What Is Fluency?

Eva Sandoval, an Italian-American writer based in Italy, writes for BBC Future about the vexed question of linguistic fluency; she starts with Pete Buttigieg’s “rumoured proficiency in seven languages” and continues:

This is not to deride Mayor Buttigieg. His perceived fluency interests me because I’m a former language teacher – having taught English for 11 years in Japan and Italy – and I am also a Cambridge English exam speaking examiner; a role which requires me to dissect variables in candidates’ second language production such as pronunciation, discourse management, and grammatical range. Buttigieg is clearly fascinated by languages, willing to learn, and is brave enough to practice with native speakers on television – qualities that would have made him the star of my classroom. But – like so many of my ex-students who expected to go from “beginner” to “native” proficiency in two months – Buttigieg may have underestimated what it means to “speak” a language.

I can relate all too well to overestimating one’s own abilities. A “heritage speaker” of Italian, I’d been living in Italy for two years when I overheard a receptionist refer me to me as “that foreigner who doesn’t speak Italian”. I was confused, then gutted. That one casual sentence launched a journey that resulted in my being forced to acknowledge that while I had grown up speaking Italian at home and was fluent, I was not by any means proficient.

What does the word “fluent” actually mean? In lay circles, this term has come to equal “native-level proficient”, with no grey area between the bumbling beginner and the mellifluous master. […] But Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English – a popular chain of English schools in Italy – says that fluency actually refers to how “smoothly” and “efficiently” a second language (L2) speaker can speak on “a range of topics in real time”. While fluency may denote a degree of proficiency, it does not automatically imply accuracy – the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences – nor does it imply grammatical range. […]

Luckily, scales for measuring spoken fluency and overall proficiency exist. “Fluency is an abstract concept, so we assign observable variables,” explains Daniel Morgan. Two of the most reliable factors are “speech rate” and “utterance length”. Speech rate can be defined as how much (effective) language you’re producing over time, for example how many syllables per minute. Utterance length is, as an average, how much you can produce between disfluencies (e.g. a pause or hesitation). You could look at accuracy as being subsumed into fluency, in terms of grammatical accuracy, lexical choice, pronunciation, and precision.”

There’s much more detail at the link; it’s an interesting piece. (We had a good discussion on learning languages back in 2003, by the way.) Thanks, Bathrobe!

Comments

  1. John Cowan says:

    So, Dario Fo spoke Grammelot fluently but not proficiently.

    I’ve just sent Sandoval an email asking her what her family actually spoke at home in the U.S. and inviting her to reply here. If I get a private reply, I’ll summarize it.

  2. what her family actually spoke at home in the U.S.

    Reminds this great scene in a Pendergast novel:

    The valet came in again, carrying a basket of fruit. “Signori?”

    “Faciteme stù piacère’ lassatele ‘ngoppa’ o’ tavule.”

    The valet made no move toward the table, saying instead, “Where shall I put it?” in English. D’Agosta glanced at Pendergast and saw a twinkle of amusement in his eye.

    “O’ tavule,” he answered more brusquely.

    The man stood there with the fruit in his hand, looking from the table to the desk, finally placing it on the desk. D’Agosta felt a surge of irritation at his willful incomprehension-hadn’t he given the man a big enough tip? Words he had so often heard from his father flowed unbidden off his lips.

    “Allòra qual’è ò problema’, sì surdo? Nun mi capisc’i? Ma che è parl’ ò francèse’? Mannaggi’ ‘a miseria’.”

    The man backed out of the room in confusion. D’Agosta turned to Pendergast, to find the agent making a rare and unsuccessful attempt to suppress an effervescence of mirth.

    “What’s so funny?” D’Agosta said.

    Pendergast managed to compose his features. “Vincent, I didn’t know you had such a flair for languages.”

    “Italian was my first language.”

    “Italian? Do you speak Italian, too?”

    “What do you mean, too? What the hell do you think I was speaking?”

    “It sounded remarkably to me like Neapolitan, which is often called a dialect of Italian but is actually a separate language. A fascinating language, too, but, of course, incomprehensible to a Florentine.”

    D’Agosta froze. Neapolitan dialect? The thought had never occurred to him. Sure, there were families that spoke the Sicilian dialect where he grew up in New York, but he’d just assumed his own language was real Italian. Neapolitan? No way. He spoke Italian.

  3. AJP Crown says:

    Check out Carlos Ghosn’s press conference yesterday if you want to see fluency in many languages. I counted English, French, Arabic, some kind of Lebanese creole, Portuguese – at a press conference! He makes Buttigieg look like a monoglot.

  4. PlasticPaddy says:

    By this definition, I am probably not fluent in my L1. This is due to (1) excessively simple and slow delivery (2) careful enunciation with pronounced lip movements (think Italian speaker’s pronunciation of the word “beautiful”) (3) often unsuccessful searches for le mot juste (or any mot that does the job). The other thing is that for me an essential part of fluency is comprehension (including in a noisy environment), which does not seem to be addressed at all in the above extract.

  5. I too would be interested to know what language she spoke at home. I suspect a dialect of Italian if she overheard someone say that she didn’t speak Italian.

    I grew up understanding a dialect of Italian, but not speaking it (except when I was between 2 to 5 years old). The dialect was from Molise, somewhat similar to Neapolitan but not really the same. I can, for example, completely understand the dialect in SFReader’s post.

    When I decided to learn proper Italian I definitely understood the difference, although in some of my classes I met fellow Italian-Americans that seemed to think their “home Italian” was Italian. So when I finally made it to Italy and became “fluent”, I was certainly what I would call fluent and proficient. After 2 years the comments were “what region of Italy are you from, I can’t quite place your accent”.

    So yeah, her personal example seems strange to use to start a discussion on fluency vs proficiency.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    Criccieth’s mayor addressed them
    First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
    Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
    Welcoming the things.

  7. Eva Sandoval says:

    Hi, everyone. This is Eva Sandoval, the author of the article. Thank you for inviting me to comment, John. I’m glad the piece struck a chord.

    To answer John’s question, I grew up with Italian in the house – my mother hated dialect. In her generation, speaking dialect was seen as a sign of being “unlearned” and when I brought home dialectal phrases from my non-Italian speaking fourth generation Italian-American friends, she always shouted, “speak Italian, not trash!”

    Today, Italian nationals have learned to be proud of their regional dialects, but they do not consider them to be Italian because they are not. It’s the non-Italian speaking descendants of Italian immigrants who confuse the two.

    My issues with speaking the Italian language come from the fact that I grew up in an Italian ‘bubble.’ My parents were the only two native speakers of Italian that I knew, apart from my grandparents in Italy who we only spoke to over the phone on holidays. This was, of course, before mass media and YouTube; I had no access to books or TV shows, and certainly no possibility of Italian classes where I would learn to read and write. Because I understood everything my parents said – and knew no other Italians who could dispute my belief – I believed I, too, was a native speaker.

    As you all know, a language student – indeed, even native speakers – must apply themselves in four areas: writing, speaking, listening, and reading. I had millions of hours of listening practice, but almost no practice in the other three areas. When I arrived in Italy 10 years ago, I was fluent but wildly inaccurate. I understood everything people said and could respond quickly and fluidly, but was using perhaps two verb tenses, and every sentence was riddled with mistakes and false friends. When that secretary referred to me as the “foreigner who couldn’t speak Italian,” she was referring to my grammatical errors and my American accent. No one had ever pointed out any errors to me; I had fallen into the A-level learner trap of believing that because I was understood, I spoke perfectly. It’s a very common trap. People generally tend to encourage language learners rather than put them down, so we have an inflated sense of our own abilities.

    Bottom line: it takes a village and a lifetime to learn a language.

  8. “Faciteme stù piacère’ lassatele ‘ngoppa’ o’ tavule.”

    Well, it’s quite difficult to imagine anyone not understanding this…

  9. I also find it difficult to think a Tuscan valet in what appears to be a fancy hotel can’t understand basic Neapolitan. Neapolitan is certainly different from Tuscan, but it is hardly Piemontese or Sardinian,nor was it ever a particularly obscure dialect. The second stream of dialogue (“Allòra qual’è ò problema’, sì surdo? Nun mi capisc’i? Ma che è parl’ ò francèse’? Mannaggi’ ‘a miseria’) would be completely clear to any fluent Italian speaker. In what time period does this novel take place?

  10. When I was in high school, the definition of fluency my language teachers used focused not on the quality or correctness of a foreign language, but how well you used what little language you knew. If you managed to communicate without resorting to pantomime or the dictionary, it was a sign of fluency. Reading skills etcetera didn’t play a role. Listening skills would be important, of course, since you couldn’t have a conversation without it.

    Only as an adult I learned the common definition of fluency, namely how skilled you are at speaking a language including correct grammar, a rich vocabulary and a wide knowledge of different aspects of language. According to this definition, educated native speakers are most likely to be considered fluent.

    In casual situations, being fluent sometimes refer to speaking without a foreign accent, which has little to do with either conversational ability or language skills in general.

  11. while I had grown up speaking Italian at home and was fluent, I was not by any means proficient.

    This seems backwards to me. I understand proficient as the ability to survive in a foreign language – decode signs, interact with service personnel, understand at least the headlines in the newspaper, watch a tv show and get the gist of it, etc. Fluent, to me, means you can speak the language comfortably without translating in your head and only your accent, occasional grammatical mistake and odd vocabulary choice mark you as non-native. The majority of Austrians under 40 are proficient in English, only a minority speak English fluently. Henry Kissinger spoke fluent English, but was clearly not a native speaker. Angela Merkel is proficient in English, but she is not “fluent.”.

  12. This seems backwards to me. I understand proficient as the ability to survive in a foreign language – decode signs, interact with service personnel, understand at least the headlines in the newspaper, watch a tv show and get the gist of it, etc. Fluent, to me, means you can speak the language comfortably without translating in your head and only your accent, occasional grammatical mistake and odd vocabulary choice mark you as non-native.

    Yes, you have the common understanding, but it is not the one the professionals use. As she writes:

    What does the word “fluent” actually mean? In lay circles, this term has come to equal “native-level proficient”, with no grey area between the bumbling beginner and the mellifluous master. […] But Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English – a popular chain of English schools in Italy – says that fluency actually refers to how “smoothly” and “efficiently” a second language (L2) speaker can speak on “a range of topics in real time”. While fluency may denote a degree of proficiency, it does not automatically imply accuracy – the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences – nor does it imply grammatical range.

    No offense, but it’s as if you were to argue with a physicist by saying “That’s not what ‘force’ means to me.”

  13. Thanks for getting the author to drop by, JC, and thanks for your very interesting response, Eva!

  14. When I first heard the claims about Buttigieg’s fluency, I knew from experience with various other supposed polyglots what to expect, and I think that programs like Duolingo and Rosetta Stone reinforce the premature illusion of fluency.

    That said, I also would not be surprised if the American press mirrored the largely monoglot U.S. population (80% of households were English-only back in 2017 per the American Community Survey) and were simply incapable of recognizing that Buttigieg is an eager, but not fluent learner of languages. I suspect he knows the difference himself.

  15. I’m sure he does.

  16. Lars Mathiesen says:

    It used to be that CV systems and the like asked you to state your proficiency in a given language on a scale of beginner, intermediate, ‘fluent’ and ‘native,’ which only serves to confuse matters.

    I just checked LinkedIn, and now it has a much better scale that goes ‘elementary,’ ‘limited working,’ ‘professional working,’ ‘full professional,’ and ‘native or bilingual.’ I suppose you get to decide for yourself which aspects of language use that are important in your profession, which is probably not a bad idea.

  17. Yes, you have the common understanding, but it is not the one the professionals use.

    Fine. But who are these “professionals”? Professional language teachers? Professional linguists? Professional education specialists? My wife is a “professional” language teacher, and she understands proficient vs. fluent the way I do. I am not sure the decision of a small clique to turn a perfectly cromulent English word into professional jargon is something lay people need to respect. Rather than physicists describing “force”, for which they provide a clear definition, this reminds me more of paleontologists deciding that “brontosaurus” is the wrong name for an animal that existed millions of years before human language or the silly discussion about whether or not Pluto is a “planet”.

  18. My wife is a “professional” language teacher, and she understands proficient vs. fluent the way I do.

    Fair enough, and I’m not about to try to judge between competing professional understandings!

  19. I used to put “fluent in English and German” at the bottom of my resume, which denoted the fact that I could carry on conversations seamlessly in German, having learned all the grammar of the language. There were, unfortunately, large gaps in my vocabulary, but they were generally easy to talk around. However, I have not had much opportunity to speak German in the last twenty years. My fluency has atrophied a great deal Even the last time I went to Germany for work, everyone around me automatically spoke English. To be fair, I could not have discussed atomic and optical physics in German; the specialized scientific vocabulary was not something I had ever learned. However, I was rather annoyed at a restaurant when the waitress asked if I wanted a menu in English. I told her, in German, that I was quite capable of reading German.

  20. @Brett, that’s about the state of my résumé too. I have over the years been able to honestly list native fluency in English, fluency in French and German and proficiency at various times in Spanish, Dutch, and Italian, where the last group depends on what I’ve boned up on most recently.

    I avoid noting that I have experience dabbling in 15-20 other languages. When they become relevant in my job setting, I just use them without much fanfare – and largely, in IT, no one much cares about my proficiency in natural languages anyway.

  21. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    My issues with the Italian language come from the fact that I was raised in a bubble; my parents were the only Italian speakers I knew apart from my mother’s family in Italy,

    We were conscious of this danger when our daughter was little: I was the only English speaker she heard every day after we came to France when she was three, and my wife was the only Spanish speaker. To give her the idea that her parents weren’t the only people who spoke in these weird ways we took he to England and Chile when we could afford to. This seems to have worked, especially neither of us could speak French well enough at that stage for us to be under pressure just to speak French. When she was a teenager her English was fluent but I had the impression that she spoke (not surprisingly) like someone of my age and not like someone of her age. Much more recently, there was an English visitor where she works, who told her that she spoke like his grandmother!

  22. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    To be fair, I could not have discussed atomic and optical physics in German; the specialized scientific vocabulary was not something I had ever learned.

    To be fairer still, I have always found discussing technical subjects like atomic and optical physics in German (or in my case the kinetics of enzyme-catalysed reactions in Spanish or French) a lot easier than chatting with a shopkeeper or a next-door neighbour about this and that.

  23. I’m with Vanya in thinking that the difference between fluency and proficiency is really quite large and noticeable and that measures of fluency that miss it are not so useful, above all practically as guides for the aspiring learner.

    Fluent L2 speakers make mistakes, of course, but “smoothness” and “efficiency” seem very inadequate to capture the “proficient/fluent” distinction. And “grammatical range” seems to me If anything a sine qua non of fluency. Lack of range is one of those things that in my experience natives instinctively sense rather quickly in even a very proficient L2 speaker. Not in such consciously abstract terms, of course, but in contrast to the richer feel of native discourse.

    Consider a contrast like:

    A: “I can’t believe you say that! I mean, the man’s wife only died in just last week. Try thinking before you say a thing!”

    B: “Why did you say that? His wife just died last week! Please think before talking.”

    Assuming these utterances are equally spontaneous and fluid, I don’t think any native speaker would feel B was more fluent than A. To me it’s precisely the range of natural idiom and construction that define fluency as opposed to competency, and it’s hard to appreciate professional definitions of “fluency” that don’t nudge learners to improve in that direction. Range is the limiter of what you CAN do with a language, I would say, even if with a smaller toolbox you get really good at what you USUALLY do with it.

  24. I don’t think any native speaker would feel B was more fluent than A.

    Did you mean the reverse? A sounds quite foreign to me.

  25. Definitely it sounds foreign. The examples are made up, of course, but my point was that *comparatively* at least, a foreign speaker like A, with greater idiomatic range, despite errors, comes off as more fluent than a speaker like B, with perhaps fewer mistakes but also a more limited repertoire.

    For example, something like “please think before talking,” though accurate, signals to me less idiomatic depth than something like “try thinking before you say a thing”, though “a thing” sticks out like a sore thumb. There’s also a difference of register, of course, which might make the former preferable in certain social situations, but in terms of fluency evaluation, it seems to me that an utterance like A’s takes a far higher level of fluency to produce off the cuff than the other.

    At least I maintain that is the case, though perhaps the effect needs a longer stretch of speech to make itself felt.

  26. John Cowan says:

    “brontosaurus” is the wrong name for an animal that existed millions of years before human language

    Not wrong, just dispreferred. Apatosaurus was described first and Brontosaurus afterwards, and then it turned out they were the same thing. The name assigned first (except in special cases, as when everybody forgot about the original describer’s report) prevails, but the other name is legitimate and will never be used for something else. The complaints about the use of brontosaurus in non-technical contexts is analogous to complaining about the use of nasturtiums because Nasturtium, the Linnaean name, actually refers to watercress, except nobody is dumb enough to complain in that context.

    or the silly discussion about whether or not Pluto is a “planet”

    Oh, it’s worse than that. The present definition of planet excludes Pluto, but much worse it appears to exclude the Earth. Every time I point this out, nobody even bothers to explain why I’m wrong.

  27. @John Cowan: You are wrong on two counts. First, the Earth is a hydrostatic equilibrium body that is not orbiting any other subsolar body and has cleared its orbit of co-orbital debris. Those facts make it a major planet. Second, the definition states the identities of the solar system’s planets in a footnote, and Earth is included.

  28. every sentence was riddled with mistakes and false friends

    Since I didn’t grow up on a bilingual household, I find it hard to relate to this.

    Would the use of false friends and mistakes be due to lack of correction from your parents? Did they tacitly condone the use of ‘anglicisms’ as an acceptable casualty of living in America, forgivable as long as you were making the effort?

    Exposure to a wide range of contexts is obviously essential to forming a broad-ranging vocabulary and an awareness of many different ways of expressing oneself, and lack of this would limit one’s register (limited range of social roles). But how would a person exposed to natural Italian find themselves using only two tenses? This suggests imperfect acquisition of the role model, since your parents presumably used the full range of tenses.

    In asking this, I’m probably making a lot of assumptions about what goes on in the process of learning a language in the family, and possibly also suffering under the naive delusion that “if you speak it to them they’ll learn it perfectly” (“I learnt the language at my mother’s knee”), but I’m very curious about the mechanics of this.

    Today, Italian nationals have learned to be proud of their regional dialects, but they do not consider them to be Italian because they are not.

    Deciding what is Italian and what is not is a sociolinguistic judgement. I guess this judgement is based on the historical development of the Tuscan standard, which specifically excluded dialect. An English speaker might not have quite the same way of seeing things. For instance, would an English speaker consider broad Scots or Irish or Black English (or even Indian English) as ‘not English’? Or would they recognise them as English even if they couldn’t properly understand what was being said.

  29. SFReader – there is a similar scene in one of Patrick O’Brian’s novels in which Jack Aubrey, ashore in Port Mahon, attempts to order dinner in Spanish. He complains that the waiter is an idiot whereupon Maturin informs him that the waiter does not speak Spanish – he speaks Catalan. “You amaze me, Stephen,” says Jack.

  30. Deciding what is Italian and what is not is a sociolinguistic judgement.

    Very much so. Speakers of Roman and Tuscan dialects usually assume they are speaking “Italian” even when their speech diverges significantly from textbook standard.

    Conversely, most young people in Palermo or Naples speak essentially Italian with local accents and some regional vocabulary (like Inspector Montalbano) but are convinced they speak “dialect.” In reality most of the major Italian dialects/languages are probably functionally extinct at this point as no one under 40 really speaks them in daily life anymore.

  31. Henry Kissinger spoke fluent English, but was clearly not a native speaker.

    Referring to HK in the past tense really threw me. How could I possibly have missed his demise?! (Turns out, of course, I didn’t.)

    I find Vanya’s suggestion of what constitutes “fluency” overly restrictive but admit that my own definition would be a completely unscientific Potter Stewart-esque one of “I know it when I hear it.”

  32. laowai: I had a similar reaction recently when someone referred to Mikhail Gorbachov in the past tense. “He died?! When did that happen?”

  33. David Marjanović says:

    By the way, Brontosaurus has been back since 2015, when the open-access paper that single-handedly saved the scientific monograph proposed a consistent metric for which “species” belong to the same “genus” (categories foisted upon us by Linnean nomenclature, not simply existing in nature) and, applying it to the diplodocid sauropod dinosaurs that are the subject of the paper, found that Apatosaurus ajax and Apatosaurus excelsus should not be placed in the same genus. The former is the type species of Apatosaurus, so it gets to keep that name; the latter is, as it happens, the type species of Brontosaurus, so that name is back. This appears to have been universally accepted; I’ve seen critiques of the metric (which is not only as arbitrary as it has to be, but also highly vulnerable to future discoveries), but not of the result.

  34. Giacomo Ponzetto says:

    Deciding what is Italian and what is not is a sociolinguistic judgement.

    Sure, but whether it’s a judgement call very much depends on which dialect you’re distinguishing from.

    Deciding what’s Italian and what’s Piedmontese is no harder than deciding what’s Italian and what’s French. Then, within what’s clearly Italian, there are also regionalisms that must ultimately reflect Piedmontese — in fact possibly French too. Those can be very hard for native speakers to recognize as regional: every time I look this up I discover some I had never recognized as regionalisms, and today’s no exception. But the difference between Italian (albeit a regional variety of Italian) and Piedmontese is truly quite clear-cut.

    Admittedly I may be biased because my home town of Turin is Berruto’s (2006) example of clearest separation between Italian and dialect. However, it seems hard to imagine that Friulan or Sardinian are any less clearly distinguished.

    In regions of greater likely relevance for fourth-generation Italian-Americans, Naples famously has a continuum between its regional variety of Italian and Neapolitan dialect. So the distinction between dialect and Italian must be harder there, and getting even harder as one moves North towards Rome and then Tuscany. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the distinction were again much more clear-cut for Sicilian and the related extreme Southern peninsular dialects.

    By the way, as Vanya pointed out above, this is why the Pendergast story is implausible. Any Italian can read that much Neapolitan with ease. Perhaps it could become harder to understand spoken, but that doesn’t seem likely either. Now if it had been Sardinian … I’m told its two words for table are banca and mesa and I can easily believe those would get you a very perplexed valet. Certainly the former would quickly disabuse me of any hope of having correctly understood the latter via Spanish.

  35. January First-of-May says:

    The name assigned first (except in special cases, as when everybody forgot about the original describer’s report) prevails, but the other name is legitimate and will never be used for something else.

    One such special case that shows up occasionally in (mostly) paleontology is when the original describer was working on such fragmentary materials that it took a really long time to figure out what his description was supposed to describe at all, at which point it turned out to be an already (later) described genus (and/or species).

    A nice example is Manospondylus (gigas), which was described from a single huge bone fragment; there was some later suspicion that the bone was of what was by then known as Tyrannosaurus rex, but it didn’t come to much until a few years ago some guy located the exact original find site, found a bunch of other bones there (that the original discoverer missed), and figured out that it was a tyrannosaur after all.
    Nobody really wanted to have to rename a popular dinosaur genus to something so (almost) thoroughly forgotten, so it was officially declared such a special case (I vaguely recall that the rule change officially permitting such special cases had only happened a few months prior to the discovery).

    That said, even outside of paleontology, it can get much more complicated. IIRC, there’s a case – forgot where exactly, though I think it involved some kind of ape and/or monkey – where there were two descriptions of the same species, but one of them (X) was obviously later than the other (Y), and so the name Y used was the official one… right up until (yet again, a few years ago) someone found an even older forgotten report of some Z who used the same name Y did for a different species (which some yet earlier Q had already described by yet another name, but Z’s description still came under the “legitimate and will never be used for something else” clause). So now the name Y used had to be declared illegitimate (because Z used it first), which in turn meant that X had priority.

     
    As far as fluency is concerned, it sounds like this definition means I’m nowhere near fluent in English – and probably will not be even if I ever become proficient in it.
    I have no problem reading English (at least, as long as the text is not full of exotic words), and I have (almost) no problem writing in English (as you can hopefully see from this comment, as well as other comments I have made on LH and elsewhere), but my English listening skills are clearly far below those of a native speaker (and in particular I have significant trouble understanding much of anything over noise, e.g. in many Sabaton songs), and when it comes to speaking in English… yeah. Short simple sentences, and searching for words all the time.

    (This is mainly because over 99% of my English communication is text-based – there are very few people that I actually talk in English with, and even among those most are native speakers of Russian in the first place [and thus have the same problem].
    I used to have a university teacher from England, and could thus practice often enough by talking with them, but after I left university a few years ago, my English speaking skills plummeted even lower.)

  36. David Marjanović says:

    Nobody really wanted to have to rename a popular dinosaur genus to something so (almost) thoroughly forgotten, so it was officially declared such a special case (I vaguely recall that the rule change officially permitting such special cases had only happened a few months prior to the discovery).

    Possibly on January 1st, 2000: check out Article 23.9.

    So now the name Y used had to be declared illegitimate (because Z used it first), which in turn meant that X had priority.

    Yes, that’s how it works.

  37. It’s kind of unsettling to start morning with discovery that we live on a dwarf planet.

  38. John Cowan says:

    Okay, that’s the best place to start. The question is whether the Moon is truly a satellite, a term which has no agreed-upon formal definition. Its orbit is (uniquely for a satellite) convex throughout[*], which suggests that it is in orbit around the Sun. If so, it is a dwarf planet. But (and here comes the kicker), if the Moon really is a dwarf planet, then the Earth is one too, because it has not cleared its orbit of the co-orbital Moon!

    I wasn’t aware of the footnote….

    [*] For people even more ignorant of the subject than I, this means that the pull of the Sun’s gravity on the Moon exceeds the pull of the Earth’s gravity on the Moon. This is not true of the Moonish-sized satellites of the outer planets.

    [**] The situation is similar with Pluto/Charon, which is currently considered a dwarf-planet/satellite pair, but is perhaps rather a double dwarf planet.

  39. There are obviously lots of aspects of knowing and using a language and different L2 speakers may not progress on some linear scale to a native like fluency/proficiency. But what strikes me in discussion of fluency as ability to speak without a hitch even if incorrectly is that a good deal of that is just self-confidence. As they say, to sing in public requires for the most part a great deal of insolence.

  40. John Cowan says:

    Well, that’s one way, but not the only way. Here’s Samuel Johnson telling Boswell about his tutor at Oxford:

    [JOHNSON:] ‘The first day after I came to college I waited upon him, and then staid away four. On the sixth, Mr. Jorden asked me why I had not attended. I answered I had been sliding in Christ-Church meadow. And this I said with as much nonchalance as I am now talking to you. I had no notion that I was wrong or irreverent to my tutor.’

    BOSWELL: ‘That, Sir, was great fortitude of mind.’

    JOHNSON: ‘No, Sir; stark insensibility.’

    That’s pretty much what lets me sing in public.

  41. a good deal of that is just self-confidence. As they say, to sing in public requires for the most part a great deal of insolence.

    I am fluent in Polish after couple of pints.

    Can’t produce a single sentence when sober.

  42. Speech rate can be defined as how much (effective) language you’re producing over time, for example how many syllables per minute. Utterance length is, as an average, how much you can produce between disfluencies (e.g. a pause or hesitation).
    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favor of quantitative analysis. But then again, as anyone who has ever been on the wrong end of any type of corporate evaluation (raise your hand if you shudder at the term KPI), I also know that not everything can be reduced to simple numbers. This is one of those situations, or, to put it in fluent bulbulese, this is some horseshit. I mean let’s disregard the fishiness of the term ‘effective’ or the problem with the definition of ‘utterance’… Jesus H. Christ, a language is not a sequence of fucking syllables! PlasticPaddy got it right the first time: by this definition, there would be many people who are not fluent in their own native language.

    And speaking of quantitative:
    Eva,
    I had millions of hours of listening practice
    1 000 000 hours / 24 = 41 667 days / 365 = 114 years.

  43. D.O.,

    what strikes me in discussion of fluency as ability to speak without a hitch even if incorrectly is that a good deal of that is just self-confidence
    Bingo. I know a lot of people who speak what they call English with a high syllable-per-minute rate and long utterance length, yet make the most fundamental errors. I would definitely not describe them as speaking fluent English.

  44. This reminds me of a video of Buttigieg reportedly speaking Maltese to some Maltese guy he met on the street. Now I know it’s just a minute and a half and the other Maltese guy dominates the conversation and the context is weird, but based on this, I would not say Buttigieg actually speaks Maltese. First, he does not even produce a proper clause, just a few phrases (in syntactic terms), and second…. Well, when I first saw it, I had to laugh, because Buttigieg has this timid demeanor and deer-in-a-headlights look I’ve seen on my face when someone speaks to me in a language I barely know. Last time this happened was in Nigeria when people spoke to me in Nigerian Pidgin and I’m like, dudes, I can’t actually speak it (yet). Which is why I don’t walk around describing myself as a polyglot and always try to qualify any references to my alleged command (there’s another word for ya) of many languages with important qualifications. Buttigieg’s reply in the article is almost verbatim what you would hear from me.

  45. But Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English – a popular chain of English schools in Italy – says that fluency actually refers to how “smoothly” and “efficiently” a second language (L2) speaker can speak on “a range of topics in real time”.
    1. Actually. Methinks this is one of those occasions where the phrase “X actually means Y” turns out to be some persnickety legalistic bullshit definition or something the person uttering the phrase just invented on the spot.
    2. Citation needed.

    In lay circles, [fluent] has come to equal “native-level proficient”, with no grey area between the bumbling beginner and the mellifluous master.
    One would think “native-level” automatically discounts “bumbling beginner”.
    Yes.

    How important are accuracy and grammatical range? That depends on the speaker’s needs. If they simply wish to converse in social settings, their focus may be solely on achieving fluency,
    Well, if we’re talking about what it means to speak a language fluently, then it fucking does not depend. “I go work now” may be good enough in communicative terms, but it bloody well isn’t (standard) English.

  46. For what it’s worth, I just talked to my brother: we’ve both spent almost our entire lives in Bulgaria and are native speakers, yet it took me ten seconds and some prompting from him for me to remember the Bulgarian word for “ballpoint pen”.

  47. Stu Clayton says:

    I know a lot of people who speak what they call English with a high syllable-per-minute rate and long utterance length

    I still don’t understand how it is that there are so many Spanish speakers (Spain, Mexico), as I hear them on the radio, who speak at breakneck speed about whatever subject is on the table. I know there has been pooh-poohing about whether the notion of speech “speed” can be satisfactorily quantified, so to deflect the poo I’ll just say breakneck speed IN MY OPINION. Listen to the tertulias on cienciaes dot com, or to Radio Metrópoli from Guadalajara (another *official* missing “s” !!).

    I don’t mean that they speak too fast for me to understand. I understand almost every word and can follow it easily provided it’s not one of those lazy “s”-dropping southern Spain people speaking (and by practice I’ve got even that puppy pretty much nailed down). Is there a selection illusion here, in that Spanish radio stations favor fast talkers ? I have never heard anyone speaking English, French or German at those speeds, not in real life and not on the radio.

    Now I regard speaking as parole automatique, as not tightly coupled to “thinking” (whatever that may be) in principle, if not in each and every individual. To that extent rapid speech is perhaps a lack of inhibition, rather than a sign of rapid thought. Inhibitions go with the culture. I’m sure I could go on and on when speaking (some say I already do that too often) and even turn up the speed. But somehow I feel that I “shouldn’t do that”, and that may be a cultural inhibition.

  48. Thanks Eva for the clarification. It makes sense, even considering Bathrobe’s question as to why your parents never corrected your mistakes. I think it makes sense to me as a fellow Italian-American.

    And just to add to the language acquisition stories… My son (who will be 6 later this year), is currently tri-lingual: Italian from my wife, English from me, and French from day-care/pre-school here in Brussels. His strongest language has always been Italian, though French is catching up, if it hasn’t already overtaken it. In fact, when he first started speaking, he would speak Italian to me even though I would respond to him in English. I didn’t insist, as I didn’t want it to be an “obligation”, I wanted it to come naturally for him. And thankfully this happened all by itself. He just started speaking English to me one day. But… while his English might be considered “fluent”, it’s certainly not correct, even considering his age. It’s heavily influenced by French and Italian, and the most striking thing (for me) is that he doesn’t use the past tense correctly: if asked, for example, What did you do today?, he might answer, I did go to the pool. I’m not currently insisting on correcting this, though will occasionally repeat what he said with the correct verb form. Again, I want it to come naturally. I will of course monitor his progress.

    Our daughter is only 2, and I can’t wait to see how her languages develop. So far, the few little words she is saying are mostly French (e.g. when she wants more of something, she’ll say ‘cor for “encore”).

  49. hat,
    Yes, you have the common understanding, but it is not the one the professionals use.
    According to the article. And looking at the jumbled terminology in the article and the conflation of several concepts, I would approach any claims in the article critically. Not to mention that the field of language teaching is full of charlatans (remember Crazy English?). The definition of fluency the article gives comes from a certain “Daniel Morgan, head of learning development at the Shenker Institutes of English – a popular chain of English schools in Italy”. Turns out the Shenker Institutes use something they call a “Shenker Method” which is “different from the classic direct method” and “designed specifically for Italians”. This rings a few alarm bells for me already, but it should also provide additional context for the reevaluation of Mr. Morgan’s definition of fluency (as communicate by the article): he’s basically saying “we’ll teach you to speak fast and efficiently; to be correct, that’s 500 EUR extra.”

  50. Kato Lomb suggested this quiz to test your proficiency in any language. Check how many words in each group you can translate instantly to the language concerned (without consulting dictionary or Google)
    I
    moon
    to buy
    free
    wide
    II
    a blow
    to enjoy
    suddenly
    grateful
    III
    straw
    to promote
    rigidly
    significant
    IV
    brass
    to browse
    obstinately
    enthusiastic

    Every word in the first group gets 1 point, in the second group 2 points, in the third group 3 points, and in the fourth group 4 points for total maximum of 40 points.

    Grading:
    10 points = “D”
    20 points = “C”
    30 points = “B”
    40 points = “A”

  51. Stu Clayton says:

    If the language concerned is Mongolian (which is also “any language”), I get the maximum 40 points on that particular test.

  52. The Shenker Method site has a sort of placement test. I took it twice, no results yet, but on both instances, I noticed some fishy English in some of the questions, I managed to screenshot one .

  53. SFReader,

    sigh. I love Kató Lomb’s method of learning languages, but her method of testing language proficiency is bullshit.
    First, it is not a test of proficiency, but rather a test of lexicon size. Second, it’s as stupid as the one proposed by that one guy I met when I was working for the British Council organizing Cambridge English examinations (that was in the pre-CEFR era) who made his students sit down every quarter and just write a list of all the words they learned in the previous 3 months.
    Repeat after me: LANGUAGE IS NOT A BAG OF WORDS.

  54. (Technical comment: there was a button here that allowed me to edit my response and now it’s gone. What be up with that?)

  55. But it is practical and easy.

    And besides, size of the active vocabulary (ability to translate TO the language) is a good proxy for proficiency (and, well, fluency).

  56. SFReader,

    And besides, size of the active vocabulary (ability to translate TO the language) is a good proxy for proficiency (and, well, fluency).
    No and no. First, like other practical and easy things, it is ultimately worth less. Second… repeat after me: “LANGUAGE IS NOT A BAG OF WORDS”.
    And can we please, for the love of all that is good and holy, stop equating language proficiency and translating? Look at the list (by the way, where is it from?): even if we ignore it’s obvious SAE bias and the fact that there is no single word for, say, “enjoy” or “browse” in my native languages, tell me which of the meanings of “free”, “blow”, “promote” and “significant” should be translated?

  57. Stu Clayton says:

    (Technical comment: there was a button here that allowed me to edit my response and now it’s gone. What be up with that?)

    My workaround for this stupid software: create a new comment with trivial content, for example the letter “x”. The software will then give you edit buttons for both comments. When you’re finished with the correction, delete the workaround one.

  58. stop equating language proficiency and translating?

    that’s the condition sine qua non.

    If you can’t translate to Mongolian, then you don’t have language proficiency in Mongolian.

    There are also other issues too, but if you can’t even translate, then it’s moot point.

    You are not proficient.

  59. January First-of-May says:

    For what it’s worth, I just talked to my brother: we’ve both spent almost our entire lives in Bulgaria and are native speakers, yet it took me ten seconds and some prompting from him for me to remember the Bulgarian word for “ballpoint pen”.

    You should have seen me trying to translate something from English (e.g. for my mother). I immediately understand the sentence, obviously, but trying to explain what it means in Russian tends to be full of disfluencies and searching for words. “Darn, I forgot, what’s that in Russian?” features commonly.

    (I asked an actual linguist, who confirmed that this is perfectly normal – it just means that those words had been internalized in English directly, without reference to Russian equivalents.
    …Now that I think of it, if that explanation is true, it would imply that this is probably more common for actual bilinguals who hadn’t been trained as translators.)

    Kato Lomb suggested this quiz to test your proficiency in any language.

    I get a B for my Russian, which is a combination of the effect described above and me possibly only deserving an A- for my English in the first place.

  60. SFReader,
    that’s the condition sine qua non.
    That is just plainly wrong. It’s like saying that if you can’t run, you can’t walk.
    The only measure of language proficiency in language X is, well, the use of language X.

  61. David Eddyshaw says:

    Kato Lomb suggested this quiz to test your proficiency in any language

    Hardly “any” language.

    Apart from “straw” and “brass” the items in III and IV are pretty SAE-specific. Most would need to be paraphrased in Kusaal because there just aren’t any straightforward matches; for the same reason, you’d need a good deal more clarity about what (say) “rigidly” was supposed to mean in the English. “In a physically unbending manner”? “With an unimaginative adherence to set rules”? There is no corresponding metaphorical use of the physical term in Kusaal, where on the whole words meaning “hard” and the like have positive connotations when applied metaphorically to people.

    Kusaal has no particular word for eating done by cows. They munch grass. You could say that they wander about while munching, if you liked. There are no metaphors derived from cow behaviour to apply to bookshops or interwebs. For some reason.

    “Grateful” is a culture-bound concept. To say “Thank you” in Kusaal, you say (literally) “I greet/praise.” You could make a deverbal adjective that would mean “prone to greeting”, but that would not express the underlying attitude. Is “grateful” supposed to be a characteristic personal trait? If so, you would express that quite differently in Kusaal, using terms that have nothing to do with thanking people. Or is it just a once-off description of someone’s feeling of indebtedness after a favour (which incidentally has quite different connotations in Japanese culture from SAE, I believe)?

    Even in the first two groups, “enjoy”, “a blow” and “free” all cover a very wide semantic range in English and have no straightforward Kusaal equivalents. “Enjoy what?” “A blow using what?” “Free as in costless? Or, free from what?” The Kusaal word for “free (as in beer)” is an adverbial derivative of the adjective “empty.”

    I know a Greek colleague who speaks nearly perfect English. However, she consistently says “important” when a native speaker would say “significant” (which is admittedly something of a term of art in medicine.)

    Just about the only really unproblematic word is “moon.” Except that it may or may not also mean “month”, of course …

  62. According to the article. And looking at the jumbled terminology in the article and the conflation of several concepts, I would approach any claims in the article critically.

    Yes, I’ve come around to that conclusion.

    If you can’t translate to Mongolian, then you don’t have language proficiency in Mongolian.

    To quote bulbul: That is just plainly wrong. In fact, it’s nuts. Most people have very little occasion to translate anything to or from any language. Translating requires a special set of skills that have little or nothing to do with actual language use. To quote bulbul again: The only measure of language proficiency in language X is the use of language X.

  63. We are not talking about most people. (Most people don’t speak any languages except their own).

    We are talking about assessing language proficiency of L2 speakers by objective observation.

    Obviously it requires an ability to use that language in a manner which can be verified by external observer.

    Asking to translate something to that language is a very simple and objective method of assessing language proficiency.

    (asking “just say something in that language” won’t do it for obvious reasons – there are tons of very simple stuff which can be said by fake polyglot)

  64. David Eddyshaw says:

    Incidentally, I didn’t know the Kusaal for “brass”, and I seem not to be alone: the Bible translation uses kuntzɛn’ug, which is transparently “red iron” and seems in fact to mean “bronze.”

    Poking through dictionaries of other Western Oti-Volta languages, none seems to distinguish “brass” from “bronze” consistently, if at all; though this may well reflect the fact that both the lexicographers and their sources were rather fuzzy about these alloys in general (as I am myself …)

  65. When I showed up at Yale and Warren Cowgill wanted me to demonstrate my proficiency in the required three languages (other than English), he pulled books off his shelf, opened them at random, and had me read out loud and tell him what it said (not word-by-word translating, just the gist). I’ve always thought that was an ideal way to show you can do grad-school reading, though of course it has nothing to do with spoken fluency.

  66. Hardly “any” language.

    Kato Lomb knew 16 languages, mostly European with exception of Chinese and Japanese. Plus her own language – Hungarian – is probably the least European of all European languages.

    And she gave this quiz in a book to aspiring polyglots, so it’s likely applied to major languages with significant literature.

    I doubt she had potential student of Kusaal in mind.

  67. Finländare says:

    The only measure of language proficiency in language X is, well, the use of language X.

    This.

    I have many friends who grew up in Finland speaking both Finnish and a second language, mostly English or Russian. They sound native when speaking Finnish, but sometimes (and I can’t stress enough how rarely this happens, but it does) they use the wrong case or a construction that doesn’t collocate, and you immediately know they must be fluent in another language, because no monolingual L1 speaker would ever make such a mistake. And these kinds of mistakes aren’t just your usual slip-ups but rather something that demonstrates a genuine lack of knowledge.

    They’re mostly unerring speakers so obviously proficient, but I’d think twice about commissioning these people to translate anything.

  68. Kato Lomb knew 16 languages, mostly European with exception of Chinese and Japanese. Plus her own language – Hungarian – is probably the least European of all European languages.

    So what? It’s still only 16 languages.

    I doubt she had potential student of Kusaal in mind.

    Of course she didn’t, but again, so what? Are you saying Kusaal isn’t a real language, or isn’t as important as the languages the list works for?

  69. that was an ideal way to show you can do grad-school reading

    Yes and it fits for that purpose perfectly.

    If, however, he needed to test your proficiency in Russian, it would be very easy to pull an English book off his shelf, open random page and tell you to say what’s written there in Russian (not word by word translation, just the gist of it.)

    I suspect Buttigieg would fail this test in all seven languages he claims proficiency.

  70. Are you saying Kusaal isn’t a real language, or isn’t as important as the languages the list works for?

    I am just saying that this test probably wasn’t designed for languages like Kusaal.

  71. David Eddyshaw says:

    I would maintain that the vast majority of the world’s languages are (in this respect) like Kusaal, which I picked only for its familiarity; however, I am happy enough simply to pocket the concession that Kato Lomb’s test is not suitable for “any” language.

    Incidentally, the more I brood darkly on the issue, the more “brass” strikes me as a particularly odd choice. I’m not at all sure that I really know what it means in English without looking it up (in fact, I just did, and have already forgotten the answer.)

    By way of analogy, I can reel off what I have every reason to believe is an accurate list of English equivalents of a whole series of Kusaal tree-species names; however, apart from “baobab”, I’m not at all sure that I could actually identify a single one of them. In this regard my translation ability far outstrips my actual linguistic competence on any rational measure.

    (Fun fact for parties: the French kapokier is a false friend. It does not mean “kapok tree.” Not many people know that.)

  72. the more “brass” strikes me as a particularly odd choice.

    that’s why it was chosen. it’s the hard words part of the quiz.

    the logic is obvious, if you know in Kusaal even that word then you must be really good.

    Russian math schools had a habit of including in their tests at least one question which was so hard that only 1 in 1000 students were able to answer.

    Good and cheap way of picking up math talent.

  73. the more “brass” strikes me as a particularly odd choice. I’m not at all sure that I really know what it means in English without looking it up

    Brass = argent (Fr); Geld (Ger). Pretty common word, really.

  74. Hungarian – is probably the least European of all European languages.
    Leaving aside the question of how to measure the Europeanness of a language, Hungarian is actually pretty tame: it has a nominative-accusative alignment like most European languages (it gets fishy with definiteness et al, but so does differential object marking), it has a case system, it has definite article that precedes a word (unlike Swedish or Romanian), it has a straightforward tense and aspect system (unlike English), it has a very European system of verbal prefixes (like German or Slavic and unlike that BS system of particles English has). It is weird in some aspects – suffixes for possessives, various infixes for all kinds if stuff, a very flexible constituent order system – but not THAT weird. It’s nothing like, I don’t know, Bantu, Yoruba or – God preserve us – Salish.

  75. SFReader,

    Asking to translate something to that language is a very simple and objective method of assessing language proficiency.
    1. It is not simple. Like I said above with reference to Lomb’s list, which of the meanings of “free”, “blow”, “promote” and “significant” should be translated?
    2. Objective? Well, you know the old joke about three being capable of forming four political parties, right? The same applies to translators: I myself once translated the same term in three different ways in a single text within the frame of a single hour. And I’m a professional.
    As many in this thread have demonstrated, translation is a task very different in complexity from language use.

  76. David Eddyshaw says:

    the logic is obvious, if you know in Kusaal even that word then you must be really good.

    But it’s not logical. I was reading a Kusaal grammar by a native-speaker linguist (Anthony Agoswin Musah) and came across a proverb which he had (without question) misunderstood because he was unfamiliar with one of the words in it – which I myself knew. His proficiency in the language is incomparably greater than mine.

    If you know the word for “brass”, it probably means not so much that you are a highly competent speaker but that you are a metallurgist.

    I know the Japanese word for “eosinophil.” You would be wrong to conclude from this that my knowledge of Japanese is particularly extensive.

  77. PlasticPaddy says:

    @David L
    The Problem with the vocabulary quiz is
    (1) as bulbul says, possession of specific vocabulary is a (perhaps less central) element of fluency.
    (2) abstract words like significant have a wide semantic range and do not map one-to-one even between European languages. For example significant could translate in German as an adjective, e.g., bedeutend or bedeutungsvoll or even perhaps as a prefix like Haupt- depending on context. People my age might use the phrase “significant other”; there is no German counterpart with an adjective because that is not how the language works.

  78. SFReader,

    If, however, he needed to test your proficiency in Russian, it would be very easy to pull an English book off his shelf, open random page and tell you to say what’s written there in Russian (not word by word translation, just the gist of it.)
    The highlighted part tells me that like many, you actually have no idea what translation is and what it involves.
    But the whole bit I quoted illustrates an issue that tends to fall by the wayside in such discussions: there is a world of difference between active and passive knowledge. The test you propose just tests passive knowledge and there Buttigieg might very well pass – I certainly would, with at least 20 languages. But this would definitely NOT mean that Mayor Pete or I are proficient in all those languages.
    It might be a good test to weed out all the fake polyglots, tho.

  79. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Most people have very little occasion to translate anything to or from any language. Translating requires a special set of skills that have little or nothing to do with actual language use.

    That seems exactly right to me. I may have said this already recently, but no matter, I’ll say it again. When my daughter was five years old she could say anything she wanted to say in English, French or Spanish (at the level of a five year old, of course). But if asked to translate a particular word into a different language she would systematically say she didn’t know.

  80. The test you propose just tests passive knowledge

    No, asking a learner of Russian to translate something into Russian is testing his active knowledge of Russian.

    Testing passive knowledge is what LH described – asking to translate from Russian into your native language. This shows your passive knowledge of Russian vocabulary.

    Basically, speaking or writing in a language (including translation INTO that language) is active knowledge, reading, comprehension and translation FROM that language into your own is passive knowledge.

    That was always the distinction.

  81. But if asked to translate a particular word into a different language she would systematically say she didn’t know.

    Try something more age appropriate – “tell this nice lady thanks for the cookies and tea and that we will come tomorrow again.”.

    If she can really speak she should be able to produce such sentence.

    Anyway, there has to be some way to check whether she really can say what she wants in that language.

    Unless you believe that it is impolite to question other people’s claims of language proficiency..

  82. David Eddyshaw says:

    Not-translation:

    In the Olden Days, one’s French teachers would say (as a truism) that the objective and true sign of progress was learning to “think in French”, i.e. precisely not continually mentally translating from English. They were, of course, quite right.

    Part of the joy of Latin (much the most exotic language I was taught in school, apart perhaps from Greek) was the discovery that the normal way of putting things in that language (once you get beyond the very simplest constructions) rarely maps straightforwardly into SAE; in fact Latin that does so map is almost invariably unidiomatic and bad Latin. The lost (or dying) art of Latin prose composition made you confront the fact that to turn English into any sort of reasonable Latin you had to recast the whole thing quite radically, and made you begin to understand how weird SAE is, for example with its pervasive metaphors and personification. You just can’t say “Germany entered the war” in Latin prose, for example.

    Translation:

    My wife teaches German professionally and is very much more proficient in German than I am. My comprehension of German technical medical articles is vastly better than hers (and indeed probably better than most native speakers’.)

  83. I am just saying that this test probably wasn’t designed for languages like Kusaal.

    It’s not designed for any languages but the ones she knew. I get that you like that test, but you should admit that it’s very limited in usefulness.

  84. And, again, translation is a lousy test of how well you know a language. I don’t know why that’s so hard to accept.

  85. “Kusaal has no particular word for eating done by cows. They munch grass.”
    English-speaking cows do not browse. They graze.
    English-speaking deer browse.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Browsing_(herbivory)

  86. David Eddyshaw says:

    Now I need to downgrade my score for competence in English again (already adversely affected by lack of brass awareness.)

    And, again, translation is a lousy test of how well you know a language. I don’t know why that’s so hard to accept.

    He’s obstinately enthusiastic. Rigidly, even.

  87. John Cowan says:

    I still don’t understand how it is that there are so many Spanish speakers (Spain, Mexico), as I hear them on the radio, who speak at breakneck speed about whatever subject is on the table.

    I think that’s a convention of Spanish-speaking radio: I hear it here too in NYC, where the speakers are mostly of Caribbean origin (who also drop final /s/, by the way).

    Kusaal has no particular word for eating done by cows.

    For me, what cows do when eating is grazing and not browsing; the latter consists of eating leaves and twigs, and is done by deer and giraffes and such.

    However, I don’t think the “test” requires that you be able to produce a single word: a longer equivalent should be fine.

    Most people don’t speak any languages except their own.

    François Grosjean, who specializes in bilingualism, says that more than half of the people in the world are bilingual or bidialectal (armey un flot, etc.)

    none seems to distinguish “brass” from “bronze” consistency

    They are both copper alloys, but the former has zinc whereas the latter has tin. I have not been able to come up with a mnemonic for this: the one with “n” has tin, but the “z” is far more distinctive and it works the wrong way. Archaeologists often simply use copper alloy anyway. There may also be other ingredients, notably arsenic: it’s thought that copper-arsenic alloys preceded both bronze and brass, perhaps only until people discovered how toxic it is.

  88. David Eddyshaw says:

    I am encouraged by the fact that my online searching of English Bibles suggests that all sorts of animals graze, and that only the Shulamite’s Beloved does any browsing.

    Evidently the Wikipedian browse/graze dichotomy is heretical. Anathema!

    a longer equivalent [for “browsing”] should be fine

    I see that the Kusaal Bible version usually just renders “browse/graze” as ɔnb yaama “chew fodder”, which seems fair enough. Where the “wandering about” aspect is particularly salient it expresses it explicitly with a separate concatenated verb.

    It’s interesting that “browse” (and “graze”, if you must) are not actually “atomic” concepts, in fact.

  89. Your mnemonic might be: Brassy is not tinny (but bronze is).

  90. Stu Clayton says:

    People my age might use the phrase “significant other”; there is no German counterpart with an adjective because that is not how the language works.

    Well, there are many renderings of that in the internet, from Partner to bessere Hälfte. This last one cracked me up, because it’s dated but apt.

    There used to be an idea that Germans have no sense of humor. This example shows the opposite – they make fun of a risible American neologism that merely puts a shine on old monogamous shoes.

    It is always already people who do or don’t “work like that”, not just “the language”. Unless the language is dead, simce its speakers are dead and the piano tuner is doomed too.

  91. January First-of-May says:

    We are talking about assessing language proficiency of L2 speakers by objective observation.

    Obviously it requires an ability to use that language in a manner which can be verified by external observer.

    Asking to translate something to that language is a very simple and objective method of assessing language proficiency.

    (asking “just say something in that language” won’t do it for obvious reasons – there are tons of very simple stuff which can be said by fake polyglot)

    Asking to translate something to that language can go astray if you don’t speak that language either (as is often the case), because the fake polyglot could just say some jibberish that sounds kind of like the right language.
    The simple(ish) and objective (though weak) method is instead to ask to translate something from that language (the test described by languagehat).

    Of course, if someone is claiming to speak, for example, Kusaal (and you’re not in the area where it is commonly spoken), you might be hard-pressed to come up with a pre-existing Kusaal text to translate from, so you’d have (almost) nothing but their word that whatever they claim to speak is actually Kusaal and not something they made up. And similarly for most other languages of similar or higher obscurity.
    Even for something like Maltese or Mongolian it might be hard to find such a text (at least on short notice).

    Kusaal has no particular word for eating done by cows. They munch grass. You could say that they wander about while munching, if you liked. There are no metaphors derived from cow behaviour to apply to bookshops or interwebs. For some reason.

    Russian does have a word (пастись) that is pretty close in meaning to “eating done by cows”, though I would translate it as “graze” rather than “browse”; the metaphorical meaning is “hang around”.
    The interweb metaphor, as far as I recall, is лазить в “climb at” and/or сидеть в “sit in”; for the bookshop I’d say проглядывать (roughly “look through”).

    …Come to think of it, I’m fairly sure that people say “surf the internet” those days. What does “browse” mean?

    I’m not at all sure that I really know what it means in English without looking it up (in fact, I just did, and have already forgotten the answer.)

    To the best of my understanding, brass is a copper alloy closely related to bronze, of a characteristic yellowish color (whence its Latin name orichalcum “gold-copper”).

    I’m not quite sure what the Russian word for it is either, though my best guess is латунь.

    …Now that I think of it, if that explanation is true, it would imply that this is probably more common for actual bilinguals who hadn’t been trained as translators.

    And indeed this is exactly what Athel Cornish-Bowden just described about his daughter.

  92. John Cowan says:

    “Significant other” definitely does not exclude legal spouses. In addition, I had for many years an “other significant other”, who was definitely not describable as an “other wife”. (A friend of my father’s had one of those; the two met only at his burial.)

  93. Stu Clayton says:

    Of course it doesn’t, that was my point. It is no more than a precious update of “better half”. “Significant other” is soporific wokespeak.

  94. John Cowan says:

    I think “better half” is pretty precious already. And if “significant other” is wokespeak, it’s the oldest wokespeak around, having been with us since 1953.

  95. Stu Clayton says:

    Preciosity is the spice of life for many people. Wokespeak is not new. It has been in the service of sanctimoniousness for generations. It is the Jeeves of pursed-lip tradition.

  96. David Eddyshaw says:

    “Significant other” is soporific wokespeak.

    True; on the other hand, it gave Randall Monroe the pretext for

    https://xkcd.com/539/

  97. Stu Clayton says:

    Excellent ! It reminds me of olden times when hippies yearned for that least-square other. Lonely people still get trapped by mean others.

  98. Right, but how do we generalize boyfriend/girlfriend to gender universality? Should it be “cisfriend” or “transfriend”?

  99. David Eddyshaw says:

    We speak Kusaal, of course: sabua.

  100. David Marjanović says:

    Basque is less SAE than Hungarian.

    the pull of the Sun’s gravity on the Moon exceeds the pull of the Earth’s gravity on the Moon

    Mind blown.

    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    Well. There’s no way a Hungarian polyglot isn’t fluent in German, so I see your Kusaal and raise you German.

    I
    moon
    to buy
    free
    wide

    Mond, kaufen, frei – wait, or gratis. Likewise, weit and breit, mostly the latter.

    (Of course “I don’t buy this” meaning “I don’t believe this” doesn’t use kaufen. And “once in a blue moon” is completely different, and so on and so forth. So far, that’s beside the point…)

    II
    a blow

    Schlag

    to enjoy

    Uh. I know exactly what it means and how to use it. But this is a beautiful example of how translation is a separate skillset.

    There is no transitive verb for this concept in German. The closest to to enjoy something is sich an etwas erfreuen, and that is so literary it is completely unusable in everyday situations. So, I need to ask myself how I would express the underlying situation in German.

    And then we need more context. “I enjoy this music” means “I like this music”, so diese Musik gefällt mir. “I enjoy doing this”, however, is ich mache das gern(e), where gern(e) is some kind of adverb-oid that translates straightforwardly into Classical Fucking Latin as libenter but can only be illustrated by examples in English, not “just translated”.

    Coming up with all of this took me at least half a minute. That would be a nice long pause in an oral exam situation.

    suddenly
    grateful

    plötzlich, dankbar

    Suddenly we’re back to the easy ones.

    III
    straw

    Stroh… wait: “a straw”? Strohhalm. (Even if made of plastic.)

    to promote

    “to see that it is more widely used, to further”: fördern; “to move someone up in a hierarchy”: befördern. (Which also means “transport”.)

    rigidly

    Uh. Steif, fest, hartstarr! Starr is good, including for the metaphorical uses I’m remembering at the moment.

    significant

    Signifikant. The adjective, that is.

    IV
    brass

    Messing.

    (If you see a golden metal that doesn’t claim to be some kind of gold, it’s generally brass. Bronze is nowadays used for statues, church bells and pretty much nothing else, and is coppery-brown. Archeologists are generally happy to call copper + arsenic and copper + lead “arsenic bronze” and “lead bronze”, sometimes leading them to specifying “tin bronze” for the kind that won out.)

    to browse

    Ha! Äsen! That word is in the active vocabulary of hunters, a few ecologists, and pretty much nobody else. Consequently, it’s never applied to the Internet, where we stick with the earlier metaphor and say surfen (ur pronounced à l’anglaise to the extent we can). The Browser is simply imported wholesale, just given a capital letter and denied a plural marker.

    (For the noun browse, which I’ve encountered in scientific literature, it took me almost till I had finished reading the thread before I dimly remembered Äsung. I googled it to make sure I wasn’t making it up. It has a Wikipedia article that starts with “in hunters’ language”, and it’s notable because you’d expect it to mean “the act of browsing”.)

    obstinately

    I’d go with stur, except register-wise that’s more like “pig-headed”. When that doesn’t fit – I’d need more context.

    enthusiastic

    Enthusiastisch. Uh, begeistert more often.

  101. Messing

    I hadn’t been familiar with that word, and was excited when Lutz Mackensen told me it was from Μοσσύνοικοι ‘Mossynoeci.’ But Wiktionary says:

    From Middle High German messinc, perhaps derived from Ancient Greek Μοσσύνοικοι (Mossúnoikoi, “Mossynoeci”), the name of an ancient people connected with metallurgy; or alternatively from Latin, Old High German massa (“lump (of metal)”).

    And given the baseline boringness of most explanations, I’m guessing the latter is more likely.

  102. Stu Clayton says:

    to enjoy … There is no transitive verb for this concept in German. The closest to to enjoy something is sich an etwas erfreuen, and that is so literary it is completely unusable in everyday situations. So, I need to ask myself how I would express the underlying situation in German.

    Try genießen.

    Ich genieße die Sonne, den guten Wein, die Ausflüge in den Wiener Wald ….

    Also of course intransitive:

    Ein Gentleman genießt und schweigt

  103. I was going to say: for the meaning of “brass” as understood by an ordinary person, “the yellow metal that isn’t gold” is going to cover most of it.* It surprised me that anyone would find it obscure (at this basic level of understanding) since it’s something I’ve known since I was a child. I suppose it demonstrates the peril of assuming the universality of one’s own experience.

    After reading David E.’s comment about the lack of differentiation between “brass” and “bronze” in the Kusaal bible and Western Oti-Volta dictionaries, I considered that I really knew nothing about the history of non-ferrous metallurgy in West Africa. But then one thing did come to mind: the Benin Bronzes. Which are, of course, made of brass. Well, sort of. A copper alloy containing varying amounts of zinc and lead. I assume it’s the lead content which makes them dull and brown rather than shiny and yellow. I think the Ife bronze heads are made of the same kind of stuff.

    *Having thought this, I thought of the outer part of the bimetallic £1 and £2 coins, and the solid £1 coin before them, which are a paler yellow than normal brass and don’t corrode as easily. I looked up the composition of UK coins, and it turns out they’re nickel-brass; copper and zinc and a small quantity of nickel.

  104. PlasticPaddy says:

    @dm
    Re signifikant, this is a word which I feel is more at home in a Sherlock Holmes story or an academic publication (significant in English is only visiting there 😊). But I bow to your superior Sprachgefühl.

  105. David Marjanović says:

    Try genießen.

    Yes, thanks, that’s much better – but still a more literary register than the everyday word enjoy.

    Of a meal: “did you enjoy it?” Hat es Ihnen/dir geschmeckt?

    more at home in a Sherlock Holmes story or an academic publication

    True, it occurs elsewhere more often in English than in German. The best translation depends on the context, then, and will sometimes be wesentlich (“essential”, but for lower registers than in English) or just wichtig (“important”).

  106. Agree with David E about Lomb’s list. Seems to be full of words that have lots of meanings. Even “straw” could mean the agricultural product as well as the thing used for drinking. Different words in Croatian. It appears that the purpose of the Lomb list is to measure proficiency in recognising the synonyms and translating them into L2, rather than just as a measure of L2 proficiency – is that the point??

  107. The original list was in Hungarian, but I only have English and Russian editions of the book.

    I am sure original list doesn’t have these ambiguous meanings (or rather has different ones).

  108. January First-of-May says:

    The original list was in Hungarian, but I only have English and Russian editions of the book.

    I wonder what the Russian list looks like. There’s probably (different) ambiguous meanings in there as well…

  109. I
    luna
    pokupat’
    besplatnyy
    shirokiy

    II
    osadki
    naslazhdat’sya
    vnezapno
    blagodarnyy

    III
    soloma
    sposobstvovat’
    chopornyy
    sushchestvennyy

    IV
    med’
    podbirat’ kolos’ya (posle zhatvy)
    stroptivo, uporno
    vdokhnovenno

  110. med’

    is plain wrong. Copper definitely would be in the Group I or II.

    But brass in the English version on the other hand is right where it should be.

  111. Thanks for the Russian equivalents. I see now that “free” refers to payment (gratis) not liberty, and “browse” refers to gleaning of grain stalks after a harvest (if i understood the Russian correctly) – pabirčenje in Croatian.

    An example of the difficulty of trying to find one to one correspondences when translating. The functional load is spread differently in different languages. For example in English there is a lot of synonyms that are resolved by various prefixes, suffixes, phrases or morphology etc. in other languages. Eg. Croatian godina, godište, ljeto, razred can all be translated by the English year, but don’t all mean the same thing.

  112. gleaning of grain stalks after a harvest

    In Oxford dictionary, this sense of the verb “to glean” is marked historical.

    I wonder how many people know it.

  113. Re “glean”: it’s the first meaning in my Pocket Oxford Dictionary, and the second meaning given in the Macquarie Dictionary. Neither of them has it marked as historical, but they are at least 17 years old now.

  114. I get what bulbul is saying about translation being a particular specialized skill that serves poorly as a measure of L2 fluency. I frequently translate academic Japanese professionally, and indeed, it’s very much like rewriting if you do it well. Exactly as David M. said, it’s a matter not of unit-by-unit transposing words into the target language, but rather of considering how the intended meaning *would have been expressed* naturally by an analogous native speaker.

    That said, I feel sure SFReader understands all this, and that his basic point is indisputable. Facility at communicating something into the target language at will —without preparation—is something that a fluent L2 speaker must be able to do, however they get the task done.

    Forget the word “translate”, which as a professional skill does mean something different than just , “say this word in language X”. Grant also that the (English) Lomb list offered here is (understandably) parochial. It poorly fits Kusaal, it doesn’t work well for Japanese, and as we saw, it even has problems with German. I think it could be improved, but it’s never going to be better than a very rough diagnostic. For example, I would imagine “alloy” might be better than “brass”, but, e.g. in English, the use of that word in non-metallurgical contexts ruins it as a test where in the other language the word is an uncommon technical term.

    All the same, I think even use of a bad list would give a pretty accurate quick-and-dirty estimate of L2 fluency if administered in a flexible way by a native speaker of L2. The native Kusaal examiner is going to know the problems with expressing “brass” in their language, and will recognize an examinee’s accurate awareness of that problem as equivalent to a correct answer. Even a man-on-the-street examiner is gong to recognize the difference between a deer-in-the-headlights blank stare and a fluid explanation in the test language of why “brass” is hard to say.

    All the caveats raised above willingly granted, a fluent L2 speaker’s in-person answers to a test like the Lomb list are likely to be clearly different from those by someone of less proficiency. Because there is a sense in which a language IS a bag of words.

    There are certainly levels of very advanced proficiency that an over-focus on vocabulary as a diagnostic would fail to appreciate, and by definition, even a fluent L2 speaker, qua non-native, *will* trip up on vocabulary tests at some point even with non-technical vocabulary. But even if such a Lomb list is unfair—perhaps precisely because it’s unfair?—as long as you allow people to answer freely, the utterances it produces are likely to be informative.

    At least, I can’t see how you can get an accurate sense of fluency by allowing the L2 speaker to control what they talk about.

  115. zyxt:

    It could be a “list original meaning first” ordering, and “glean” in that sense isn’t totally obsolete like “ensample” or something.

    That said, I bet it’s true most people couldn’t tell you what a “gleaner” does. (Unless they’ve been made to read the Lady of Shalott in school.)

  116. PlasticPaddy says:
  117. David Eddyshaw says:

    Or the Book of Ruth.

    I think it’s not so much the word as the actual activity that is “historical”, at least in the parts of the world where most of us live.

    There is (unsurprisingly) an exact Kusaal equivalent in the literal sense: wi’is.

  118. AJP Crown says:

    Tim May: …the Benin Bronzes. Which are, of course, made of brass. Well, sort of. A copper alloy containing varying amounts of zinc and lead. I assume it’s the lead content which makes them dull and brown rather than shiny and yellow.

    Of course tarnished brass isn’t shiny yellow, it’s a dull sepia-ish colour.
    The British Museum has a general note about bronze & brass:

    copper alloy (Scope note)
    The term ‘copper alloy’ should be searched for full retrievals on objects made of bronze or brass. This is because bronze and brass have at times been used interchangeably in the old documentation, and copper alloy is the Broad Term of both. In addition, the public may refer to certain collections by their popular name, such as ‘The Benin Bronzes’ most of which are actually made of brass. The term ‘copper alloy’ is used in preference to ‘billon’ (in both Description and Materials) in records for Roman coins.

    I prefer bronze to copper as a building material because the verdigris looks better. I don’t like the orangey colour of copper underneath.

  119. Well, of course tarnished brass isn’t as shiny as if it were polished. It’s still usually a more yellow colour than the Benin plaques, though I’ll admit that the more of a patina there is the harder it would be to tell.

  120. Trond Engen says:

    AJP: verdigris

    That’s a pork meat value-for-money brand.

    The Norwegian word for oxidation on copper (alloys) is ridiculously simple, Bokmål irr, Nynorsk eir, < *aiz-, eventually from the IE “copper” word.

  121. @David Hithersay: That’s just what “historical” means in a gloss—that the referent is something that is (by and large) no longer encountered, but the word to refer to that past phenomenon is still current. If actual use of the word was largely or entirely in the past, the note would be “archaic” or “obsolete.”

  122. AJP Crown says:

    a pork meat value-for-money brand
    Haha. Never thought of that. I live with value-for-money pigs and may even be one.

    Tim May, the Benin bronzes are wonderful. Many thanks for the link. I’ll have a look next time I’m at the BM, which is already my favourite place to visit in London.

  123. David Marjanović says:

    glean

    Oh! For picking things up from the ground one by one, I’d say klauben (aufklauben, zusammenklauben). That’s a rather regional word, so for wider comprehension I’d use aufsammeln (where sammeln is “collect, gather”).

  124. David Eddyshaw says:

    Klauben seems to correspond to Kusaal vaae “collect things up off the ground” (which is what I would have offered for “glean”, as I didn’t know that there was a more specific word before looking it up.)

    There’s a cognate vaal for clearing the ground before planting; as a deracinated city-dweller, I don’t know if there’s a particular English word for that.

  125. David Eddyshaw says:

    (So mystically attuned to Nature and the cycle of death and rebirth are the Kusaasi that they have an untranslatable word vaal to refer specifically to readying oneself to participate in the Cycle by ridding oneself of all that might hinder it.)

  126. January First-of-May says:

    The term ‘copper alloy’ is used in preference to ‘billon’ (in both Description and Materials) in records for Roman coins.

    That’s quite unexpected; billon is usually described as a silver alloy (though I suppose technically it is, typically, mostly copper).

    I guess it makes sense for Roman coins because the period when actual billon (with 15-40 percent silver content) was used was relatively short (ca. 251-263 AD), after which for a few decades the content of the “silver” coins (aside from some rare issues in good silver) was standartized (as far as we can tell) at 1 part silver to 20 parts copper (i.e. about 4.8% silver).
    Further debasements led to coins made in a silver-less copper alloy that was only plated with silver (for another few decades), and then ultimately to coins with no (deliberate) silver at all (though, again, parallel high-denomination issues in good silver still occurred).

  127. John Cowan says:

    an untranslatable word vaal to refer specifically to readying oneself to participate in the Cycle by ridding oneself of all that might hinder it.

    I believe that in English the phrase for that is “inter vivos trust”.

  128. Stu Clayton says:

    It thus appears that although death and taxes are certain in this world, probate expenses (as a kind of death tax) can be skirted.

  129. Lars Mathiesen says:

    generalize — Usenet had that sorted long ago: soc.motas.

    verdigris (insuinous) — I thought the point of using bronze was that it didn’t tarnish as fast as copper or brass? A few large buildings near parliament here were reroofed at the start of the millennium and they are currently a dull brown, a green tinge is expected in a decade or two — so how long would bronze take? (5000 year old chinese bronzes are green, yes, but given that one of the old roofs had to be replaced after 150 years…)

  130. David Marjanović says:

    Other than register/frequency, there’s a drastic difference between enjoy and genießen. Enjoy! is a polite wish. But to put genießen in the imperative would strike me as a silly threat: “You will do this, and you will LIKE IT!”

  131. Stu Clayton says:

    Genießt die Show! is unremarkable coming from a master of ceremonies.

  132. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve never been in that situation 🙂

    …and the sentence strikes me as literally translated from English.

  133. @Lars Mathiesen: The point of bronze is that it is hard. Copper, like gold, is relatively easy to mine, beautifully colored, and malleable. Pure copper tools are too soft to be a real improvement over stone, except in some niche applications. However, alloying copper with just about anything (even gold) makes it much harder. That’s why there were so many different copper alloys in the very early Bronze Age, mixed with tin, zinc, arsenic, combinations of the three, and occasionally other elements. Ten percent tin bronze was eventually found to be about the optimal combination achievable with the metallurgical technology of the time. However, zinc brass was favored in decorative applications, since it is still fairly hard, has a nicer appearance than bronze when polished, and is manufactured with a more common alloying metal. Only in modern times has bronze ceased to be a major industrial material, used now solely for esthetic reasons.

  134. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @Brett, indeed, but bronze is also more resistant to corrosion. Not important in Bronze Age applications but still a fact, and a reason to use it where exposed to salt water.

    AJPC was talking about verdigris being prettier on bronze than on copper, and hardness is presumably not important in applications where verdigris is; so faster patination would be a feature, I thought — unless pure copper is too soft for sculpture, I didn’t think about that. Sculptures aren’t remade every hundred years, so bronze taking longer is not a problem. (Bronze after 110 years).

    (For roofing being soft is a feature, the alternative to copper is lead).

  135. The Browser is simply imported wholesale

    Cf. selain.

  136. John Cowan says:

    Enjoy! is a polite wish

    When used in the imperative and without an object like this, it’s a calque of Yiddish Genist!, which of course is a cognate of genießen but unrestricted by register. Enjoy without an object is sometimes used in other contexts in English, but not commonly. The OED2+ cites only Ruskin (1872) “It is appointed for all men to enjoy, but for few to achieve”, but Ruskin is notorious for his elaborate style and general tendency to rant.

  137. David Marjanović says:

    When used in the imperative and without an object like this, it’s a calque of Yiddish Genist!

    Ha! Awesome.

  138. Bill Boyd says:

    The last time my ability to communicate in Spanish was rated (my L2) was back in ’91 at the Foreign Service Institute. Before formal assignment to USAID/Bolivia, I had to demonstrate what I guess was a good-enough level of proficiency in terms of my reading and speaking abilities. FSI rated my reading at 3 of 5 based on my being to decipher a number of quite varied texts. Speaking assessment was much less artificial and conducted by a native speaker from Argentina who engaged me in a moderate-length conversation. After confusing me with the term “luces” (meaning a period of time equal to 5 years), she rated me at “near-native fluency”–I felt real damned good about that one.

    In practical terms, though, I’ve tended to rate myself, based on my being able to readily express my thoughts as validated by how the listener responded. During those years in Bolivia, the worst qualitative rating I “earned” was captured by “We wouldn’t say it that way.” Otherwise, my fluency continued to improve…poco a poco.

    As to how well my ear understood spoken Spanish, other than with, call it, Caribbean Spanish, I always felt completely at ease. As for Caribbean Spanish, I continue to study up ahead of time, for example, anticipating a trip to southern Puerto Rico in April to my mother’s home-town. Though my study resources are, I feel, a bit artificial, I spend 10-15 daily listening to radio broadcasts from Ponce and Salinas, two of the main cities on the Caribbean side of the island.

  139. John Cowan says:

    “luces” (meaning a period of time equal to 5 years)

    I’m pretty sure that was lustro < L lustrum ‘sacrifice at the end of each five-year period’.

  140. John Cowan says:

    I had millions of hours of listening practice
    1 000 000 hours / 24 = 41 667 days / 365 = 114 years.

    Well, perhaps if five people are talking at once (a thing not unknown among Italian-Americans) each hour of someone listening to this conversational impasto counts as five.

    (Dr. Google thinks I invented this phrase, yet I would have sworn I got it from Tannen or somebody.)

    If you can’t translate to Mongolian, then you don’t have language proficiency in Mongolian.

    Knowing no Mongolian, I can’t translate from Mongolian to English, ergo I am not fluent in English?

    because no monolingual L1 speaker would ever make such a mistake

    Considering that we live in a world in which a native speaker of English can say “Rosa only date shranks” (this is an actual speech error), it’s hard to say what’s truly impossible. What happened here is that the past-tense inflection expressed regularly on the verb date migrated to the noun shrink (a clipping of headshrinker ‘psychiatrist’) and was applied to it as if it were the underlying verb shrink, whose past tense inflection is irregular. As a result we get the “impossible” form *shranks, which bears both verbal and nominal inflection.

    kapokier is a false friend

    Wait, what? Wikt.en defines it as ‘silk-cotton tree’, which is in turn defined as being any of:

    Bombax ceiba, native to much of tropical and temperate Asia and Australasia.
    Ceiba pentandra, native to the American tropics and west Africa.
    Cochlospermum religiosum, native to the Asian tropics.

    Now kapok tree is defined as either B. ceiba or Ceiba pentandra or two other Cochlospermum species (gillivraei and fraseri). So, this finicky detail aside, it surely looks like kapok tree and kapokier are synonymous. (By the way, Ceiba used to be part of Bombax.)

    But we can avoid going through English altogether and stick with the Wikt.fr definition of kapokier: “(Botanique) (Guyane) (Rwanda) Grand arbre de la famille des bombacacées, originaire d’Amérique centrale, pouvant atteindre 70 mètres [!] de haut et dont le tronc ne se ramifie qu’en hauteur. Le tronc est vert et garni d’épines lorsqu’il est jeune” and adds that its Linnaean name is Ceiba pentandra, which is unquestionably the source of kapok, the fiber, and one of the species given above. (Kapok-seed oil, by the way, is edible and has also been used for lighting and soap-making.)

    Ein Gentleman genießt und schweigt

    Why there is no English word for schweigen/tacere.

    copper alloy is the Broad Term of both

    Broad Term, indeed! What’s the matter, they don’t know the word hypernym?

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