There is a question I get asked often from my people that I do not quite know how to answer.
Firstly, I have never really understood why they ask it… it is like being asked why I breathe or why we cannot fly. Secondly, I am not sure what kind of answer they are expecting to get – do they want technical advice, or do they just want encouragement? And thirdly, I feel that the question is missing the point altogether, so I cannot see how any of my answers will truly help them. The question?
“How do you become fluent in English?”
Although I always spoke my mother tongue at home (my parents were very strict about it), I spent most of my formative years learning and playing in English. It is just as natural for me to communicate in English as it is to communicate in my mother tongue. I would even go so far as to say that sometimes I find better expressions of my feelings in English than in my mother tongue. So when my people ask me the question, at first my answer is:
“Maybe you can immerse yourself in English, until it becomes second nature.”
But that is usually not the answer they want. They think I was privileged to have had a chance to be put in such an environment and do not believe they can create the same for themselves (though I beg to differ… there are so many ways you can keep yourself in contact with English, even if you do not actually live in an English-speaking region). So in my second answer, I try to give them some practical tips on where they find the language difficult:
“Maybe you can differentiate L’s and R’s like… and you can pronounce TH’s easier with… and when in doubt you can ignore A’s and The’s…”
But they are still not satisfied with my answers. Too many rules, and too many exceptions to remember… just give me the ones I really need, they tell me. And that is when it makes me start to wonder, what do they need English for to begin with? What do they want to communicate, and what do they envision themselves doing, once they are fluent in English? So my third answer ends up being:
“Maybe you need to find out what it is you need to say, or if there is any at all, and how much you want to say it. Then you will see better if I am the right person to ask.”
At this stage, most people think I am not willing and/or able to help… they tell me I would not understand the struggles they go through learning English because it came to me differently. And to them, I think “that’s what I’ve been trying to tell you!” But to those who are able to tell me exactly what they want to do once they are fluent in English, I have just one thing to say:
“If your heart is put into your words, it will find its way even if your English is broken. But I have a feeling you will become fluent after all, seeing how hard you try to get your words across.”
It is frustrating sometimes that I tell my answers fluently in my mother tongue yet my people do not receive it the way they are intended. That is when I am made to recognize that fluency is an advantage but not a necessity nor sufficiency. But I put my heart in my words, and I am hopeful they will find their way someday.