how do we judge linguistic competence (in a foreign language)?

Yesterday, I played judge at a foreigners speak Mandarin competition. Contestants were judged on a prepared speech, fluency answering a question, and a performance of some traditional Chinese art. The contestants came from North America, Europe, Korea, and Japan and a variety of ages, ranging from two seven year old twins to folks in their late 40s, possibly early 50s.

What did I learn?

Short answer: Age and home culture matter in questions of linguistic competence in a foreign language. However, a pleasant personality and curiosity about one’s host culture will go a long way to buttressing linguistic incompetence.

Long answer: See short answer, above. Add elaborations, below:

First, regardless of home culture, the young’uns, who all were attending Chinese schools sounded like natives and consequently, their language skills were (unsurprisingly) more or less age appropriate. Moreover, they, their parents and Chinese teachers had approached the competition as a Chinese student would approach a speak English competition. Therefore, it was clear that someone else (probably their Chinese teacher) had written their speeches not only because the topics and forms of expression did not sound age appropriate, but also because when a student forgot their lines it was usually a line that was well outside age appropriate conversational topics and skill levels. Age relevant understanding and concomitant experience became clear in the question and answer section of the competition, revealing the practical distance between what a ten year old can be asked to memorize and what she might actually say.

Second, unlike the young’uns, the elders, who ranged from twenty onward all had accents and expressive skills of varying degrees of accuracy. In addition, for those who had come to Chinese language learning as adults, home culture played an important role in shaping expressive logic, which is merely to say that the Japanese contestant organized his speech in a more Chinese way than did a European contestant. Thus, even though the European contestant’s pronunciation was more accurate than the Japanese contestant’s, it was easier to understand the Japanese contestant’s speech because it “made sense” beyond individual words. Finally, all elders had written their own speeches with help from their Chinese teachers and/or friends. Consequently, just like young’uns, the elders generally forgot the lines that fell outside their conversational interests and skill levels. Alas, however, when they forgot their lines, the elders were neither as cute nor as easily forgiven as the young’uns.

Third, stage presence is a significantly different from being able to speak a language. The ability to express emotions and ideas onstage entails control over non-linguistic elements of language, such as voice, hand gestures, and body movement that is not natural, but rather entails training and practice even in one’s home culture. Unfortunately, none of the contestants seemed to have training in either public speaking or stage performance, with the result that we saw an exaggerated version of their everyday life, rather than skilled oration or acting. For example, only one of the young’uns seemed to have onstage experience. Not surprisingly, she was the oldest of the batch and performed beyond the homework assignment to memorize a text and a song. The others recited their assignments and left stage as soon as they realized they could.

Likewise, the elders could be divided into two groups – those who were interested in traditional Chinese culture and those who liked popular culture. The traditionalists showed off their taijiquan skills, revealing a willingness to learn. That willingness translated into a pleasant stage presence, mistakes and levels of competence, notwithstanding because none of the judges could actually perform a traditional Chinese art and so appreciated contestants’ efforts. In contrast, the popsters sang popular songs, not only giving the impression that they were learning and practicing Mandarin in k-bars, but also putting in place a different evaluation standard because the judge knew the originals and also have sung in k-bars. In other words, to sing a popular song in a competition, one will be held to higher standards than will a person who performs a traditional routine. It may also be the case, however, that those willing to put in the time to learn taijiquan are also more likely to put in the time necessary to learn Chinese than are people who combine drinking and language exercises.

I conclude these thoughts by speculating on another question: why organize foreign language speaking contests as a means of encouraging foreigners to learn Mandarin? Beyond noting the fact that China abounds with tests and consequently testing foreigners might amuse certain audiences, I’m not sure why Shenzhen Municipality — rather than the Department of Education, for example — would sponsor this program. Speaking contests seem like an extension of a classroom program, rather than a means of finding foreigners who are competent in speaking Chinese precisely because linguistic competence — in one’s native language or in a foreign language — is context specific. The skills that we need to purchase a radish, read a newspaper, participate in legal disputes, or give a moving speech are not only different, but require significantly different levels and kinds of training; to act well or to debate constitutional reform are not primarily linguistic skills, but presuppose linguistic competence in the service of public life.

And there’s the rub: we learn foreign languages for a variety of reasons, including grocery shopping. However, if we want to participate in cross cultural activities that are as interesting and meaningful as those in our native language lives, then in addition to taking classes, we must also dedicate ourselves to reading history, novels, and newspapers, as well as to studying a subject that has been professionalized in the host culture. In the process of actually learning a foreign language as if it were our native language, we will realize (yet again) that good language skills are, like any other skill, cultivated over time and result from thoughtful engagement with respected works and teachers. Moreover, most of us are fluent in a language without being great actors or novelists or poets. In other words, if we want to become competent in a foreign language, we need clear and realistic goals as well as the willingness to do our homework. However if we want to become good in a language at home or abroad, then we must master language arts.

2 thoughts on “how do we judge linguistic competence (in a foreign language)?

  1. I was asked to judge a English-language writing contest among Hong Kong students.

    The entries from the international (i.e. expensive) schools seemed to be written by private tutors or parents. I say this not because they were better written — children can write very well — but because of the subject matter and tone (very opinionated, sometimes aggressive). One, for example, complained with great indignance about the salary tax — that is nothing any child cares about!

    The entries from local schools were technically rougher. Some didn’t follow the format. A few had typos or Chinglish, in which the writer was thinking in Chinese and translating directly into English, which often doesn’t work. But they seemed to be genuine pieces of kids’ writing. Children have a simpler, clearer way of thinking about topics. Given that they were by Cantonese-speaking children, they were excellent. I enjoyed reading these flawed essays much more.

    Fluency is strange. I’ve never studied Chinese and didn’t live in a Chinese-speaking place (Hong Kong) until my 20s, but my spoken Cantonese is fluent since my parents spoke it to me when I was young. When I speak here, people treat me like any other native Hong Konger. But I am essentially illiterate.

    Meanwhile, I studied French for six years, and went to university in a French-speaking city (Montreal). So my French literacy is much better — I can read a newspaper and most books, with help of a dictionary. But my spoken French is very, very rusty. I really sound like I’m struggling in a second language. I speak slowly, stumble over words, screw up tenses and basic grammar, etc. I have a hard time articulating complex thought.

    But if I moved to France, I’d regain both oral and written fluency very quickly. My husband (who’s French) says it would probably take me several months.

    But if I wanted to achieve that same level of fluency in oral and written Mandarin, it would probably take years of study. My oral Cantonese would not be much help there.

  2. Hi Joyce,

    Thanks for sharing personal experience.

    I agree that class is a very important factor with respect to who’s speaking what how. It’s not just Hong Kong where the elite get a jumpstart on foreign language competence. In the US today, for example, Chinese is fast becoming the foreign language of choice at top private high schools, while some state universities have yet to offer courses.

    I think too that as writers, we not only respect what language can and can’t do, but also appreciate the uniqueness of children’s language. Moreover, we realize that unique and interesting voices are not created through cookie cutter speeches, however, talented a child is at memorizing. Instead, opportunities to experiment with and fail in expressive language forms nourish young voices. That said, I enjoy recitations of interesting speeches, plays, and poetry. Unfortunately, the parents and tutors writing competition speeches aren’t writers and it shows. Painfully.

    Yes, I’m picking at an old bone: language is also an art form and when we reduce it to words and grammar and healthy content we miss the point.

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