Levels of Language Acquisition

Levels of Language Acquisition

As a preface to this post, I think it’s important that I point out that I am not an expert in second language acquisition. I have studied it, but this post is mostly based on my own observations.

At the recent IJET conference in Tokyo, I was struck by something I had not realized before:

There are people who make a living translating Japanese into English, who cannot speak Japanese.

This astounded me. 

I always thought that language skills were developed somewhat evenly: you could speak as much as you could write (output based skills), or listen as well as you could read (input based skills). However, much to my surprise, that is not the case. From my years of teaching non-native speakers English, I really should have known this. So, I would like to propose a hierarchy of second language acquisition, as it relates to translating and interpreting. 

We will assume for the sake of argument that the person in question speaks English as their L1 (native language) and Japanese as their L2 (second language).


I. Translation Skills Hierarchy

  Level 1: Written L2 Input Comprehension 

  “I can understand written Japanese.” This is a great first step. Many people get to this level after a few years of study in an environment that is lacking in auditory input.

  Level 2: Written L2>L1 Translation Capability

  “I can put what I read in Japanese into English.” Some people have this ability without ever being able to produce output in their L2. They have a high level of comprehension of their L2 and proficient L1 writing skills. Truly, that can be all one needs to translate Japanese into English. (I am not endorsing this method, but there are plenty of people who make their living that way).

  Level 3: Written L2 Output Capability

  “I can express myself in written Japanese.” This is the logical next step, but sometimes one that learners do not attain. The ability to understand what one reads and the ability to translate what one thinks (L1) into one’s L2 are not always synonymous. 

  Level 3: Written L1>L2 Translation Capability

  “I can translate English into Japanese.” It may go without saying that your understanding of you L1 is almost always higher than your L2, but that doesn’t always make it easy to translate E>J. Translating someone else’s words into your L2 is much more difficult than translating your own. In your own head, you often have both languages floating around. You can grab words you know and look up words you don’t (assuming you aren’t at the level where you think exclusively in your L2). However, when you are simply reading your L1, you have to think a lot more about the intentions of the writer, what they are trying to convey. 


I. Interpretation Skills Hierarchy

  Level 1: Spoken L2 Input Comprehension

  “I can understand spoken Japanese.” The difference between Level 1 and Level 2 here is the difference between, let’s say, listening to a lecture and giving a lecture. There are people who can listen and comprehend what is being said in a lecture (on a topic they are familiar with), but who could not stand up and give their own lecture off the cuff and be understood. Now, let’s be fair. That is also true of native speakers of any language. Some people just need more time preparing before they speak. While it may seem unkind, I would posit that those people, regardless of L2 capability, should not be interpreters.

  Level 2: Spoken L2 Output Capability

  “I can speak my own thoughts out in Japanese.” See above.

  Level 3: Spoken L1>L2 Interpretation Capability

  You may wonder why I switched things up here. While it is true that, L2>L1 is easier in translation, that is often not the case in interpretation. When you have time and a dictionary, you comprehension of your L2 is higher and you can craft a better composition in your L1. When you have no time to process or look things up, it is often easier to take something that you understand fully (your L1) and express it in your L2. Even if you do not know the correct Japanese term for something in English, you can work around that by using words you do know. If you were going L2>L1 and something was said that you didn’t understand, you would have to either take a guess, omit it, or stop the speaker to ask. 

  Level 4: Spoken L2>L1 Interpretation Capability

  While I am listing this as a separate skill, because of the difficulty level I explained above, I think it’s important to point out that there are very few, if any, interpreters who have the luxury of working only in one direction. Even when a presentation or conference is held all in Japanese and the interpreter is only responsible for conveying that into English, there are still pre and post events that they interpreter must attend. Get-togethers, introductions, cocktail parties in which the presenters and attendees mingle and ask questions of each other. With most events, there will be some back and forth that requires the interpreter to, as it were, go both ways 😉 But each will have her strong suits. 


Keep in mind that none of these skills are mutually exclusive, nor does one necessarily lead to the next. There are people who are great at phrasing Japanese into English, but their general comprehension is poor. There are people who can express themselves in Japanese, but cannot interpret someone else’s words. There are people who can translate English into Japanese, but cannot write well in their own native language. Each person, let alone translation professional, has their own strengths and weaknesses. But there is something that each can do well and that is how they earn a living. Being able to read fluently but not speak, doesn’t mean you are less of an accomplished learner of Japanese; anymore than someone who trips over their own words in their native language who might be an avid reader. 


2 thoughts on “Levels of Language Acquisition

  1. When I first learned of a friend who could understand Spanish well but barely speak it, I was surprised, but since then I’ve heard of many people like that. Especially if someone is brought up where there parents speak a second language, they can be quite good at understanding it but not necessarily great at speaking it.

    However, in order to get to the level to be a professional translator I would assume one’s comprehension would have to be very good, and to get to a very good level I think usually you would need to live in that country which means you probably would have learned to speak/write to at least some extent.

    Personally I’ve honed my reading skills (in Japanese) to a strong level such that I think I could possibly do some translation work to English even though I don’t consider myself completely fluent in speaking (or in listening). However without any formal credentials (nor a Japanese-related degree) I wonder if anyone would hire me.

    Also you mentioned the case where people can express in Japanese but not comprehend too well. In that case too I doubt they can express themselves too great if they have low comprehension. To me the entire process is about feedback of listening/speaking or reading/writing, and if you are very weak in one area you’re likely to be weak in another.

  2. Despite what you might think, living in a country does not always lead to language proficiency. I have actually met quite a few people who have lived in Japan for more than a decade and still can only carry on the most basic conversations. Most of them teach English for a living, hang out with other Americans, and let their Japanese wives handle the rest. On the other hand, I have met people who are functionally proficient in both speaking and reading who have never set foot in the country. While those are both extreme examples, I think it all comes down to how you apply yourself to the study.

    If you are interested in translating freelance, you probably don’t need a certificate. What most companies want to see is past experience with translation. Which means you need experience to get experience. It’s an evil cycle. Some people start with volunteer work while others just quote jobs until one clicks. If you’re interested, you might check out some of the jobs posted on proz.com.

    Good luck!

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