“Are you fluent in Spanish?” my friends ask.
“Almost,” I reply.
When I first enrolled in Spanish immersion, I thought of ‘fluency’ as the capacity to speak and understand without errors. Early in the course of my studies, I saw a banner marked ‘fluency’ at a finish line just ahead of me. The more I studied and learned, the more the finish line moved farther on, always a little ahead of me. Of course, I didn’t want to leave fluency unfinished. I wanted to cross a line that marked the boundary between fluent and not fluent. One day, I woke up realizing the ‘finish line’ didn’t exist; it was a figment of my cultural imagination.
Our American way of life seems preoccupied with the idea of completion, conclusion or the finished product. We don’t like things left unfinished—college degrees 10 credits short of graduation, questions left unanswered, arguments lacking conclusions, mysteries left uninvestigated. No. We are culturally inclined to want things neatly tied up, without loose ends. In death as well as life, we want resolution—closure. That’s the virtue we see in a ‘dead line.’ When we see something unfinished, a house, a project, an education, we tend to view it moralistically. Subtly, we think it a wasteful, slothful, shiftless, no-account. Culturally, we have little tolerance for anything unfinished.
I suspect we can chalk up some of our abhorrence of unfinished things to the cultural effects of the Industrial Revolution and mass production. American life is tightly bound up in a layers of integrated processes. Every step along the way is measured to the last nano-second. Each one must be finished on time, nothing must be left unfinished, incomplete or behind schedule. If it is, the whole system stops. It’s unfinished. Horrible!
Learning a language, even our tongue, is a process. No one is born fluent in his native language. Nor is it possible to wake up some day speaking another idiom. From infancy on, we learn through a series of steps and processes that become a part of ourselves. Unlike the manufacture of standardized widgets, language learning takes its own time and is never truly finished. Unfortunately, too much language instruction follows an industrial model. The lessons are often a series of uniform steps meshed into larger units and designed to be completed within a specified period of time, as if the students were of identical capacity.
Am I fluent? No. I’m not finished yet. ‘Almost fluent’ is about as much as I can accomplish in any language, even in my native English. Something is always incomplete because English and Spanish evolve constantly. Each year brings new phrases, shades of meaning, and slang. These variants come and go rapidly. As I learn and unlearn them, they change how I think and speak and act.
With the passing of time and circumstances, I add to my vocabulary and I find new and interesting ways to say and write my thoughts. It’s all part of on-going literacy. The American English I hear in old radio broadcasts from the 1930s and 1940s isn’t the American English of today. Today’s voices are more diverse, the vocabulary, accents, intonation, and word order have changed. Language evolves with our lives. Learning a language is like buying unfinished desk. It possesses the virtue of creating opportunities to continue its completion to suit me with my taste in varnish or paint.
Am I fluent ? Not yet. Like you, the reader, I’m still unfinished. I’m a work in progress, still learning Spanish ever more deeply, and evolving as I learn. Each lesson, each experience, adds to the sum of what is already there. It deepens and broadens my sense and use of the language. Fluency is a journey and not a destination. It is never finished.