Monday, 20 August 2012

Non-native stress syndrome

Disclaimer from my inner Finn: What follows is a rant on language, levels of language, and those levels as perceived by others. In this text, I make certain statements concerning my own linguistic abilities that may sound boastful. As is explained below, this was not my intention. Please forgive me. 

I had a conversation last week about language, and English in particular, with a native speaker. Among other things, we talked about how we both come from countries where you're not supposed to say you're good at something (like a language), because it would be taken as boasting. A typical example of this is the Finn who, when asked is she/he speaks English, replies "Only a little"/"Not very well", even thought they are far more fluent than many people who claim to have perfect English. Definitely a cultural thing, which can also be seen in many other aspects of Finnish life and the Finnish mentality.

This Finnish mentality of not boasting, no matter what, is also what causes me never to give a direct answer when someone asks me about my level of English (which, of course, rarely happens, as people either ask me if I speak it, and I reply "yes", or we're already talking and they can figure out my level for themselves). Any compliments on my English are met with a slightly embarassed smile and a mumbled "thanks". I mean, I know I'm at near-native level (hell, I'll even be bold and go as far as to say that I'm even above that, since so very many of native English speakers really suck at their own language, a point proven more than ever by the social media, where everyone can show off their lack of grammar and spelling skills), and I have been told so on many occasions (god, that sounded really boastful, didn't it? Sorry...), but that doesn't mean that I can go about telling people how great my English is. (Actually, the person I had the conversation with said that since I'm modest about it, she doesn't mind telling me my English is good, but if I'd said so myself, then she'd be trying to put me back in my place by pointing out any mistakes she found.)

Speaking of compliments, that's another thing that sort of bothers me as a non-native speaker. Usually, I handle getting compliments on my English as described above. With French it's different, though. I'm fluent in French, but my level is still nowhere near that of my English, so maybe that has something to do with the difference in my response. When someone compliments my French, for some reason it often sounds quite patronising. Like "Oh, you speak French so well - for a foreign person". Which, of course, I am, and I know I wouldn't pass for a native speaker, at the very least because of my accent, but still... It doesn't feel like an objective evaluation of my level. Does this make any sense? It's probably just caused by my perfectionism - I hate being corrected, for example; not so much the correction itself, but the fact that one needed to be made, and I usually kick myself mentally for it. (And yes, I know, this is not a great attitude to have when learning new languages.)

But I digress. One of the other points that came up in our discussion about the English language was the pressure you're under when you have a high level in some language, but you're not a native speaker. When a native speaker makes typos or other minor mistakes (not including the ones made by people who simply can't type or who don't know/care about grammar - the difference is usually pretty obvious), most people would see it as just that - a typo, or lapsus. But when I make mistakes like that, I immediately feel that people will judge me for it, and think that I don't know English all that well. Whenever writing in English somewhere public (i.e. social media) to people whom I don't know, I always feel like I need to prove myself. Which is just stupid.

I wonder if my perfectionist nature when it comes to languages is what's causing this non-native stress syndrome (yeah, I made that up), or if it's a common thing...


Once again, this isn't about me showing off my skills (at no point am I claiming I'm perfect!), but rather about making a point. Please don't bite my head off! :(

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