What does often mean?
One often reads from translators that they have mastered their languages on a native level. But what exactly does that mean? What is the difference to “only” speaking a language fluently? And do you even have to be able to speak a language at a native level in order to do good translation work?
A native speaker level does not mean being a native speaker
Strictly speaking, native speakers are only allowed to be those who have really learned a language from early childhood without formal instruction. However, you can have more than just one mother tongue: Growing up bilingually or even multilingual is standard in many regions of the world - especially in countries where there are many different population groups who all speak different languages, but always at least one There is an official language, for example Russia or most African countries. Even people with a migration background often grow up bilingual - the children of Mexican immigrants born in the USA speak Spanish and English in almost all cases from the age of young.
So what is the difference to speaking a language at a native level? Quite simply: At the point in time at which you learned the language. It is very easy for children to pick up a new language; up to the age of about 10 years it is possible to acquire a language “playfully” as a mother tongue. Later, however, the brain structures solidify - you retain more knowledge, but it is also increasingly difficult to internalize new languages. In order to learn a language at a native level from the teenage years onwards, not only is a lot more work necessary, but in the beginning almost always formal language lessons as well as learning the correct pronunciation. It takes years, often even decades, until a language is really mastered at a native level, even with intensive learning. After all, “native speaker level” means that you also know complicated and rarely used vocabulary and can call it up if necessary: For example, the names of illnesses when you visit a doctor or the terms and formulations on your tax return.
What is the difference between “fluent” and “native speaker”?
At first it seems that it is only a small step from "fluent" to "native speaker", but that is far from it. “Fluent” means that you can speak fluently: You have no problems understanding a native speaker at your normal speaking pace and you can speak accordingly quickly yourself. In addition, you may not know every word, but you are able to find paraphrases or alternatives without much thought. So you can have a fluent conversation in all areas that are relevant to yourself in everyday life: an astrophysicist who speaks Russian fluently should also be able to talk about it in Russian. If he is not particularly involved in medicine, however, it is not to be expected that he will be able to communicate fluently here as well. However, a native speaker should be able to do this to a certain extent.
In short: fluent means that you have mastered a language to such an extent that you can exchange ideas without any problems on the topics you deal with frequently. Mother tongue means that you have a much larger vocabulary, in which there are also many expressions that you do not need in everyday life or only very, very seldom, so it is a large database of “passive knowledge”. How big the difference between these two levels is can be seen in the learning speed: If you really stay active and invest about an hour every day in intensive learning, you can be fluent in a language within six months. In order to get to a native speaker level, it usually takes several years in which to deal intensively with the language.
Do you have to speak a native language to be a good translator?
In short: no. Not necessarily. Of course, as a translator, mastering a language on a native level has its advantages, but it doesn't necessarily say much about the quality of the translation. To be good at translating, you need one thing above all: a feeling for the language. And that is more given to some people and less to others, because it has a lot to do with creativity in this area.
You probably remember the German lessons at school. When it came to writing essays, it was a lot easier for some than for others, simply because they had a better feel for the language. Whether it is an innate talent or simply different interests remains to be seen, but here it becomes clear that just because you can speak a language on a native level, you cannot necessarily express yourself skillfully in that language. Not every native German speaker is able to write a compelling novel or a well-formulated academic paper.
This can also be transferred to a translation: Not every person who speaks a language on a native level is also able to formulate appealing texts in it and to strike the right note in a translation. Someone who “only” speaks a language fluently, but who has a corresponding feeling for language, is often much better suited for this. Missing vocabulary can always be looked up quickly and grammar rules can be checked again if necessary. Of course, you should be at least fluent in a language if you want to work as a professional translator, but language skills on a native level are not absolutely necessary - however, translators usually acquire these automatically over the years.
Does it make sense to master a language on a native level?
It certainly makes sense for translators to work towards a native speaker level. However, since it takes years or even decades of work to acquire such a precise knowledge of vocabulary and grammar rules, it does not make sense for those who learn a language out of pure interest - after all, you could do five other languages in that time learn to speak them fluently, which has significantly more advantages than just speaking another language at a native level.
In conclusion, it can be said that the definition of “native speaker level” does not mean that you never make mistakes. Because nobody speaks a language “error-free” (from a linguistic point of view, what a “mistake” should actually be from a linguistic point of view can be discussed in much more depth): All native speakers promise themselves once, make grammatical or spelling mistakes when they write an e-mail or a word does not come to mind immediately - completely normal. If this happens to a translator, for whom it is often not even their mother tongue, their competence will be questioned immediately.
Language is created by those who speak it. However, hardly any native speaker could explain the rules of their own grammar. Or do you know the rules according to which the articles in German are determined? In this point, quite a few people who have learned German as a foreign language are likely to have a lot ahead of them.
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