Saturday, August 5, 2017

Lack of Variety in Vocabulary as Lack of Language Proficiency

For those who know, I am a freelance translator who translates all sorts of different things in Japanese and Chinese into English.  However, I rarely translate in reverse, from English to the two Asian languages.  As someone educated almost entirely in English, I have much more confidence in writing in English than I am of Chinese or Japanese.  And in the past week, I again had to put that confidence up to the test, by first working on an assignment translating a research report in English into Chinese, followed by a school guide in Chinese into English.

The comparison is as fair as two random assignments can be.  Since I worked on the assignments back to back, the working conditions of the two are practically the same.  Both assignments involved more than 50 pages in original script when put in a Word document of same font size, and both required quick turnaround time that emphasized speed over accuracy and precision.  The result was that the English-to-Chinese assignment took three times the amount of time to complete compared to the Chinese-to-English one, despite the fact that the level of content difficulty is not all too different between the two.

The primary reason for the massive difference in time needed to complete assignment is not so much inability to comprehend the content as inability to quickly put down in another language how the meanings are literally written.  In particular, many words are very much well-understood in English, but extremely difficult, in my mind, to dig out the equivalent word in Chinese.  The result was the need to refer to Google Translate for individual words in an embarrassingly frequent manner, only to think "why did I not think of that word!" right after Google Translate does its job.

Yet, even after stamping on the ground for words that should be well-known but had to be given by Google Translate, second (or third, or fourth) time around, the same word still cannot be found in the mind.  The same word had to be looked up in the same way many times, and still cannot be inked into the brain.  Even if one particular word is remembered for a certain translation, when the need for synonyms came up (for the sake of introducing some form of variety into the translated document), the mind again draw a blank.  Google Translate had to be brought out again to find words with similar meanings.

The constant need to find "what's that word again?" greatly slowed down the process of translation from English to Chinese, a problem that translation in reverse simply did not face nearly as much.  It is the same reason that this blog remains in most part English, despite my repeated tries to introduce more posts in other languages.  To write the same amount of content, writing in English is just so much faster even if what to write down has been clear from the get-go in any language.  Lacking the need to keep digging for vocabulary makes writing in English so much easier.

Linguists frequently concern themselves on the objective definition of how to define fluency in a particular language.  Standardized tests have attempted to boil down evaluation of language fluency down to a set of vocabulary words to remember or articles to be read and comprehended.  But no matter how many words can be memorized and how many reading patterned memorized, if those vocabulary words cannot come to the mind when they are called for in daily usage, then it is difficult to say that the user of the language can be considered proficient in the language.

In anything, even many proficient speakers of a particular language cannot really be considered actually proficient if variety of vocabulary that can be mustered is the definitive measuring stick.  I, for instance, can speak Chinese with little issues, but when holding conversations, limited vocabulary means the same idea can only be expressed in one way rather than a whole set of different ways with different nuances.  Of course, being monotonous in expressions does not mean inability to get a meaning across in verbal or written communication without sounding like a foreign learner of the language.

But over time, lack of vocabulary patterns limits the types of conversations that can be had.  The subtleties of different expressions is exactly where cultural, rather than literal, meanings come to the front and center of communications.  Without the ability to communicate in different ways about the same thing means a person can never really be expected to instill the local culture into his or her words.  This is precisely why many English-speaking foreigners, despite speaking English with no grammatical errors or even foreign-sounding accents, can feel like they are missing a "certain cultural part" of the English language.  

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