Are You Bragging or Complaining?
Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams
Chronicles of a Footloose Forester
By Dick Pellek
Are You Bragging or Complaining?
This chronicle is for you, Red Lee. You are in the center of that mental photograph that flashes in my mind, since that day in early autumn of 1955 when you responded to a comment from one of your students in Physics class. At this stage, some 60+ years later, I can’t remember what it was that Gus Andico said, but I do remember you, standing there in your grey trousers and with one foot perched on the plain wooden chair next to your desk. Maybe Gus was remarking about hitting only .385 last season, or maybe it was about something else. But you broke out into one of your semi-smirks and retorted, “are you bragging or complaining?” That sunlit scene and that relaxed attitude in Physics class are some of the details that color that mental photograph.
Just today, the Footloose Forester saw something in one of the social network sites on the Internet that reminded him that other situations could easily bring up the question, “are you bragging or complaining?” The issue was whether the First Lady of the United States really spoke eight languages. Some supporters in the back-and-forth online dialogue noted that she spoke eight languages—a flattering accomplishment. Several respondents in opposition to that proposition noted that she did not really speak eight languages, but only claimed that she did. A little research would show, by the way, that she claimed only five languages and they are Slovene, English, French, Serbian, and German.
The impetus for this chronicle that harkens back to the sunlit Physics classroom of Red Lee in Netcong High School was really the tagline, “are you bragging or complaining?” Was FLOTUS bragging about her language skills? Did the discrepancies between five languages and eight come about through shameless promotors? Were those online opponents of her long-ago original claims complaining about the obfuscation regarding what having language skills really implies? To an embarrassed Footloose Forester, the issue is very personal.
Having studied eight languages at varying depths over the years, the Footloose Forester will forever remain embarrassed in admitting that he does not speak those languages to any degree of fluency today. Thus, in his mind, an important consideration that should be made before bragging about “speaking” a foreign language involves a brutally honest introspection and acknowledgment about one’s fluency; in regard to speaking, understanding, reading, and writing that/those language(s). The Footloose Forester cannot brag about speaking French, Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, Urdu, German, Vietnamese, and Creole; he can only lament that despite having attended classes in them and subsequently using each of them in work and social situations, he was never fluent or even proficient. But do not take the circumstances as either bragging or complaining. Take it as lamenting. Lamenting the fact that speaking a language may or may not lead to fluency and that studying a language seldom embodies all of the skills that constitute knowing a language. His erstwhile friends who studied Chinese through the East-West Center in Hawaii and then spent up to a whole year living in China (Taiwan) also lamented the fact that they could not even read the newspapers. Neither could the Footloose Forester read the Urdu newspapers in Pakistan. Take it on faith that the Footloose Forester will never brag about his fluency in foreign languages. But also take it on faith that he will do his best to grapple with language learning with an open mind. He believes that if you try you may fail, but if you don't try, then failure is assured.
Everyone should be aware that many people claim language skills as a way to gain admission to a coveted job or to enhance their résumé pursuant to seeking career advancement. The Footloose Forester knows several people in both categories. That one’s quest for self-advancement is a fact of life, but it does not settle the issue of language skills. The whole issue is ambiguous and will likely remain so. The best way to establish a baseline is to be tested; and that would relegate the vast majority, in the opinion of the Footloose Forester, to a very low ranking. Yet, that does not discourage those who are determined to game the system in the absence of legitimate testing.
One person who bragged, or so it seemed, of his ability to speak Vietnamese and wrote at length of his episodes during encounters with native Vietnamese speakers, later went on to be tested at the Foreign Language Institute of the US State Department. He scored the lowest of ratings. Minimum for a person claiming language proficiency, but well below what is required to obtain a passing grade for a language-qualified position. Job postings in many countries have language-qualified requirements, one reason why the State Department set up the Foreign Language Institute and has many of its key employees attend in pursuant to obtaining the goal of qualifying with speaking and reading skills. The Footloose Forester was also tested, in Portuguese, at the Foreign Language Institute. Bragging or complaining? Nothing to brag about, he scored pretty low. But he can’t complain because such testing with established standards is the only way to establish certified credentials, beyond what is practiced by grading in high schools and colleges. Even in schools, the issue of fluency does not enter into the formula. That murky subject is usually left to individuals who conduct self-evaluations, and those are all over the map. One never knows if you will hear from a braggart or a complainer.
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