Column | Dec. 5

Two and a half languages

On Monday, Paul Phillips wrote an article for The Daily Princetonian on discrepancies in proficiency for students in introductory language classes at Princeton. Faculty in various language departments generally viewed such discrepancies as largely inconsequential in regard to issues of fairness in grading and course rigor.

I have yet to take a foreign language course here at Princeton. However, I plan on taking KOR 402: Contemporary Korean Language & Culture II in the spring. And I am already feeling the familiar apprehension I felt every other day before Japanese class throughout middle and high school. It is this apprehension that led me to avoid enrolling in either a Korean or Japanese course this semester.

My circumstances are different from those in introductory language classes who believe peers with more exposure to a language toughen the grading curve. The foreign language I studied not only in high school, but also throughout elementary and secondary school, was the language of the country I lived in. While students in the States were exposing themselves to languages such as Spanish or French for the first time in freshman year, I was enrolled in Japanese classes geared toward students who had been exposed to the language their entire lives.

I found myself thrust into classrooms full of native speakers when I moved from Japanese as a Foreign Language to Japanese as a Native Language classes in middle school. I did relatively well in my classes and entered higher levels according to the recommendations of my teachers. For all intents and purposes, I was “proficient” in Japanese.

Yet I found myself formulating sentence on whims and guesses more and more often; I had never grasped the basic grammatical rules. I floundered as I prepared each sentence in advance during classroom discussions, while my peers bounced ideas back and forth at a pace I couldn’t even begin to keep up with. Friends who had Japanese parents always teased me; I was often told I had a “Korean accent” when I spoke Japanese, though my Korean pronunciation is also moderately affected. Every morning, it took me two tries to utter the Japanese word for thank you, “arigato,” as I got off the bus — the initial “ah” sound always got stuck.

I wasn’t learning a language in my Japanese classes. I was just trying to scrape by. My ambition to take higher-level courses led to a cursory understanding of Japanese, an ambiguous level of proficiency that is a source of shame and regret. I can relate to heritage speakers, as students with native exposure to foreign languages are called in Phillips’ article, who decide to take introductory classes here at Princeton. It isn’t just a matter of review; these students have much to gain from stepping back and filling in the gaps in their foundational knowledge — just as much, perhaps, as students experiencing the language for the first time. In many ways, first-time speakers and those who have only experienced a language outside the classroom have similar amounts to gain.

Proficiency in a language can’t really be measured. There are placement tests and even official certificates that can roughly gauge one’s ability to communicate in a given language. However, so much goes into communication that cannot be quantified. One’s level of comfort and confidence, balance between writing and speaking ability, pronunciation, ability to think in the language — these are all components of communicating in a language that can’t be accounted for. A student’s ability to enjoy television in a foreign language can be just as valuable a gauge of their proficiency as any kind of sitting test.

Perhaps it is unfair for beginners to have to compete against students with more exposure. However, it is perhaps more unfair for so-called hereditary speakers, who may never have had the chance to properly study the basic foundational components of a language, to not be given equal opportunity to learn. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. Students who are taking advantage of the placement system lose something so much more valuable than the GPA boost they gain. Those who truly wish to master a language have the right to decide which classes suit their needs and abilities without having to deal with the resentment and accusation of classmates who believe their own grades are jeopardized.

Jiyoon Kim is a freshman from Tokyo, Japan. She can be reached at

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