How fluent can one get?

Michael Zwingli

Active Member
Defining fluent might open up a can of worms here but by fluent I mean the ability to write and read in a way that isn't horrendously slow. Spoken Latin may also be added in here.

People on this forum seem to be able to write in Latin very well and be understood and reply to it. Yet when someone posts a translation request it often leads to pages of debate as to the best way of doing it, or even simply the correct way. How can those two situations be?
Although a person who is "fluent" in a given idiom will invariably be able to express him or herself with speed and ease, these facilities are the manifestation, rather than the basis of fluency. The basis of fluency is simply the ability to "think in" a language...but what does this mean?

Humans, or rather human brains, actually undertake cognition without the involvement language, do not actually "think", in any language. Thoughts are any of three things: emotions, rationalizations, or memories; they arise as a consequence of the cognitive processes of: feeling, reasoning, or remembering. Language factors in later, after formation of the thought. For linguate humans, this is an automatic process, the mechanica of which is not fully understood. Even so, linguatization is a separate process from cognition.
The literary critic, philosopher, polyglot, and possible polymath George Steiner has indicated that every act of speech, even in ones native language, every act of linguatization, is a translational act, since it necessarily involves a translation of concept into the structures of a particular language. Though our thoughts do not form in language, once we have learned language we use it to particularize, differentiate, categorize and specify our thoughts, to relate them one to another, and to transmit them to other people.

The point is, that the automatic conversion of thought into (one of) our primary language(s) is translational-process-number-one (T1). The term "fluency" is used to describe that automatic T1 process. When we are leaning a new language other than our mother tongue, and our primary language is the language into which we automatically convert thoughts, we must then translate the concepts from our primary language into that language in translational-process-number-two (T2). Only when we are able to automatically undertake the T1 process in the learned language, can one be said to have achieved "fluency", to have become "fluent", in that language. This is what fluency means. It does not necessarily involve (though it is pertinent to) reading and writing, which involve yet a third transltional process (T3), that of translating phonemes or lemmas/words, into written phonetic or pictographic symbols, respectively.
 

Terry S.

Quaestor
Staff member
I have always taken for my definition of fluency the ability to speak a language spontaneously without resort to any other language. i.e. I mightn't understand everything being said - just like in English - but I can ask for and understand explanations and clarifications.
 

Michael Zwingli

Active Member
I have always taken for my definition of fluency the ability to speak a language spontaneously without resort to any other language.
Yes, I think that you have condensed my three paragraphs into a sentence.
...I mightn't understand everything being said - just like in English - but I can ask for and understand explanations and clarifications.
Sure, often the concepts/thoughts of another require clarification as they are transmitted through the medium of speech, even when both people are speaking in the same, their native, tongue.
 

Godmy

Sīmia Illūstris
Just one quick thought:

anytime a "modern" human speaks Latin, they speak about modern and predictable context which is shared by all modern languages (as long as the speaker comes from a similar civilization) and that's why any modern language - no matter how crazy its grammar is, will be always easy to understand because under all that grammar and unknown vocabulary it deals with trivial stuff.

Ancient languages, on the other hand, deal with foreign contexts, as if you were reading a language of aliens: its a different civilization which bears some resemblance and even the resemblance is sometimes false. That context is unpredictable, you never know exactly what they want to say and second guessing them when you're not sure about the translation usually leads to an error.

So spoken fluency in Latin means ... nothing (as long as the sole intention is a communication with another living/modern human being).

Fluency in reading Roman litterature is much more difficult and fluency in rendering a thought in Latin that is very close to the Roman idiom and their ways of speaking is also quite difficult and takes years, decades to achieve (with some speed).
 

Godmy

Sīmia Illūstris
That's why anytime some Latin learner tells me they started to double with some modern language instead [of Latin] because its grammar is so interesting, alien and difficult, I wave it away... because at the end, the language will cover just "trivial & predictable [=modern]" stuff and will be easy to pickup at some close point. (and you can often second guess what an article in the language talks about ... you cannot in an ancient language with a high degree of success if you're not very experienced prior to it).

So spoken fluency in Latin means ... nothing (as long as the sole intention is a communication with another living/modern human being).
And that's why avid Latin learners will learn quite quickly to communicate´... and yet they will have troubles with reading Roman litterature.

But I still advocate speaking in Latin as a didactic tool... to achieve a different [deeper] end :) - one should master it for the grammar familiarity, and because it's relatively easy to other stuff that is to be achieved in Latin.
 

EstQuodFulmineIungo

Civis Illustris
Illud quidem minime verendum est, ne laborem studiorum pueri difficilius tolerent; neque enim ulla aetas minus fatigatur. Mirum sit forsitan, sed experimentis deprehendas; nam et dociliora sunt ingenia priusquam obduruerunt IX. (id vel hoc argumento patet, quod intra biennium quam verba recte formare potuerunt quamvis nullo instante omnia fere locuntur: at noviciis nostris per quot annos sermo Latinus repugnat! Magis scias si quem iam robustum instituere litteris coeperis non sine causa dici paidomatheis eos qui in sua quidque arte optime faciant)
 

Gregorius Textor

Civis Illustris
From what I understand of the natural method, it aims to teach language with as little direct reference to grammar as possible and get the student to learn in a way approximating that of first language acquisition. Extensive reading is undoubtedly a part of this. When I learned my first language I was a child whose mind was a sponges, as all children at that age. Now I'm older my mind is no longer a sponge, nor am I able to completely immerse myself in Latin. I can try and get as much exposure to it as possible though. Extensive reading allows for this.
Ah, then that's not Fr. Most's books (although he uses "natural method" in his title), because he does teach grammar explicitly.

Prendergast "Latin Mastery" is more in line with what you are calling that natural method, but it's a tough nut to crack.
 

Notascooby

Civis Illustris
Ah, then that's not Fr. Most's books (although he uses "natural method" in his title), because he does teach grammar explicitly.

Prendergast "Latin Mastery" is more in line with what you are calling that natural method, but it's a tough nut to crack.
Have a look at LLPSI. That is probably the most prominent form of the 'natural method'.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
I can't help being skeptical about that method. It is possible to deduce rules by oneself through observation, but that tends to be a slower process than if you are told the rules upfront, at least the most basic grammar rules. (There will be loads of things left to deduce after that, believe me; I've deduced a lot of the finer points through reading, but after I had learned the basic rules the "normal" way.) I mean, it seems more efficient to me to simply explain to students how the cases work, for instance, then to get them to guess it by showing them simple sentences. As for the comparison with first-language acquisition... I believe I'm not the first one to make a statement of this sort on the forum but remember that, through that "natural method", it takes a child roughly a year (I think that's more or less the average?) to even utter one word, let alone form really complex sentences.* So, for efficiency, well... Now if you like a challenge and aren't in a hurry, why not, I suppose.

*Though, to be fair, there's also the fact that children's brains aren't quite formed yet.
 
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Michael Zwingli

Active Member
...anytime a "modern" human speaks Latin, they speak about modern and predictable context which is shared by all modern languages [...] Ancient languages, on the other hand, deal with foreign contexts...
@Godmy, you have enunciated the key word (along with specificity, of course) in difficulties with translation, both to and from Latin with respect to a modern language: context, cultural context in particular. As @David Fields noted, trying to translate the (American) football term "pocket" into Latin might be near impossible without resorting to a cumbersome noun phrase, simply because there has been no cultural context in any Latin speaking culture for the thing described in football as "the pocket" to have been conceptualized. The concept of "the pocket" has never been brought into existence in Latin because the cultural context of a football game has been non-existent in any Latin speaking culture.

Since I am using sports metaphors, the development of fluency as I have described it above is very similar to the "muscle memory" developed by athletes in their respective sports. When a professional baseball shortstop sees a "hard ground ball" leave the bat of a batter in his general direction, he does not have to think about what he must do; indeed he has no time to think about what to do before the ball reaches him. Everything that he does is automatic, and the result of muscle memory: the dive to the side, the gloving of the ball, the spring into a crouch, and the fluid throw to first or second base all come completely without thought. Indeed, what he has is "fluency" with respect to the series of actions demanded of him. In a similar way, a fluent speaker of any language need not engage in any thought whatsoever in order to lingusitically express the concepts in his mind. His only thoughts will be focused on whether or not he is expressing the right concepts, but not at all on their translation into language.
 
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Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
In a similar way, a fluent speaker of any language need not engage in any thought whatsoever in order to lingusitically express the concepts in his mind.
That's probably true most of the time in daily interactions regarding simple things, but it isn't always so. When trying to explain a grammatical concept, a complex philosophical thought, or something equally complicated, even a fluent person will often need some thought to figure out how to express their ideas in a way that is clear (and even acceptably elegant, for some).
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Case in point:
I enjoy writing when it comes out sounding good, but sometimes it can be a real slog to find the right phrasing
Callaina was here speaking of writing an essay in English, her mother tongue, in which she is probably even more fluent than most native speakers. ;)
 

Michael Zwingli

Active Member
That's probably true most of the time in daily interactions regarding simple things, but it isn't always so. When trying to explain a grammatical concept, a complex philosophical thought, or something equally complicated, even a fluent person will often need some thought to figure out how to express their ideas in a way that is clear (and even acceptably elegant, for some).
Yes, but the thought of the fluent speaker in expressing such concepts, so long as he is familiar with all the applicable terminology, exists with respect to the concepts themselves, and with respect to clarity of presentation as benefits the hearer, but not upon the grammatical considerations that attend the translation of those concepts into language...into speech.

In a similar way, the thought of a linguistically fluent debater engaged in formal debate will be focused upon the concepts being debated, and otherwise upon the logic and rhetoric attending to prevailing in the debate, but not upon that third aspect of the Trivium: the grammar needed to translate his concepts into speech. In such a case, "fluency" means that semantics, morphology and syntax come automatically, without thought.
 
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Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Again there are exceptions, but it's true that most of the time at least, the person's concern will not be whether their sentence is grammatical, but whether it's clear in other respects.
 

Callaina

Feles Curiosissima
My own opinion on the so-called "natural" method is that it's not very efficient. Yes, children learn languages "effortlessly" (as it seems) but that "effortless" acquisition actually involves many, many hours of exposure to the language in question (i.e. one's native tongue) every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Nobody is going to have the time for doing that with Latin, and even if you wanted to, you really couldn't, given that there is no place (besides the Accademia Vivarium Novum) where people go around communicating in Latin all the time. And even if you could, would it be an effective use of your time? Wouldn't it be better to just buckle down and learn the grammatical rules (which for Latin are actually incredibly regular, much more so than most modern languages) "by rote", so that one doesn't have to go around trying to intuit them from spoken or written text somehow?
 

Iáson

Cívis Illústris
My own opinion on the so-called "natural" method is that it's not very efficient. Yes, children learn languages "effortlessly" (as it seems) but that "effortless" acquisition actually involves many, many hours of exposure to the language in question (i.e. one's native tongue) every day, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Nobody is going to have the time for doing that with Latin, and even if you wanted to, you really couldn't, given that there is no place (besides the Accademia Vivarium Novum) where people go around communicating in Latin all the time. And even if you could, would it be an effective use of your time? Wouldn't it be better to just buckle down and learn the grammatical rules (which for Latin are actually incredibly regular, much more so than most modern languages) "by rote", so that one doesn't have to go around trying to intuit them from spoken or written text somehow?
nōn cōnsentiō.

grammatica nōn inest īn istīs lēgibus quibuscum librī grammaticī celebrantur. grammatica inest in exemplīs, et per exempla discimus. eī quī tantummodo linguam ut scrīptam discunt, fortasse decem vel vigintī exempla cuiiusque reī grammaticae vident, et ea legunt cum maximā difficultāte et dolōre. methodus vīva igitur praeest, quia tam multa ac innūmerābilia exempla praebēre potest, et discipulī dēbent statim respondēre, nōn haesitāre et semper cum lexiconibus et grammaticīs librīs (anglicē scriptīs) occupārī.

vīdī multōs discipulōs quī eō grammaticō modō Latīnam vel Graecam linguam didicerant. ego quoque illō modō grammaticō didicī. sed fateor mē numquam quid retinuisse, nec umquam ūllam facultātem attigisse, antequam coepī latīnē loquī. fortasse etiam nunc nōn quam optimē sciō latīnam linguam, quia methodō vīvā nōn tōtam linguam exsecūtus sum.

sed ut vidētur mihi, pendet ab discipulō... et magistrō. et ab tempore; facilius est parvō tempore per frequentēs scholās methodō vīvā discere, sed sī tantummodo habēs dimidiam partem hōrae cuiiusque septimānae, fortasse melius grammaticam discere.

nōn volō dīcere grammatica inūtilia esse nec indigna quae discipulīs doceantur. nōnnumquam ūtile est lēgēs dīcere discipulīs. sed per lēgēs tantummodo linguam discere? etsī omnēs teneās memoriā, et anglicās significātiōnēs omnium vōcābulōrum, nōn possīs tamen linguam intellegere.

in prīmīs ego quoque methodum vīvam valdē suspicātus sum. sed nunc quam maximē laudō.
 

Pacifica

grammaticissima
Staff member
Quis dixit "per leges tantummodo" linguam disci oportere? Certe non ego. Leges grammaticae nihil aliud sunt quam primus discendi gradus. Qui leges didicerit nec scripta legerit, numquam vere Latine sciet.
 
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