’s the thing about fluency that a lot of people miss: you don’t know every word in your native language. If someone asked you to explain how the brain works, you might not have the terminology to do it, unless you’re a neuroscientist, psychologist, etc. That’s okay because you can live your life without ever having to understand your brain (if you like to live ironically). The same is true when you learn another language. You probably won’t have to discuss the intricacies generative grammar or economics. So you can be fluent and still not have all that terminology. The goal is to have a general lexicon on which you can build. As such, if you want to learn how to talk economic theory, you have the words in your brain that let you understand the definitions. You don’t have to know everything.

But banking? Every bitch is going to need to bank.