Wednesday, October 12, 2005

the canard of fluency quacks unconvincingly

With Condoleezza Rice recently in Carjackistan we hear once again the quack of the Rice-is-fluent-in-Russian canard. In June when she met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Ankara the BBC, which should know better, didn't question: "Although Rice is a fluent Russian speaker, the two spoke only in English, the official said."

Rubbish. Of course she isn't fluent. If she were, she would speak to Russians in their own language. If not then, when?

This US Dept of State page contains a transcription of a Rice interview with Alexsey Pivarov which is mostly in English until he switches to Russian at the end. Rice's responses are merely [In Russian]. Naturally we don't expect the State Dept to bother to translate her remarks back into English because for the State Dept, if it's not in English, it's not worth repeating. Or possibly because what she was saying in Russian was, "the weather in Volgograd is redolent of lemmings."

When people learn that I lived in Japan for a while they often say, you must be fluent in Japanese, right? To people who ask this question, life beyond the English-speaking borders is a fantasy land, and the only thing they know about learning an exotic language comes from James Bond movies in which the master spy becomes "fluent" in a matter of weeks. And once fluent, remains fluent without any need for practice. It's a term tossed about by people who have never studied a language because if they had, they would know better than to use it so casually.

Sean Connery has been in two movies in which his character is supposedly fluent in Japanese--the James Bond "You Only Live Twice", and the awful "Rising Sun". And when he opens his mouth and "Japanese" comes out, you cover your ears. Can't he spend an hour or two with a language coach? It matters so little?

I studied Japanese for years and only began to manage to read newspaper headlines. Four-year-olds spoke better Japanese than me. Expectations for English speakers are so low, similar to that of the talking dog, that if you say "the weather is nice today" in Japanese the response is inevitably "your Japanese is excellent!" Why yes, thank you, it is, isn't it. Today however, I will speak only in English...

Can Rice read a Russian newspaper, or just pick out a few words? I bet she could buy groceries and find her way around a train station. But "enough to get around" doesn't have the cachet of "fluent", does it, and it's hard to resist easy credit.

1 comment:

nickensr said...

Similar thoughts?