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  5. Quality vs Quantity

Quality vs Quantity

[deactivated user]

    Curious on this one.

    You have language A and language B.

    Would you prefer to be next to 100% fluent in language A and know nothing about language B or would you rather know 50% of each... with no way to pass that threshold? By fluent I mean the real concept of language fluency, not the somewhat arbitrary concept Duolingo gives us.

    Or if you prefer... 4 languages, being 100% proficient in two and none at the other two, or 50% on all four.

    This is an adaptation of the Hedgehog and the Fox parable applied to language learning... and came to mind while reading recent discussions on how many languages should one tackle.

    January 5, 2018



    Even "a real concept of language fluency" is not a very definite aim. What is 50% fluency?

    When I was younger I had grand plans of being absolutely fluent in one or two languages, but the older I get, the more I think that's 1) not necessarily achievable for me and 2) overkill unless I plan to write literature in those languages. For my purposes - which include being able to have a lively conversation with a native speaker, being able to (albeit sometimes slowly) read a book, being able to follow a film or TV show without being glued to the subtitles, etc, it's much more beneficial to have an imperfect but workable grasp of several languages than to be brilliant at one and only one. So with the disclaimer that I don't know how one quantifies "50% fluency" in any meaningful way, I would rather have a good working knowledge of more than one language other than my own than native ability in one and none in nothing else. Even languages where I know very little mean I have more ability to pick up information that would otherwise pass me by in everyday life and give me more choices in terms of entertainment and conversation, and that is not something I would willingly give up.

    ("With no way to pass that threshold" is a rather arbitrary and false limitation, IMO. Even in a language I have not studied for years, the smallest bit of exposure means the chance to learn a new idiom or pick up a new phrase or simply become more fluent using what I already know.)

    [deactivated user]

      Ok, if you prefer I can substitute the percentages... I thought that would make it easier to understand.

      Being very good, almost native-like at one language, or being average at two languages.

      This is just a way to discuss how would you prefer to allocate your learning resources... which I believe are finite. A specialist vs a Jack of all trades if you will.

      Language fluency is basically your ability to be put in the middle of a street on a foreign country and interact with the locals... to understand and be understood. 50% was my way of saying average.


      By fluent I mean the real concept of language fluency, not the somewhat arbitrary concept Duolingo gives us.

      I am trying to achieve CEFR language level:

      • B2 in English
      • A2-B1 in German
      • A1 in French
      • (Dutch is my mother tongue)

      according to https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages
      in section "Common reference levels"


      I had to learn English, German and French at school. On Duolingo, I am brushing up these languages because of ......

      • my professional literature is mostly written in English and German, rather than in my mother tongue (Dutch)
      • holidays in England, USA, Germany, France and other countries in Europe
      • watching English and German broadcasters
      • it is very interesting to read about the news in the world in more languages, in order to get a more objective point of view of the news
      • Germany, England and Belgium are the neighbour countries of the Netherlands.

      [deactivated user]

        Even though Dutch sounds akin to German, you guys are perhaps the best non-native English speakers. Amazing really.

        Good effort in learning those three.


        i would do 100% at one language


        Can I get 80/20?

        [deactivated user]

          Well, you could... but that would defy the purpose of the experiment. :)


          I prefer to be as close to 100% in one rather than 50% in two, although that's not bad either.


          The main purpose for me to learn languages is to be able to read books, news articles and other texts in another language. For this, it's far from necessary to be 100% fluent. So I suppose I would tend to the 50/50 option.

          However, your condition of not being able to pass that threshold is kind of silly and frankly unrealistic, as one would be learning new things in the two hypothetical target languages by using them - and if one wouldn't be using them, there wouldn't be a purpose in learning them in the first place.

          [deactivated user]

            This is a theoretical question... I know there are a lot of real life variants but I had to set the boundaries somewhere. Without those I would get answers full of "if's and but's".


            As you well should. :) Unrealistic questions will only give you unrealistic (and therefore unreliable) answers.

            [deactivated user]

              No problem, I'm not a scientist... I can handle some unreliability... ;)


              I don't know, it's just a question of time distribution. Either split between two languages, or go full on one. I think the fact that you keep learning a language by using it matters a lot in making such a decision.


              Well, one can want to have an ability to communicate, of which one only makes use intermittently. And depending on the people with whom one interacts (and how much they feel like bothering you about your grammatical limitations and the like), your objectively limited skills might in practice very rarely get pushed. For example, one might have a perfectly adequate day-to-day knowledge of Swahili, sufficient for all daily tasks, but not elect to read literature or read much of anything in it, thereby never coming close to the vocabulary of an educated native speaker.

              I take Nuno275251's restatement of the question after flootzavut's comment to be: Would you want two Swahili's à la the above example or one language with educated native speaker skill?

              I agree this question doesn't really hold everything constant. I think it's a lot easier to gain reasonable day-to-day fluency in a whole slew of e.g. Romance languages than to get anywhere close to native in a single one. But, like you, it seems, I'm picking the slew :)

              [deactivated user]

                Maybe I should have gone with a more cartoonish approach to the question:

                The genie in a bottle blah blah blah... he gives you two choices... a one language native-like skill... or two "average" knowing languages skill. These skills would be set in stone... there would never be a decline on the native-like skill, nor an improvement on the two languages.

                This would remove your time allocation aspect, since the skills were given you freely but oh well...

                Anyway, thanks for your replies. Appreciated. :)


                I'd take 100% fluency in one language over 50% in two. I'd find it too frustrating to be unable to express myself clearly.

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