What does it mean to 'get by'?

Folded newspaper

I hear it all the time: "I just want enough to get by." People's aspirations when they set about learning a language are not often high — they do not often want to have a complete native level of fluency in a language. But what does it mean to 'get by'?

"Well, what kinds of things do you want to do in the language?"

"I'd like enough to be able to read a newspaper and chat to colleagues at work."

When I hear this, all kinds of bells go off in my head. Journalistic writing is a language unto its own, as is business language. I see people frequently using commercial resources, learning about how to order food and discuss hobbies, and then being completely inept when it comes to reading newspaper articles or speaking with colleagues. These functions require pretty specific training, even though they seem generic to us.

Prime minister, legislation, disarmament, military, personnel, experts, witness, court, ruling, cabinet... These are all common words in newspaper articles. Being comfortable not only with the vocabulary, but also with their idiomatic use in context is essential for understanding a newspaper article.

Most people assume newspapers are more difficult, and it will take more years of study to be able to read them. That's not true — not if what you focus on is learning journalistic language. You could start out with it in your language learning process. It might come at the expense of other, more common day-to-day language, but you'd get to do what you want in the language right away.

When you look at a language, don't just aim to 'get by' or you will wander aimlessly. Be specific in your immediate objectives with the language. What do you want to be able to do first? Identify the functions necessary, because the language around those functions will be very specific. Within journalistic writing, there will be a finite set of high-frequency words and constructions. When you learn the patterns of these functions in the new language, you will be encouraged by your success and can then move on to other functions.

Don't just aim to 'get by.' That doesn't mean anything. Figure out exactly what you want to do in your new language and start with that.

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