Being a Language Citizen
How can one possibly be a citizen of a language? At first glance, that may not make any sense at all. However, it is my endeavor to explain this concept to you. First, we need to understand the meaning of the word citizen. The Concise Oxford American Dictionary states two meanings: 1. A legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth, either native or naturalized: a Polish citizen. ▪ an inhabitant of a particular town or city: the citizens of Los Angeles. Then we have collocations such as a "good citizen", "upstanding citizen" and "model citizen". With these last three examples, it would seem that it is not enough to just be recognized on paper as a national of a state or resident or inhabitant of a city. In other words, there are also responsibilities to be fulfilled as well as a sense of duty in order to attain true citizenship. Hence, this is the juncture where legal status is superseded by moral responsibility; and it is in this context that I want to introduce to you the term I coined: language citizen. Please bear in mind that any definition construed by an individual person can almost always be refuted, either fully or partially. I took this factor into account when I invented the term, as I will now, while writing this essay. The term language citizen came to me when reading forums on ProZ about the meaning of native speaker. Almost any time the term comes up on that site, there are heated discussions, and there are almost always translators who claim to have more than one native language, and closely related to this topic, are the posters who put forward the argument that it is not true that translators should only translate into their native language. Beyond my opinion on this subject, I think it only fair to discuss what it means to know a language. Do you know English sufficiently if you're born and raised in the United States and know no other language? Couldn't you be considered more or less proficient than other speakers of your language-even though they are not native speakers? What if you speak English (substitute English with whatever the language you speak as your native language or the language you are most comfortable with) as a second or foreign language, but you are more knowledgeable and proficient than the average native speaker of English. In fact, if you had a conversation with your average Joe, you can leave him bewildered with both the terms you use and subject matter (even though you clearly speak with a foreign accent). In my view, as with most disciplines of human life, especially if it involves other people, there are three factors to keep in mind: levels, privileges and responsibilities. There are clearly different levels of fluency, vocabulary and sharing knowledge. Now, knowing more or less does not necessarily mean that one person is better than another, I mention this, and every other comparison as a marker, a way to compare the ties within the framework of my term and the concepts behind it. I’m going to use a kingdom as an analogy: there are four basic groups of people here: The king and queen are at the top. They use a special kind of language, such as the royal “we” and are exposed to the most exclusive lifestyle imaginable. This means that they are not necessarily familiar with all of the habits, customs and language used by the other groups in the kingdom. Next comes the nobility and courtesans. Granted, they are privileged-but not as privileged as the king and his family. Their language is eloquent, but not as elevated as the king and queen’s. Then there is a merchant class. Its members are successful for the most part, but they are not necessarily the best educated. Their specialty is buying and selling goods. Therefore, the language they use and know is that of trade and finance. To give just one example, merchants, depending on their line of business, may be familiar with the different kinds of cloth used in making scarves, and all the names and denominations of currency. The people who are at the lowest end of society in a monarchy are the peasants or serfs. They are forever indebted to the king and don’t have access to education or the comforts of life. They spend their lives working, toiling in order to survive. Yet they have their own knowledge and language and way of speaking that groups of people who are higher up are unaware of or disdain. Now, I want you to imagine for a moment that you are a visitor from the future to the kingdom I mentioned above, so get into that time machine, or if you prefer, hop onto that magic carpet). I should mention that the official language in this kingdom is not your native language. I’m assuming that you are a “language person” and that you know the language spoken in this kingdom reasonably well. You have a grasp of the grammar, and you can read it and write it to some extent. Your task is to interact with all four groups. Bear in mind that you will not always understand the codes or intent behind what is being said in each group, as each group will invariably have its own style of speaking. In this, I mean pronunciation, gestures, volume and tone, sayings and logic. Depending on who you are and your personality, I am guessing that it will be easier to communicate with some groups than others. If you had an audience with the king, he would be the one doing the talking and you would be the one doing the listening and bowing. You might get a few words in, and these would probably be words of reverence, but you would never be his equal. With the courtesans, I imagine things are similar, although perhaps you could get invited to their houses. Perhaps you have know-how or information that they would be interested in like a proposal-something that would be of use to them to get ahead. Since merchants live to make money off of their business, the most and best communication you would have with them would be if you wanted to buy something from them or sell something to them. This would definitely be a relationship of needs and benefits. With them, you could learn a lot about the language of negotiation, the names of the different kinds of goods they sell, and, again, depending on where you come from and your personality, you could learn conversational skills. Interaction with peasants or serfs could be a little more unpredictable. Some of them might be bold and talk to you, the curious foreigner. Others might be timid or overwhelmed by you and your station in life. There are yet others who could be surly and discourteous to you out of resentment. You might get a better outcome if you acted humble and attempted to understand their world. Their way of speaking could possibly be more difficult for you to understand than, say, the merchants’. You might have to make a greater effort and spend more time to learn the codes used by these people. How much you know of a foreign language has a lot to do with exposure. If, by chance, you run across a person from any of these classes who speaks your language who does all the interpreting for you, he or she may be doing you a service in the short run, but will definitely impair your learning of that language and isolate you from the essence of the land you chose to visit. Which is not to say that you cannot draw parallels between your native language and the one you aspire to learn. This can be quite instructive, as you will see what is similar and different about your new language in comparison to your native one. Just remember, everyone has something to contribute to your knowledge, and you never know who this person will be. You, as a foreigner, will probably never completely master the language or the culture. Think of it as a puzzle you put together, but do not have all the pieces to it. But this should not deter you. I believe that in life, if you strive to be perfect, you will never reach your goal. There’s a certain level, of course, that you should achieve or strive for, but never think that you will actually be a native. In fact, your foreignness, your way of speaking and your accent should distinguish you rather than hurt you. People are curious by nature, and when they hear in your voice that you are a foreigner, they ask more questions, and if they have a (positive) preconceived notion about your country of origin, as people do about the United States, you may even be admired for who you are. Now awaken from your dream trip to the kingdom! As with your visit to the kingdom, when you visit a foreign country, and you learn a word, phrase or saying, pay attention to who says it and in what context. Not only that, don’t rely on just one source. As there are different subcultures within a culture and different communities who, though speak the same language, use it differently, you have to identify with a certain group or community for the sake of coherence and proper use of language. What I did, learning Spanish in Costa Rica as a teenager, was keep a notebook on new words and phrases and their meanings. Then I would either listen to different people say these words or phrases or simply ask them about what I had heard in different places-my magic number was three. If I heard three different people who used the same word or expression in the same way or gave more or less the same definition, then I would declare it as part of my Spanish vocabulary. Another worthy exercise is learning what is colloquial and what is formal. What I do, and I do this to this day, is to choose a national figure who could be a politician, spokesperson, businessperson or just someone whom I consider to speak well. Then I study what this person says, and look up any words I don’t know later on. Although it is a bad idea to copy people verbatim, because only you are you and they are them, I try at least to emulate the tone and some of the words and expressions that he or she uses. As you indeed are a foreigner, as you were in your visit to the kingdom, you are not going to use all the expressions and slang in the way that you would in your own language. Unless you are bilingual from birth, you just haven’t had the same number of hours learning colloquial language, and you probably will not learn everything that a native speaker of your second or foreign language knows. What you should do then, is to choose what slang words you are going to use. You are probably going to need to use slang to be included in social groups. You will certainly want to use the equivalent of the word “cool” in the other language, but you want to be careful of slang that is inappropriate in certain situations. You could either be laughed at or someone could be upset at you. Indeed, part of being a language citizen is to know what language to use and what language to declare as off-limits. If you aren’t already a language citizen, what is your status? Are you at the stage where you are taking baby steps or have you applied for your passport? Before I close, I have a question for you: Where do you see yourself in 20 years? As you might already know, learning a language is a lifetime job. Although I’ve already explained it above, you never reach the point where you are truly a native speaker, and thus, a citizen of a language by birth, but you learn to adapt and blend in and truly feel that your new language is a second skin-as natural and dear to you as your own. Are you ready to embark on this journey that will take you to a new land, a new culture and, if you so choose, a new citizenship? It takes a bold soul to do this. Once you assume a new role in life, you will have to leave something behind you. So the question is: Do you think that what you will gain outweighs what you have to set aside? I, as a language citizen of Spanish, and particularly of Chilean Spanish am proud of what I am, proud of what I’ve done. It has been a rewarding experience to say the least. This article attempts to explain what it means to be truly proficient in a second/foreign language and the steps to attain this goal.