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I recently heard someone say that they can understand a language because they majored in it at university. Meanwhile, they admit that their speaking skill is nearly non-existent. (Think of a typical university student who majors in X language without learning it in an immersive environment.) Nevertheless, they seem to believe that they will still be able to upgrade it to a C without needing to speak the language. My instinct as a language teacher tells me that this would be impossible, because of the degree to which one's speaking skill is correlated with listening comprehension, vocabulary and cultural nuances associated with a language, which are all vital components in conference interpreting. I don't have a C language myself, so I'm not too sure either. What do experienced interpreters (who have C languages) think? Can someone have an effective C language while barely being able to speak it?

asked 17 Mar '17, 13:17

Rony's gravatar image


edited 17 Mar '17, 13:27

hi Rony

Apart from the very early stages of language learning passive knowledge is always far stronger active. So it is certainly possible - even normal - to understand a language to a far higher level than one speaks it. The difference between the two levels varies from person to person. Some people's active and passive knowledge improve on a parallel track, others can improve passive more quickly than active. Interpreters with several C languages or who already have a B language may deliberately not try to improve their speaking skills in a new language so as not to impact on their other languages.

But you are right that the two are linked and all of the activities that will improve passive knowledge will inevitably improve active knowledge to some degree as well - for example spending a year in the relevant country (which anyone with only university standard language knowledge might well have to do).

Also you should beware of an interpreter who says their "speaking skill is nearly non-existent". They are judging themselves by professional standards, not by everyday standards. Most amateurs would probably consider them fluent, but since they are judging themselves against a B language standard they say they have poor speaking skills.

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answered 18 Mar '17, 04:59

Andy's gravatar image


I would say it is possible to know a language at a C level without learning to speak it.

That said, for me "learning to speak" means making an effort to develop decent speaking skills. In my opinion, this is not necessary. However, with all the exposure to the language (e.g. spending some time in the country where it is spoken) it may be hard not to pick up some speaking skills on the way ;). Plus, as you say, improving your speaking may contribute to the development of other language skills.

As Andy has mentioned, interpreters may also underestimate their language skills, as they have a different idea of 'speaking' and 'fluent'.

Some possible situations:

  • speaking a language fairly fluently, but while making many mistakes.

That's the case of my French, which I had as a C during my studies in conference interpreting (although admittedly I would not consider it a particularly 'strong' C). I speak French, I spent quite some time in the French-speaking environment, including studying in this language at the university. I cannot say my speaking skills are non-existent but still, I would consider them quite poor, especially with all the grammatical mistakes that I make, and quite limited active vocabulary. When I get to speak French for a couple of days, my skills are usually given quite a boost... and then they start to decrease, until the next speaking opportunity arrives.

This leads us to the next point here:

  • active skills tend to deteriorate much more quickly than passive skills.

I'm quite a language geek myself, learning various languages as a hobby (maybe some of them will be upgraded to a C level one day but that's not really the goal of all this learning).

Apart from my A language, two other working languages and French (which I rarely work from), I have learned three languages to a level which would be considered as pretty advanced by everyday standards (around B2/C1). I used to speak all three languages pretty well, too (well enough to easily pass the speaking part of a language certificate examination, for instance).

Yet if you asked me to say something right now, I would probably not be able to put three sentences together in two out of those three languages (I mean sentences in a real conversation, not something along the lines of "My name is..."). I have neither time nor motivation to maintain those active skills on a regular basis - but give me 2-3 hours with a native speaker, and I'll be able to speak the language again. Give me two weeks of some active language exposure and I may be even better than I've ever been. Oh, and funnily enough when I actually speak those languages, I make fewer mistakes than in French (just a result of a different learning approach).

Furthermore, as Andy has already pointed out, interpreters may deliberately not try to improve their speaking skills in a new language. I think this is relevant especially for those interpreters who have several closely related languages in their combination (e.g. a couple of Romance/Germanic/Slavic languages). Simply put:

  • if your languages are closely related, developing active skills may be more difficult and at the expense of other languages.

... and you don't want that, especially if it is your B that may suffer.

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answered 18 Mar '17, 19:14

Joanna's gravatar image


edited 19 Mar '17, 05:21

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question asked: 17 Mar '17, 13:17

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