Fluency is something that many language-learners aspire to, but how can we define fluency in a foreign language? Some would argue that fluency means being able to understand a language without mentally translating it, or being able to respond quickly and intuitively. Others would say that fluency means understanding nuances more than mastering the grammar. Yet others have argued that we can consider ourselves fluent in a language when we no longer ask ourselves the question of whether we are fluent in it.
Though language-learning can often be a struggle, sometimes the biggest victories can be the most unexpected ones. Reading numerical characters such as calendar years in a foreign language can be a sign of achieving fluency, as can counting in that language under our breath (interestingly, the majority of us seem to count in our native language regardless of our company and surroundings). It’s a cliché, though probably a true one, to say that fluency means dreaming in a foreign language. But perhaps more impressive, and startling, than this is the feeling of catching yourself spontaneously thinking in that language, even when in your own company.
But real fluency also means communication, over and above our own thought processes. Perhaps one of the most rewarding feelings might come from being able to understand people talking among themselves in a foreign language, or being able to speak with native friends on a similar level. Understanding humor is often associated with fluency, but perhaps even more rewarding is understanding cultural references that are specific to the target culture, and being able to appreciate and respond to these.
Some indicators of fluency are more trivial, like instinctively swearing in a foreign language, or being able to listen to and sing back song lyrics in that language, or read a newspaper and feel that the enjoyment of the content is greater than the effort involved in understanding it. But perhaps the most heartening thing about achieving fluency in a foreign language could be the ability to make meaningful connections with people with quite different backgrounds from your own.
Language-learning is rarely easy, and often fraught with setbacks and embarrassing fails. But in many ways the awkward misunderstandings make the successes all the more meaningful in comparison. And while definitions of ‘fluency’ remain hazy, the truth is that the sense of achievement that comes with feeling immersed in a language, even if only momentarily, is very real, and very much worth aspiring to.
Do you consider yourself fluent in another language?
Are there any other indicators of fluency besides those mentioned in this article?
Leave your thoughts in the comments below!