Monday, January 31, 2011

Talking the Talk

I have a life-long love of learning foreign languages. I see them as the clearest window into another culture. Learning another language is the best way to gain an understanding of how people in other countries think and view the world.

I’ve learned Farsi almost entirely through immersion, with my husband, his relatives, and Iranian friends as my teachers. It all began the first time my in-laws came to stay with us—and remained for six months. Farsi became the language of our home, and I picked up quite a lot without even noticing my progress.

In the early days, I’d sit at the kitchen counter helping my mother-in-law prepare the evening meal, while she told me the names of various food items and cooking methods: jafari (parsley), tadiq (the crispy rice from the bottom of the pot), joosh miad (the water is boiling). I learned that Iranians don’t express their preference for tea based on its taste (strong or weak), but rather by its appearance: por rang (dark or “colorful”) and kam rang (less dark).

As my Farsi skills improved, I discovered that my husband and I have very different concepts of what constitutes fluency in a language. I’ve always believed that the best measure is how well you master colloquial speech. If a non-native English-speaker says to me: “Check it out. That lazy s.o.b. totally phoned it in this time,” I’ll never even notice he said it with a Spanish accent.

Which makes things only frustrating when I practice Farsi on my husband and he responds like this “Don’t say goshneh-ee. You sound like a peasant.” Never mind that’s exactly how he’d phrase the question “are you hungry?” I’m supposed to use the more formal gorosneh hasti.

It puzzled me that he insists I talk like a classroom textbook until the time I wanted to tell my mother-in-law something, but couldn’t quite remember what. I stumbled a bit, then said faramoosh kardam. I forgot.

A big smile spread over her race and she told me how elegant my Farsi sounds.

Elegant? I stared at her blankly. On a good day, the best I can say about my Farsi skills is that the language rolls off my tongue without getting snagged somewhere. On a bad day, it feels like I’m choking out the words, one by one.

My husband stepped in and explained. “You could have said yadam raft. Faramoosh kardam is more formal.” (Guess who taught me that one.)

I started getting compliments: “You speak Farsi so well” or even: “You speak it better than we do.”

Oh sure! I assumed the aunt who told me that was engaging in another peculiarly Iranian cultural practice called ta’aroff—the art of dissembling, of telling white lies out of an excessive sense of politeness.

But then I realized what she really meant. That I spoke the language more “properly” than she did. Not more fluently, smoothly, or confidently. She thought my speech sounded educated, compared to a native’s more informal idiom. Which is never a bad thing in Iranian culture.

So now when I complain that my Farsi sounds stilted and unnatural, my husband suggests that I work on my accent. In his opinion, fluency is judged by how much you sound like a native, not whether you master the local slang.

What about you? Do you speak any foreign languages and how do you judge when you’ve become fluent?


  1. Heidi, what an awesome article. My recent experience is with Spanish, initially learned at a community college, then improved upon in weekly chat sessions with a native speaker, sitting around her kitchen table and talking about everything and nothing. Learning a language through immersion, however sporadic, is the only way, in my opinion, to go beyond textbook speak.

  2. Thanks, Gerhard! I find that the languages I've studied mainly in a classroom are the ones I've forgotten. Immersion not only helps you speak the language more comfortably, but it stays with you longer.

  3. Christ, I still don't know if I am fluent in English! I still find words and idioms I don't know. I still can't figure out exactly what an official letter from a financial institution is telling me so confusing the legal terms are. I feel that until I can read that without a translator I will be fluent. LOL!
    Then, I wonder whether I would be able to understand the same letter in Russian. Probably not...

  4. Lina, native English speakers have the same problem with English vocabulary. It's huge! I'm very well read, highly educated, and I still run into words I have to look up in the dictionary. And I've spoken English all my life. I'd say you are as fluent as I am. I'm also not at all certain that legalese qualifies as English (or Russian.) It's a language all its own. :)