The Language Handicap

Growing up in a golfing family, I often heard the phrase, ‘He has a handicap of 6 (or 18 or 22, etc.). I never really knew what that meant. One time I asked Dad to explain it to me. All he said was, “Well it is a number based on various factors, which allows golfers of different abilities to play against each other.” That was about as clear as mud.

But I got to thinking about it recently in relation to my ability to communicate in German. So I looked up in Wikipedia ‘Golfer’s Handicap’ to try and understand the calculation. The definition goes as follows:

A handicap is a numerical measure of an amateur golfer’s ability to play golf over the course of 18 holes. A player’s handicap generally represents the number of strokes above par that the player will make over the course of an above-average round of golf. The lower the handicap, the better the player. Someone with a handicap of 0 or less is often called a scratch golfer, and would typically score or beat the course par on a round of play (depending on course difficulty).

Well, that’s not so hard to understand, but it continued:

Calculating a handicap is often complicated, the general reason being that golf courses are not uniformly challenging from course to course or between skill levels.

And I will spare you the mathematical calculations involving slope and PGA difficulty ratings. How does this relate to language you ask? Well, language acquisition isn’t straightforward. Some languages are harder than others, just like golf courses. If there was a ranking system upon which we could say, ‘Okay, German is perhaps ranked 13 of the 20 most difficult languages for a foreigner to master.’ That would be one number of the calculation. Then the number of words mastered (vocabulary) combined with the number of sentences one usually gets grammatically correct (grammar) could be other numbers in the calculation. Of course, spoken calculations, or handicaps, would be different from written, so I could have a handicap of 8 for speaking, but 23 for writing (nearly accurate actually). Par would be grammatically correct spoken or written German, with below par being a ‘scratch’ player – using the actual phrasing of native speakers or ‘fluency’.

Not only would this be a useful tool on a personal level, but also on a social level where employment is involved. Does the person speak German? Understand German? Write German? Ahhhh… they are nearly always different levels. And of course, it would be useful to see if the person is improving over time. So this year I might speak with a handicap of 8, but next year that could drop to 5 or less.

While using the ‘handicap’ system of ranking progress made could be a really useful tool, it also could help the native speakers understand that ‘handicap’ does not mean ‘stupid’. Too often a person’s ability to communicate using language is used as an intelligence barometer. ‘When I was a child, I spoke like a child.’ However, when I was learning German, I spoke like a child also even though I already had completed a college degree (with excellent grades even). I was often treated as if I thought like a child, which means my language handicap was relatively high.

In my current workplace I have noticed that those who see my mistakes in written German think I am not very intelligent. When, however, they discover that German isn’t my first language, suddenly it’s all praise at how good my German is! Neither of those reactions are especially helpful. I wish I could put on my reports or emails “Language Handicap (written) is 15” with the reaction that those reading it would understand they are 1) to acknowledge that my intelligence is not equal to my ability to communicate; and 2) that they are to help improve my handicap by correcting the language, while respectfully answering the content. Is that not how we teach our children to talk?


About Lois Loban Stuckenbruck

Trained as a Ballerina, then completed a BA in Business Adm and English Literature at Milligan College. More recently trained to be a lay pastor (Reader) in the Church of England. Wife of a Biblical Scholar, Mother of three. I'm an American who has also lived many years in England and Germany (currently Munich). I have worked as an Editorial Assistant, Systems Manager (Xerox Stars on Ethernet Network), and several positions in higher education fundraising (Alumni and Development).
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