Reading fluency: the polyglot demonstration I'd like to see

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Peregrinus, Sep 1, 2014.

  1. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    We see all kinds of articles and youtube vids about claimed polyglots who speak X languages "fluently", and where by my estimation the definition of "fluent" is often a debased one. So the next time someone writes an article about or makes a youtube video interviewing another person in X number of languages, I'd like to see them add a reading component. I.E. for each language for which that the person claims spoken fluency, take a random mid-length article from the front section and features section of 2 types of newspapers: highbrow (NYT/FAZ/etc) and mid-brow (daily smaller-city newspaper even a tabloid variety). And then ask the polyglot to give a literal (non-free) translation of those articles into his/her L1. For every unknown word just insert the L2 into the L1 translation and underline it, rather than try to ignore it.

    How would these polyglots do with something like this? If this could be done as a competition at some polyglot gathering, I'd like to place my wager on the Iversen horse.
  2. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    I would just bring some natives in there and see how they do. I've seen some news broadcasts where you see the language learners mingling, but you never hear what they are saying.
  3. pensulo

    pensulo Member VIP member

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    There are always ways to fake apparent fluency and if one is skeptical of another's ability they will always find a potential loophole the other used to fake it. I remember reading about Tae Kim's experiences in Japan where Japanese couldn't believe he could read/write and speak fluently and would keep presenting difficult/obscure kanji to him until he failed one of them at which point their suspicions were "affirmed".

    If a polyglot holds a Google Hangouts session which anyone can join and he can have a conversation with native speakers with ease; I'd be willing to give him the noble title of "fluent".
    Last edited: Sep 1, 2014
  4. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Do you not think that my reading challenge would add to the notion of "fluent" as claimed by these polyglots? That is, if they can't read at the level of a high school student would many people buy their definition of "fluent" based on chit-chat conversation where they mostly control conversation or have helpful natives adjusting their conversation to them?
  5. pensulo

    pensulo Member VIP member

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    I don't think it could hurt, what I mean to say is that if even if one did that it could very easily be concluded if one desired that the person taking the test rigged the system. The same could be said of the Google Hangouts conversation, as you pointed out there are a few ways they can fake it. I guess what I am trying to say is that there won't be a test they can take and present online that some flaw won't be found.

    For me, if they can have a conversation where it doesn't appear that they're struggling and the native speaker confirms that they seem to them to be quite comfortable, then I'll take their word for it. To even get to the point where one can appear fluent by controlling a conversation still requires a lot of work and is unlikely most would get to even that level in multiple languages. Likewise, if they read a newspaper and then explained what each paragraph said or translated it or whatever, I'd be happy with that too.
  6. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    Two comments. First, since there are so many definitions for it, I would leave the work "fluent" out of this. The word is essentially worthless. Second, a demonstration taylor fit for translators would probably show how good people are at translating; so my money would go on the translators.
  7. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    I actually agree that it is worthless. My suggested reading test would demonstrate that, i.e. that there is a huge disconnect between claims of spoken fluency and reading proficiency in a great many cases. The grifters have shorn any sense of proficiency from fluency, and if I can't win an argument that the best definition of fluency is fluidity + proficiency across all 4 competencies, then my backup goal is to demonstrate that the term is in fact worthless. Most of the posters here or on other forums realize that the term is worthless, but the general public does not. If the term "fluent" becomes worthless in the eyes of the targets of the grifters, then it loses its ability to make them money or garner them unearned laurels.


    Notice that I specified a literal translation. That requires no ability to render a graceful translation, thus relegating the specialized knowledge and skills of actual translators to a less useful position. And even if some of those polyglots work as translators, I would bet dollars to donuts that the only do so in a handful of languages rather than the full spread for which they claim spoken fluency. Kato Lombs don't come along every day despite what many so-called polyglots would like to believe.
  8. BAnna

    BAnna Active Member VIP member

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    Intriguing idea. Of course someone who follows the Benny approach would say that the most important goal is to speak, and they'd leave the reading to the academics and not even participate. o_O And of course the judges would have to have a high level themselves at multiple languages in order to evaluate the translations provided. I don't think the CEFR language proficiency tests look at translation, though there's probably some test out there for adequacy of translations for professional interpreters/translators (maybe from the UN or some international agency?) Perhaps at one of the polyglot conferences there were talks about translation? I admit I don't keep up on that topic much...
  9. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    What if translation were replaced with CEFR style reading a text/article and then giving an L2 oral summary that was both cogent and complete and then have the interviewer ask questions about same? CEFR tests test all the skills and these guys/gals only want to demonstrate one of them, and on a low level.
  10. Wise owl chick

    Wise owl chick Active Member

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    What is the difference between fluency and fluidity in the languages? For me, they are so similar, and the opposite of hesitant. They don't tell the level, only that the speaking isn't hesitant.

    You can know all the grammar and vocab but be hesitant, or you can know few ones and be hesitant. Or you can know very well all the grammar and vocab and speak fluently, or speak fluently with many mistakes. For me, this words are not connected to the level of grammar or vocab but the flowing.

    Proficiency is more about the level and the accuracy, also the ability to use the language.

    But I think that it must be very difficult to judge a person language's level. It's not simple like correct / incorrect or algorithmic type things.
  11. Nobody

    Nobody Member

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    Even a native speaker might not know the strict definition of every word in a passage they read. I'm a native English speaker, but I still pull out the dictionary sometimes to confirm a word here or there after all. Reading is a fine test, but rather than a word-for-word translation, probably better to just ask for a summary or maybe answers to some reading comprehension questions. You can understand a passage of text without understanding every single word, and you can know every single word in a passage without necessarily understanding the text.
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  12. Iversen

    Iversen Member VIP member

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    I would find both reading and translation much easier than speaking in every single language on my list, and even though I may be more 'letter minded' than other polyglots I doubt that the majority of the known names would have problems reading in each and every of their languages. Translation skills may be more unevenly distributed, depending on the way people learn their languages, and I suppose we all have seen dialectal texts written according to homemade principles which only became understandable when you tried to imagine how the content would sound in real life. But reading is such a basic skill for second languages learners that it would be hard even to imagine a polyglot who didn't try to find something to read in even the most arcane of his/her languages.

    In contrast selftaught marketplace polyglots could be illiterate, but still manage to express themselves in 5-6 languages, but we wouldn't see their names in the internet fora. Those who are represented there can definitely read.

    The proposal about (hyper)literal translations to test understanding would be right down my alley. It would merciless expose vocabulary lacunes and fuzzy understanding of constructions - and I do think that professional translators would do quite well, even though they often produce 'free' translations in their professional work. Asking for the general meaning of some text is quite another thing, partly because many texts can have different interpretations and the one expected by the researchers is not necessarily the most obvious for others.
    Last edited: Sep 8, 2014
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  13. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Iversen, so you believe that the majority of them have the vocabulary you do in each of their languages, i.e. 15-20K words? Also, the polyglots you refer to are presumably the ones who show up at polyglot conferences regularly, which does not necessarily include a majority of the "youtube polyglots", is that correct?

    As for the minority, i.e. those who would have problems reading, I would suspect that they would be strong in one or two L2s, particularly English, but much weaker in the rest, and weighted heavily toward those most aggressive in promoting themselves for financial gain.

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