Fluent is a relative term. I don’t know if I consider myself fluent in French, even though I’ve got a degree in it and spent 5 months living there. I still make stupid mistakes and I often tell people ‘he’s crying’ when I mean ‘it’s raining’. French people think that it’s adorable. And if someone thinks your French is adorable, then you can’t really be fluent, can you?

fluent

There are varying definitions of fluent- some people measure fluency in number of words and grammar structures you know, others use a more qualitative method; can you hold a conversation? Can you ask for directions and write a formal letter? For me, fluency is not what you can or can’t do in a language, it’s about your attitude towards it.

Here’s my list of signs you’re fluent in a foreign language;

1) You stop looking for opportunities to ‘practice’. 

For me this is the most important sign of being fluent; that you can have the same conversation in both languages and you don’t feel the NEED to practice any more. If you need to practice, you’re still a learner.

2) You can have a meaningful relationship with someone who doesn’t speak your mother tongue

You can talk to that person without the safety blanket of your first language to fall back on. You also stop looking for foreign friends just because they’re foreign. The fact that you have different native languages is insignificant.

3) Going to the hairdresser doesn’t scare you

You’re so confident in your language skills that you’ll bet your hair on it.

hairdresser

4) You know when google translate is wrong

Which is a lot. Which is why you never, ever use it.

google translate

5) You understand jokes

You can watch stand up comedy in a foreign language and understand the jokes. And if you don’t get something, you’re not ashamed to ask why it’s funny; because it’s probably some cultural reference you’re not familiar with or it simply wasn’t funny.

comedy

6) You can do boring, adult things in that language

Like open a bank account, have a job interview or do your tax return.

tax return

7) You’re not flattered when people say you speak well

You speak well because you were either brought up that way or because you worked damn hard at it. You don’t need a compliment from a stranger to make you feel good about your language skills.

For me, I just feel patronised when people tell me my Spanish is good. I know they’re only being nice, but it’s kind of like telling a doctor that his knowledge of medicine is good. You l hope so when you’ve studied it for 10 years.  When you actually speak a language well you don’t need people to tell you you do.

8) People don’t automatically know where you’re from

It’s not that you’re mistaken for a native speaker, but the occasional tilt of the head and “you’re not from here, are you?” or “what is that accent you have?” means you’re a lot more fluent than someone telling you “your English is really good (for a foreigner)”. When someone can’t tell where you’re from; that’s a proud moment.

map

9) People don’t change the way they speak when they talk to you

They don’t slow down or simplify their vocabulary to speak to you.

10) You sometimes don’t realise what language you’re speaking (or reading)

You sometimes accidentally talk to a person in the wrong language. It’s a real downside to being fluent because people think you’re being pretentious, or you’re showing off. You’re not. It’s just that your brain is so used to switching between the two languages that sometimes it doesn’t notice which language it is using.

Language Master

Language Master

Vocabulary: a safety blanket (n), meaningful (adj), to fall back on (phrasal verb), stand up comedy (n), to get a joke (v), tax return (n), to be flattered (v+adj), to feel patronised (v+adj), to be mistaken for (phrasal verb), downside (n), pretentious (adj), to show off (phrasal verb).

Discussion Questions:

1) What does ‘fluent’ mean to you?

2) Do you agree with all the arguments of the author?

3) Would you add any to this list?