Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s youth, military record, and marital status may distinguish him from the other 2020 US Presidential Election candidates, but it’s his rumoured proficiency in seven languages that really has people talking.
This seemingly magical feat is especially impressive in predominantly monolingual countries like the United States and the United Kingdom (where, respectively, roughly 80% and 62% of the population speaks only English). But where such enviable talent creates an aura of mystique, it also inevitably arouses curiosity. When former US Senator Claire McCaskill asked Buttigieg to comment on his language-speaking ability in a 14 February instalment of MSNBC’s Morning Joe, he replied: “it depends what you mean by speak!” and added that he can “still kind of read a newspaper in Norwegian… but only slowly” and that he has gotten “rusty” in his Arabic and Dari. That shows humility, but not so much that Buttigieg and his camp definitively dismiss the polyglot rumours.
This is not to deride Mayor Buttigieg. His perceived fluency interests me because I’m a former language teacher – having taught English for 11 years in Japan and Italy – and I am also a Cambridge English exam speaking examiner; a role which requires me to dissect variables in candidates’ second language production such as pronunciation, discourse management, and grammatical range. Buttigieg is clearly fascinated by languages, willing to learn, and is brave enough to practice with native speakers on television – qualities that would have made him the star of my classroom. But – like so many of my ex-students who expected to go from “beginner” to “native” proficiency in two months – Buttigieg may have underestimated what it means to “speak” a language.
I can relate all too well to overestimating one’s own abilities. A “heritage speaker” of Italian, I’d been living in Italy for two years when I overheard a receptionist refer me to me as “that foreigner who doesn’t speak Italian”. I was confused, then gutted. That one casual sentence launched a journey that resulted in my being forced to acknowledge that while I had grown up speaking Italian at home and was fluent, I was not by any means proficient.