New York Etiquette Guide

The Foreign Language Challenge: Multicultural expert at work

Posted on Wed, May 05, 2010

Multilingual and multicultural world










by Lyudmila Bloch, Etiquette Expert  

How long does it take to learn a new language? –  my clients often ask me. Well, It depends on the level of mastery you want to achieve. Picture this: you are working as a legal counsel and need to communicate with your client who speaks a different language. To reach a desired fluency for business purposes, you must be pretty advanced to convey intricate legal details or interpret a statute for your client.

In this country, most U.S. government agencies use Absolute Language Proficiency Ratings – an evaluation system that measures a prospective employee’s ability to use a foreign language in his/her work.

Normally, in order to be  “rated” in a foreign language, you’ll be evaluated by a trained professional, most likely a native speaker, who will probe your command of a target language in pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary.

A scale of 1 to 5 is applied in this evaluation (Level 1 – beginners, Level 2 – intermediate beginners, Level 3 – intermediate learners, and Levels 4 and 5 -- professional fluency).  For example, if you are a Level 1 speaker, your knowledge will be sufficient to satisfy your linguistic needs in social and travel settings -- asking questions, following directions, and ordering food at a restaurant.

A Level 2, speakers will be able to communicate basic social needs, plus essential work-related information. For example, a travel guide can give necessary instructions in a target language, or a real estate broker knows enough to describe a property for rent in some detail.

However, full professional fluency (Level 4 – effective business communication and Level 5 -- near-native fluency) takes years to achieve, if you want to speak a foreign language accurately and efficiently.

The highest level of mastery  (Level 5) is achieved when a foreign speaker has a 90 % accuracy rate while speaking, writing, and expressing the full range of his or her thoughts in a target language.

There are many languages to consider when rating proficiency, and they are divided into two categories: hard and easy languages. Success in either category is also very much tied to the length of your training. For example, to speak Spanish an average person will require 500 hours of basic training to achieve Level 2 proficiency. French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, and Romanian are all in the same category of “easy” languages. However, after many years of studying, I personally believe that French grammar is by far more complex than Spanish.  So to achieve Level 2 proficiency in French, an average learner will need about 800 hours of language practice. It’s interesting to note that average person in multicultural Switzerland speaks German, French, and English (sometimes Italian, too) by the time they’re enrolled in college.

“Hard” languages such as Chinese, Russian, Hungarian, Japanese, and Korean are totally different from the previously described group.   A Level 2 attainment will require over 1300 hours of intense language practice in pronunciation, reading comprehension, and grammar.

So, if you are learning an “easy language” and your linguistic abilities are about average, it will take you 250 hours to get to the fist level; double that time (500 hours) if you want to achieve Level 2, and triple that time if you wish to be fluent.  If you are linguistically challenged, you might never achieve your goal. Superb command of written language and business-class proficiency might take a lifetime…The truth is, one can never be “100% fluent” in a foreign language –syntactic subtleties, nuances, and exceptions are simply endless.  I personally never tire of learning a new language because it’s so rewarding to engage in the process of mastering a language I’d always dreamed of learning. Practice does indeed “make perfect” and is the only way to make this dream a reality. 

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