If you love practising the language you are learning, you have probably spent a good deal of time talking to people online in that language, or attempting to. Most of the time, the person you are dealing with is either a native speaker or is learning it the same, the same as you.
But did you know that some people actual only pretend to know another language. That’s right! Just as you can’t always be sure of the gender or age of the person you are talking with, you also can’t be sure if they are really knowledgeable in the languages they claim to know. We’ve all seen people who list a seemingly insane number of languages that they say they know, but how do you know if they are really fluent in those languages?
This is a way to instantly size up the potential friendship and competition. If the person knows a language you are learning, you might be able to get them to help you. If that person knows more than you think is a decent number of languages (which is relative to how many you know, of course), then you might dismiss them as bragging and challenge them. This might not happen immediately or even publicly, but there will eventually be questions as to what a person really knows.
This then leads to another issue: exactly how do you determine what level someone else is in a language. “Fluency” is a much disputed term, ranging in definition from being able to carry on a basic conversation to speaking like a native. Some even claim that true fluency can ever be reached by a non-native. There are numerous tests available to determine one’s level of proficiency in a language, with the most notable probably being the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, or simply CEFR. It is a guideline to how to teach languages but is mostly mentioned in reference to its levels reflecting what a person knows.
The CEFR splits learners into three broad groups, with each of those split into two levels, providing a total of six levels. The broad groups are similar to what is used in most basic learning with beginner, intermediate and advanced, but the CEFR calls these basic, independent and proficient, or just A, B, and C. These are then broken in two, giving the entire range A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. If you are not already familiar with this system, you can easily look it up to find the complete details of what each level entails.
Even with this breakdown, it is still impossible to perfectly gauge what one person knows in one language like Chinese compared to what another person knows in Spanish. Language just covers far too many variables to be objectively tested on. A speaker might know three thousand words while another speaker knows five thousand, but that says nothing regarding a person’s ability to construct sentences or properly pronounce words.
Online, this can be further confused by the fact that you can not be sure of how honest the person you are speaking to really is. They might seem able to understand you fine while all the time using an online translating program. Most polyglots can recognize when they are being fed something produced by one of those, since those programs are really only good as rudimentary tools, but surprisingly, I have met a number of people among learners that do try to fool others.
One of the first true polyglot fakers I met, lets call him “Dave”, used auto translators he found to pretend to speak other languages. Dave would copy what people said and feed it into the translator. He would then write a response, get it similarly translated back in the language the person used, then copy it back into the forum or chat he was using. No one was actually fooled by this, especially after he openly announced one day that he had just found another translator service, so now he could “speak” that language. I have a feeling he knew we were not fooled, since he also acted in a disruptive and sometimes hostile manner to other polyglots, and we eventually had to ban him from that group. He was probably the first true polyglot troll I encountered. I would meet many more through the years.
There is a chat client for access to the IRC (Internet Relay Chat. For those that are not familiar with this, it is a text chat system which anyone around the world can use freely) called “Mibbit” (found here) . What I found unique about this was that it did real-time translating between the user and the chat. A person could tell it a specific language to translate into, then type what they wanted for the chat. The program would instantly convert it to the language they had selected and post the result. It could also be set to translate whatever was said in the chat back into the user’s language. As you can imagine, this could be a great tool in a multilingual environment of non-polyglots. It could even be useful to learners in a limited capacity. However, in a polyglot environment, in which actual knowledge is desired and practice with others is promoted, this quickly becomes a tool of deceit. Even if people recognize that it is producing a poor construction, they can excuse it as the person still learning. When the number of languages a person can speak, at any level, becomes a sort of community currency, you can see how easily this can be abused. Thankfully, I have no proof of anyone actually using Mibbit in this manner, but I am sure I have encountered a few.
Fake polyglots can be a very serious issue to some, while others tend to just ignore those individuals. This is most easily attributable to a person’s own personal view of learning. If they are competitive, then the faker is essentially cheating. If they view language learning as more of a personal issue, then the faker is just hurting themselves, since they are really gaining nothing by pretending to know what they do not.
Have you personally encountered fakers in your language studying? Did they manage to fool you or others? What was their purpose for trying pretending?