Writing by Ear

“We should write the opposite way we talk.”

In the early 1980s, I briefly taught Social Studies to 5th-8th graders in a K-8 school about two hours outside Atlanta.  The original social studies teacher had to quit teaching in the Spring because of a problem pregnancy so I got the job sight unseen, thanks to a cousin who  already taught at the school.

The kids were bright, engaging, and spoke English with a thick Southern accent.  Most of them used a form of English that would have made Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer proud.  “He ain’t, we was, him and me are going” were typical phrases.  Even  the teachers’  kids were prone to using sloppy or uneducated English.

After repeated attempts by the English teacher to teach them to use the correct noun/verb combinations and to understand the difference between objective pronouns (I, he, she, we, they) and subjective pronouns, (me, him, her, us, them), one girl seemed to get the pictures.  “We should write the opposite of the way we talk,” she said.  I thought that was a really astute observation.

In the years since then, my own ability to speak standard English has deteriorated and I no long trust my ability to read written words aloud in hopes of picking out the correct way to write something.  It no longer always catches the typos, poor grammar choices,  or wrong versions of a word that it once did.  I now have to rely on programs like Grammarly that show me that despite having a decent vocabulary, my typos and grammatical errors put me in a low ability to catch errors that I used to be able to catch almost automatically.

Having said all this, I thought about my ability to hear the correct way to speak or write in Spanish (my second best language.)  I have no ear for educated or uneducated Spanish.  I can not detect regional accents.  The only thing I have going for me is a vague recall of the tenses that I memorized decades before in high school.

How can you become fluent in a language where you can not pick out the correct usage by sound?  That lack of ability is one of the reasons I say I am functional in Spanish, but not fluent, despite studying it for 6 years in school and 1 year in college.  How do you determine when you are fluent in a language?

26 thoughts on “Writing by Ear”

  1. You raise some good points about hearing/seeing proper English. Plus when I’m trying to write with a dialect, I’ve found that I don’t know anymore the difference between the way I’m now speaking and a southern or Appalachian or midwest (where family is from) dialect. Argh!

    I heard one author say she only reads literature from a certain area while she’s writing a first draft of a novel that takes place in that area. Sounds like a good idea to me!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have struggled with your question for much of my adult life. I speak several languages well enough to ask directions and handle basic transactions, and I am capable enough in a couple of them (other than English) to carry on conversations rather easily. To my own ear, my accent in those conversational languages sounds genuine. I am confident that a native speaker would spot me as a foreigner right away, however. My word choices, my intonation, and my uncertainty about noun-adjective agreement and irregular verbs will always give me away even if my clumsiness with colloquialisms doesn’t.
    I listen to the way that good friends from Germany, Bosnia, Cuba, Sweden, and France speak English. They make the same sorts of mistakes that I do in a second language. Are we fluent? Maybe. None of us could be successful undercover spies, but we are all functionally literate. We can be understood, well beyond the level of “Want eat food have money you give?” How far along the continuum do we need to be before we pass a fluency standard? Does it make a difference? To whom?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dang, Rolig. You certainly know how to up the ante. I think we each have our own level of what we think constitutes fluency. For me, I can write, understand, and even up to a level, discuss things in Spanish–maybe not word for word, but at least the gist. I cannot normally tell if someone is using the correct form of a verb, noun, or adjective. ( I often can in English.) So by my standards for myself (based upon how I gauge myself in English), I am functional, but not fluent in Spanish. I think your analogy of a successful undercover spy might be the epitome of fluency (which would have to cover more than just language proficiency.) Thanks for chiming in and making us (at least me) think about what I actually do mean.


  3. You come closer to sounding like a native English speaker than many native speakers I have run across in the United States. I would definitely consider you fluent. My Spanish is much more functional than basic grunt and point, but compared to my English, it sounds hesitant and probably uneducated (but at least I think I understand the difference between the two forms of to be, estar and ser.)


  4. I’ve always thought that being actually “fluent” in another language is having the ability to “think” in that language and not just “translate” to it from English while speaking or writing. I took four years of French in high school and didn’t even scratch the surface toward fluency, I’m afraid.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. “How do you determine when you are fluent in a language?” That’s a question I’ve wondered most of my life! It’s surprising how subjective fluency is…
    I feel like you’re only fluent when you can write/listen/read/communicate at a conversational level, but I’ve met people who think knowing 10+ words = fluent. And what if you can read really well but can barely do llistening as you mention? I have the same issue with Spanish – I can follow Spanish dessert recipes on paper, but in conversation the language is always spoken way too fast, maybe due to how multisyllabic it is!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The slower the speaker talks, the easier it is for me to understand. I have found that Argentine Spanish speakers do talk a bit more slowly than others so I find them the easiest to understand. With reading, we have the time to reread, review, and even reflect (plus look up the occasional word). I think the 10+ words do not equate to fluency. I know a handful of words in French and Italian and can guess more from the cognates, but I would not even say I’m functional in those languages. When I was in Hungary, the only word I could recognize on a sign was Centrum (for downtown). It was a lot like Center. Other words I became familiar with from repetition and contextual usage or signage. You bring up some very good points. Thanks for commenting..


    2. I agree, moyatori. Fluency is not only a slippery concept, it is very subjective. I am a native speaker of English, so I almost never think consciously about the fact that I am speaking English. I just do it. I can carry on conversations in French or German or (to a degree) Swedish, but I am always aware of speaking in a “different” language. It’s not a question of groping for words, which I do even in English at times. It’s just that speaking a language other than English involves more effort for me. I am thinking in the other language, not translating, but I am aware of the act of speaking, so I am clearly not at the same comfort level as when I am speaking English.
      I see that as a mark that I am not truly fluent in those languages, although I am far beyond the “10+” words standard. I would make a terrible spy, but I’m “fluent enough” for everyday life. At the opposite end of the scale, I have struggled for years to learn Chinese, yet still have a functional competency that is barely at the “How are you? I am hungry.” level — more than most people I know but barely enough to survive in a pinch. There’s a huge range between those end points, and “fluency” lies somewhere in there.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Maybe fluency, like beauty is in the eyes (or hears or tongue) of the beholder or at least the speaker. I’ll bet our modest president would deem himself fluent in a great many languages.


  6. Becky, since this is all opinion, you are likely right. I do agree with you, but we all have different opinions of how fluent/capable/articulate we are in any language, including our native tongue.


  7. Really interesting thoughts Pat, I don’t write the way I talk and I find it hard to read writing with regional accents. I learned Italian for quite a few years but I’m definitely not fluent, in fact I’ve forgotten a lot of it – I wouldn’t have a clue whether I was hearing Italian with an accent or not.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s how I am with Spanish. I can tell different accents in English speakers, but for me, that is where it starts and stops. I can read some writing with regional accents, but it is more difficult. Thanks for commenting.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I speak over 11 languages and I have two rules that determine fluency in a given language:
    1) Can you think in that language?
    2) Can you tell a joke in that language and make people laugh?
    Those two little rules have helped me determine in which languages I am fluent and in which languages I am just conversational. Yes, I must confess that I was an English teacher at one time. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Those may be the most stringent requirements I’ve heard yet on how to determine fluency. (That is why I’m careful to say I am only functional in Spanish.) Which Languages do you speak? Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Well, you asked: 😉
    Arabic – Limited working proficiency
    Chinese (Mandarin) – Elementary proficiency
    Dutch – Elementary proficiency
    English – Native or bilingual proficiency
    French – Full professional proficiency
    German – Native or bilingual proficiency
    Greek – Elementary proficiency
    Italian – Native or bilingual proficiency
    Latin – Full professional proficiency
    Nones – Full professional proficiency
    Portuguese – Professional working proficiency
    Siksika (Blackfoot) – Elementary proficiency
    Spanish – Full professional proficiency
    Südtirolerisch – Full professional proficiency

    Liked by 1 person

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