The most widely spoken language in the UK is British English, and just 7% of the population are bilingual.
It’s often said that Britons are either unable to unwilling to learn second languages, but this might be because the UK and Ireland are the only two countries in the EU where it is not compulsory to learn a foreign language at school.
However, it doesn’t matter whether you are unilingual or a polygot – someone that speaks multiple languages – you will continue learning language for the rest of your life.
When people learn a new language, they often stop once they are proficient enough for their needs. For example, if you are going on holiday to Spain, you might need to ask for directions, order food, or make small talk.
Yet, if you stepped right into the heart of the Spanish culture, you would be out of your depth. You would need to learn more of the language to understand. It’s about more than just words and grammar, just as in English; there is slang, different meanings that aren’t literal translations and local dialects to take into account.
Can the same be said for the mother tongue, the language you learn and speak from childhood? Most people consider themselves fluent in their mother tongue, but at what point does anyone perfect a language?
Someone that has learned a second, third, fourth, or however many languages will never stop learning. They might go for days, weeks, or even months speaking the language without many errors, but there will always be words, accents, or dialects that they don’t recognise or understand.
A four-year-old child might be able to communicate adequately with their family and school friends, but they are unlikely to understand more complex words. Yet, this could also be true of a 70 year old. But surely someone with 70 years’ on this planet is proficient enough to be considered fluent in their mother tongue?
So, just how much do you need to understand to be fluent?
Well, fluency doesn’t necessarily mean perfection. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, it means having “the ability to speak easily and smoothly; especially: the ability to speak a foreign language easily and effectively”.
However, nowhere does it state in the definition of ‘fluency’ that you must achieve perfection. This is why native speakers aren’t automatically categorised as fluent.
It has been established that learning a new language is a lifelong process; it is something that you will continue to do from a young age and well into your adult years.
However, even if you are unilingual or bilingual, you will still continue to learn. If you hypothesise for a moment and say that someone has perfected their native language, what happens when that language evolves?
Teenage speak, or text speak, is still considered part of language. Go into a secondary school and all the kids are likely to understand this abbreviated speech. However, a resident of a McCarthy and Stone retirement property may be less likely to use LOL or Gr8 on a daily basis.