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!
Hey all -- this is a belated introduction (please forgive me!) but I would like to introduce Katrina (author of the article above!) who will be helping me with posting on social media and the forums :) Katrina has experience being a Gengo translator and LS, and as such, I am really excited knowing that she's familiar with our community and will be able to share industry-relevant content for discussion. I would love to see the dynamics in the forums and our social media improve, and I'm looking forward to working together to build a better sense of community!
Please all - give Katrina a warm welcome, and feel free to discuss the topic she's introducing this week: what does it mean to be fluent in another language? I personally find it fascinating!
I am fluent in a number of languages, and sometimes I don't know in which language I have heard or read something - was it English? or Spanish? or German??
I think this is a sign of fluency as well!
@Gisela - I agree with this so much! That happens to me all the time as well: I remember the content but not the exact words or language in which I heard/read it.
@Lara, thank you very much for your warm introduction! I'm also looking forward to engaging in some interesting discussions with our translators.
@Gisela, thanks for your comment and for being the first translator to comment on my first post! Yes, when I was reading about this topic I saw that many other people had mentioned the same thing as you: that they remembered an overall concept but not the language that it was said or written in, or that they had started reading a newspaper article, for example, and only later registered the fact that it was written in their non-native language. Like you, I would also describe this as a sign of fluency.
Interestingly, I've also had the opposite experience, where I can only remember a concept in my non-native language. I wouldn't say that I'm fluent in Turkish, but I lived in Istanbul for long enough to pick up basic things, and while I was there I ordered and ate a lot of those special baked potatoes with multiple toppings. The other day, I decided to recreate this in my kitchen in England and I remember thinking, 'Right, so I need mısır, iki tane zeytin, beyaz lahana...' rather than 'I need sweetcorn, two types of olives, coleslaw...'. I think that if anything this proves that I wasn't very fluent in Turkish, since my concentration on the words was obviously so acute while I was making my orders (or I made the same order so many times!) that it never really filtered into my brain in English. All the same, it's a weird feeling to be in a completely different environment from where the language is spoken and for the language to still pop into your head like that.
I'd be really interested to hear whether anybody identifies with either @Gisela's or my own experiences (or perhaps both!)
Welcome Katrina! Hi Lara!
This is a great question, and I am afraid my answer could be a little scary for some new language learners, perhaps someone who didn't yet had the opportunity to get fluent in a language other than his or her native. So what I think is, the ideal sign that you are fluent, or "comfortable" in a foreign language is when you stop that "mental translation" (like Katrina mentioned) while dealing with that language...
For me, as long as I am familiar with the vocabulary in a speech or written text, I no longer translate it in my head but I just 'hear' it as I hear my good old turkish. Obviously it wasn't so for many years. I must have started learning english at public school when I was 12 or so, and to be frank, I could only get to that "fluency" around age 22... So it seems 10 years for me, albeit it wasn't all that intense, constant studying.
However, a part of me says, perhaps there are some people who has been living in USA or some other english speaking country for many years and their fluency is in a whole different level (as I personally still can't catch 30% of what native people speak when they speak between each other), and maybe they would only consider that native-level as "real" fluent. Don't know.. what do you think?
Thanks for bringing the interesting topic and inspring comments.
As I am not really fluent in any foreign languages, I'd like to share some feelings of nonfluency. :)
My mother tongue is Chinese. To be honest, I am not fluent in English even though I've been learning it since I was 13 years old. Even though I was told that I was talking in English in my sleep. :D
And I've been working in Poland (3 years) and Mozambique (4 years). During those years I had to learn Polish and Portuguese to make my stay there easier (very basic level). However, now when I read or listen to some materials in these languages, I am still trying to translate it in my mind, i.e. not purely focusing on the idea or message the material conveys.
I have to admit that I don't share the above definition of being "fluent". I would say that what you are mentioning are signs of being truly bilingual. And while it is true that bilinguals are normally fluent, just to be fluent doesn't make you a bilingual. To be able to express youself "fluently" means that you can do so without much hesitation, and others will understand most of what you say - but whether your grammar, pronunciation, choice of words etc. are incorrect or correct and your overall command of the language is headache-inducing to the audience or not is a totally different story! Some people "are fluent" mainly on the basis of being disinhibited speakers, unafraid of making mistakes they are unable to avoid anyway. This can actually be a pretty helpful attitude in many situations, because it is often better to bring an idea across in faulty language than not to bring it across at all... ;-)
I can add a bit of a weird indicator, perhaps somewhat related to Katrina's Turkish cooking experience (welcome Katrina!). I consider myself fluent/bilingual in German (my native language) and English, and I've recently started noticing that my shopping lists are a jumble of German and English words. Sometimes I worry what people might think if they caught a look at them... ;)
I think there's probably different levels of fluency, from the one where you're just not worried about making mistakes to the point where you're basically indistinguishable from a native speaker. And even though it's "just" English for me personally, that journey really is incredibly rewarding!
Hello to you all.
I can relate to each and every one of you and your understandings of fluency. It seems to be a very personal concept. I lived for 10 years in Italy and considered myself fluent - I thought in Italian, would write in whichever language came out first, dream in Italian at times, speak without thinking, forget words in my native language and substitute them with Italian words..... strangely I never found swearing in Italian very satisfying. My grammar was never perfect and still isn't and I wouldn't always use the most appropriate word. Having now been back in the UK permanently for 5 years some of those things have subsided, shall we say, but when I go back to Italy it does all return. Because I lived in a rural area I measured my fluency by my understanding of the local accent and dialect. When I understood about 75% of what our neighbour said and most of the conversations in the local pharmacy I felt like I had arrived!
First of all, many thanks to all of you for leaving your thoughts! It's been fascinating to read what you all have to say, and I hope that the comments will keep coming.
@Ömer - I was really interested to read your comment, as I did the opposite to you and tried to learn Turkish as a foreign language having English as my native language. And actually, I think that like you, it probably would have taken me ten years to become 'fluent' in Turkish, if at all. I always found Turkish fascinating but an extremely difficult language for English speakers to master, though interestingly, I had a native German-speaking friend who told me that Turkish was easier and more logical to her than English despite the much greater proximity between German and English. This also led me to wonder if it's possible to become equally 'fluent' in every language that we study, or if we all have certain languages that we're either more or less capable in depending on our own first language and other factors like that. I also liked your idea that there are different 'levels' of fluency, and that a person's level of fluency might be higher if they live in the country where the target language is spoken (@sarah refers to this later in the comments thread). I think a lot of people would agree that being immersed in a language makes for a higher level of fluency, although, of course, it depends on the company that you keep in the country! As for what you said about understanding what native speakers say when talking amongst themselves: a lot of people say that this is one of the most challenging milestones to achieve in a foreign language, and I do think that understanding people talking together is more difficult than listening to people talking to you directly, since most people seem to modify their speech either consciously or unconsciously when speaking to non-native speakers. Following on from this, somewhat, I've always felt proud when I've been in a public situation and been able to understand that a person has addressed me in particular without them having caught my attention of looked me in the eye before speaking to me (for example, someone behind me offering their seat on a bus or metro). I've always thought this is a good example of being really 'immersed' in a language since it would imply that we're able to respond unconsciously in a situation, without having been actively listening out with the expectation that somebody was going to say something to us (if this makes sense).
@Leon - thanks for your lovely compliment and your thoughts about using English, Polish and Portuguese as foreign languages. I've never heard of someone talking in their sleep in a foreign language before, but that's super-fascinating, and puts a whole different spin on many people's argument that you can consider yourself 'fluent' in a language if you dream in it. What makes you feel that you're not fluent in English? Would you say that you still translate into Chinese in your mind when you have contact with English, as you mentioned with Polish and Portuguese? Also, Polish and Portuguese are quite different languages - as a native Chinese speaker, did you find one more difficult than the other? How did they compare with English?
@Jan - I was really interested in what you had to say about the points on my original post being signs of being bilingual more so than signs of being fluent, and particularly your comment that all bilinguals are fluent, but not all people who are 'fluent' in a language are necessarily bilingual. This leads me to another point I've always been curious about: do you think people can 'become' bilingual, or is this only possible through growing up in contact with more than one language? And if we can 'become' bilingual, what would the criteria for this be, compared to the criteria for fluency? I've known people whom I consider to speak my language (English) like natives, and I wonder whether those of you who are natives in languages other than English have met foreign people who have a native-level command of your language. Also, I really liked your idea that what is important is getting an overall idea across, rather than getting that idea across perfectly. I feel that a lot of people feel dissuaded from using a language on the grounds of being afraid of making mistakes in it, despite this being part of the overall learning process.
(Starting a new comment for ease of readability)
@Kevin - I'm glad I'm not the only one who sees culinary terms in more than one language! I think your comment, like @Jan's, about different levels of fluency, is very interesting. Since I've been reading about this topic, it seems that people have a lot of different ideas about what constitutes 'fluency', which is logical given that there isn't really a catch-all definition for the term. Have you ever met anyone who spoke German in a way that made them indistinguishable from a native speaker? I agree with both you and Jan that being able to speak a language without hesitation or fear of errors is an important achievement in itself, and I do think it takes time even to get to that stage. Like you say, every step on the road to greater fluency is rewarding even if we only use a small number of foreign languages, or one foreign language. I also think that achieving whatever constitutes 'fluency' is something of a one step forward, one step back process, and that even at the best of times, we all have good days and bad days in a foreign language.
@Sarah - I really enjoyed reading about your experience of living in rural Italy, and particularly what you said about measuring fluency on your ability to understand the local way of speaking. I feel that this resonates with the idea that it's not just understanding the language on an intellectual level that makes us highly capable or fluent, but also the level of proximity that we have with the language as it's used by everyday people in normal situations, and particularly the level of proximity that we have with the lifestyle and the culture of the people who speak it. I was also heartened by your comment that your Italian skills always come back to you when you return to the country. I sometimes feel that it's very easy to 'forget' a language, but very easy to remember it again as well.
Please do keep the comments coming!
Concerning the topic of immersion into a foreign language and what is the maximum level you can possibly achieve, my theory is that everyone has their own maximum level that they approach asymptotically after entering a new linguistic environment, e.g. a new country. In the beginning you learn very quickly, but after some years the increments get much smaller. That happens with vocabulary, grammar, and also with pronunciation - in the beginning you will improve quickly, but after some time you may be left with a more or less noticeable accent that is practically impossible to get rid of. Maybe you don't even *want* to get rid of it because hey - don't we all have our local accent even in our mother tongue? Language is also related to cultural identity, so attempting to blend in completely with the local pronunciation might feel a bit like trying to give up your origins (without usually being able to actually do that even if you wanted).
I am convinced that it is possible to get to a pretty high level even if you are in your 30ies or even later decades... but still it is interesting how different that individual maximum level of 'fluency' can be. In the worst case, people are stuck at some initial or intermediate level even if surrounded by a foreign culture and language (this sometimes happens with poorly integrated immigrants, but also with managers who don't speak the local language at work!). However, in the best case you end up at something similar as 'native'. I'm saying similar but not identical, because even if you are able to impress native speakers with an academically correct and reflected version of their language (plus colloquialisms and cursewords thrown in on purpose) - you don't share the same learning history and collective memory, so it will probably never be exactly the same... and probably doesn't need to. E.g. to write 100% authentic Spanish, would you try to copy the typical spelling mistakes of b versus v? That would be ridiculous...
Concerning thinking, dreaming, etc. in the foreign language - of course that happens, and I even think it's more or less independent of your level of proficiency, except when you are still in the very beginning. That's because if most of your experiences are made in a language, the most natural way is to keep processing those experiences in that same language... Many things you see may not even exist in your country of origin - so why invent an artificial translation when they already have a name? Actually there's no need at all -- until the moment when you talk to a person that does not live in your new country, that's when you suddenly have to think how you would say it in your first language.
Greetings and my compliments, Katrina! It's a very interesting article.
I became bilingual and fluent in English by studying really hard and immersing myself in the language as much as I could. It is true that you can dream in a non-native language. I knew I was bilingual when I understood jokes in my second language, but I felt I was fluent when I was able to tell the jokes and play around with tones and accents. In a previous job at my country in Nicaragua, the customers used to ask me in what State (from the US) I was located, indicating they believed I was a native speaker. It certainly felt great.
I also agree with kevin.thoma88 about the different levels of fluency, probably they vary from person to person, but everyone is great in their own way.
Finally, as a personal technical observation of the forum, I don't like the gray background of this section, and sometimes I don't participate more often because the background color is not very joyful. I don't know if that is the case for others.
Thanks Katrina for starting an interesting discussion. I couldn't stop thinking about this question today.
I agree with one of the comments here that there is a degree in fluency. That being said, I would define fluency as one's "inability to unlearn" the language.
Japanese is my native tongue, and I consider myself fluent in English. In fact I consider myself bilingual in these languages. I don't have to think before speaking either of these languages. I have spent more than half of my life (and counting) in the US, and I do more everyday reading and speaking in English. If I counted the number of words I spoke/read in Japanese to English in my lifetime, the ratio could be something like 1 to 5. Still I'm faster at reading Japanese than English. That's the power of native tongue I guess.
I also have some experience with Spanish, Mandarin, and Mongolian. I don't consider myself fluent in any of those languages. Although I have formal university level education in both Mandarin and Mongolian, I can barely count to ten in those languages today. On the other hand, while I don't have much formal education in Spanish except some tourist language class while I spent a summer in Guatemala, I can still help someone with direction in Spanish if he/she is lost. To me, the difference is the amount of practice I get. In this part of the US, practicing Spanish is not too difficult so I retained the language. There was a time I was surrounded at work by Spanish-speakers, and I noticed my Spanish skill improving during that time. My situation has changed a long time ago so I don't get as much practice today, but I still do. That's probably why I consider myself "conversational" in Spanish. I don't even bother to classify my ability (or inability) in Mandarin or Mongolian, because it's nonexistent (and embarrassing). Still, I know if I don't practice Spanish, I'll lose the ability to comprehend, and rather quickly too. Maybe not to the degree that I have Mandarin and Mongolian though.
I can't imagine myself ever forgetting English or Japanese, even if I don't practice. That's why I think fluency can be defined (or measured is a more precise term maybe) as/by one's inability to unlearn the language.
Hello again, everyone, and thanks to @Rup75, @RogerAB and @Shuhei M for leaving your thoughts.
@Rup75 - it's interesting that you say that different individuals can have different maximum levels of 'fluency' and that in some cases, even living in a foreign-language environment doesn't necessarily help people much. I would argue that in some cases it also depends on how receptive a host culture is when we try speaking their language. As an English person, I find that people in various countries that I've lived in have always tended to respond to me in English even when I've addressed them in their language (I wonder if other native or non-native English speakers have felt this?) I was also fascinated by your comment about our experiences being made in a language - I hadn't considered this before but it's a very thought-provoking point
@RogerAB - that's great that people in Nicaragua assumed that you came from the US! I've read a lot that a key indicator of fluency is being mistaken for a native speaker, although as @Rup75 says, it's not necessarily always possible for all of us to achieve this. You say that you knew you were bilingual when you understood jokes in your second language, but you felt you were fluent when you were able to tell jokes and play around with accents. Do you think that being fluent involves having a better command of a language than being bilingual?
@Shuhei M - thank you for your kind compliment and for your thoughts about fluency meaning being unable to 'unlearn' a language. That's a really perceptive point, and one which I hadn't come across before but which makes very good sense to me, and I'm sure to a lot of other people. Do you think that our native language(s) can deteriorate to an extent, though, even without complete 'unlearning'? Many people say that their own language gets worse if they're immersed in a foreign-language environment. I was also interested in your point about how you feel you forgot some languages more than others, based on level of exposure. Having contact with a language does seem to be very crucial in keeping it alive and keeping us comfortable with using it.
Thanks again for all of the inspiring comments, and please don't hesitate to chip in with more!
In my own opinion, self-evaluation and self-claiming are never reliable and thus I only believe in something tested and acknowledged by those who are the experts in that field. Speaking of the fluency in a foreign language, I believe the Common European Framework of Reference for Foreign Languages states clearly that the level C1 is the threshold of fluency in a foreign language.
@Lê Ngọc Bảo Thịnh: that's a very interesting comment, particularly because a lot of people seem to base their level of 'fluency' on their own (presumably subjective) standards. But it's true that it can be very difficult for us to objectively evaluate our own proficiency in a language, and in that sense frameworks such as the CEFR do come in very handy, as you say. In terms of self-evaluation, do you think people are more likely to overestimate their level of fluency in a language, or to underestimate it?
@Lê Ngọc Bảo Thịnh: I can see your point, a recognised framework, such as CEFR, is certainly a valuable tool for assessment but I would argue that this is only one 'framework' for the pursuit of fluency. As well as translating I have a good deal of experience working with students learning English as a foreign language on the Cambridge programme and I have come across students who have attained a high level of English, yet have spent very limited time in English speaking countries. They lack the understanding of the nuances of the language and cultural references which, I believe, count towards fluency. I have also met 'fluent' (at times bilingual) speakers of Italian who have learned primarly to speak the language. They probably couldn't manage a middle school lesson in Italian grammar but can converse fluently on a wide range of topics, seamlessly swapping from one language to the other and understanding myriad cultural references because they have immersed themselves in the language and culture. Where does that leave them on the 'fluency' ladder?
Hello everyone, a pleasure to belong to the gengo community and thus develop my language to English, although I am not yet fluent, the important thing is that you have the enthusiasm to learn and develop every day to become a fluent bilingual. I am interested in the French language and I like English. Without much to say greetings and blessings to the team and many successes to come.
@braulio.toussaint.37 - welcome to the discussion! Feel free to share any ideas that you have about English and French, and we wish you all the best successes too!
@katrina Paterson thank you very much for welcoming me and allowing my person to participate on this topic. I correct on the previous comment It is not French but the Italian one thousand excuses to the companions. And well at the moment I find myself applying my own techniques to learn more about English; either listening to music in Spanish and writing them in English. I also rely on a dictionary that is very useful to understand this language (English), which in the future will lead to success and more than anything personal growth. In fact I recommend to those colleagues who want to get started in the world of English the dictionary that as I said is very useful, it is called: "UNIVERSIDAD DE CHICAGO INGLÉS-ESPAÑOL by Carlos Castillo and Otto F. Bond.
It really is very good. I think that to learn English and speak fluently you have to put heart, and we will like it because you always learn what you want and I assure that with dedication it will be achieved in a short time. Then it will be a matter of improving some things and becoming a good translator. Taking into account that; "the mind limits everything, and dominates the body", I think that if we set out to achieve it. Without further ado, greetings to all colleagues and thank you Katrina Paterson
@katrina Paterson muchas gracias por darme la bienvenida y permitir que mi persona participe en este tema. Corrijo el comentario anterior no es francés sino el italiano mil disculpas para los compañeros. Y bueno, en este momento me encuentro aplicando mis propias técnicas para aprender más sobre el inglés; ya sea escuchando música en español y escribiéndola en inglés. También confío en un diccionario que es muy útil para entender este idioma (inglés), que en el futuro conducirá al éxito y más que nada al crecimiento personal. De hecho, recomiendo a aquellos colegas que quieran iniciarse en el mundo del inglés que, como dije, sea muy útil, se llama: "UNIVERSIDAD DE CHICAGO INGLÉS-ESPAÑOL" de Carlos Castillo y Otto F. Bond.
Realmente es muy bueno. Creo que para aprender inglés y hablar con fluidez hay que poner corazón, y nos gustará porque siempre aprendes lo que quieres y te aseguro que con dedicación se logrará en poco tiempo. Entonces se tratará de mejorar algunas cosas y convertirse en un buen traductor. Teniendo en cuenta que; "La mente lo limita todo y domina el cuerpo", creo que si nos propusimos lograrlo. Sin más preámbulos, saludos a todos los colegas y gracias Katrina Paterson.
This discussion is interesting to me because I love languages and I studied a few times before traveling, my reasoning being that speaking with locals will completely upgrade my trip.
So, I do spoke a few languages to a level where I could have chats with locals, but unfortunately not to fluency. I'm now continuing to study Italian because it is my favorite, but I don't think I will become fluent unless I can move there and speak it for at least a few months.
As for definitions, I felt fluent in English when I was able to fully understand comedians.
Good luck with your new position!!
Thanks a lot for adding your voice to the discussion. That's great that you learned languages for travelling! I always feel like it's so much more rewarding to learn a language when we have real-life opportunities to use it.
Did you find that local people were receptive to your efforts? How was your experience travelling to countries where you understood the language?
Thank you so much also for your good wishes! I wish you all the best with your Italian studies :D
That is a great question because from my experience it's different in different places. For the most part, they are receptive.
Most are appreciative that you can speak their language and anyway, even if they will switch to English if their English is stronger than your level in their language, it's always a good way to start a conversation with locals because many will ask you why you speak their language, and where you're from comes next and walla, you got into a conversation with them.
My only surprise was in Japan actually. I got to a point where I could ask directions, coffee, simple conversations and people there didn't respond to that at all. They tried to help when I asked for something but they didn't engage. Could be that my Japanese wasn't up to a good enough level, I'm not sure.
That's interesting what you say about getting different receptions in different countries. I've often felt like that, too, when I've travelled and tried to use local languages. I sometimes also feel that the host population of a country can have a different perception of us depending on our own particular background. For example, I've often felt (and other people are free to challenge me on this!) that people in other countries are more willing to accept male travellers trying to talk to them in their language than female travellers, or at least that's been my experience some of the time.
I also feel that it depends on our own nationality. For example, I'm English and even if I try to speak to people in a language other than English then they try to get me to revert to English very quickly, whereas I feel that friends that I've travelled with that aren't from English-speaking countries don't seem to suffer this problem so much (maybe because it's not known if they speak English themselves?) It's frustrating sometimes because then the same people who asked me to switch to English for them tell me that, "Oh, you ignorant English people, you can't speak any foreign languages."
It sounds petty, but it's happened ot me a lot!
Speaking in foreign languages takes a lot of courage sometimes!
Interesting observations Katrina!!
I completely share your experience about speaking English. My native language is Hebrew so I always say that I'm from Israel and that does make it less natural to move to English.
I did notice that once you get to a certain level, doesn't have to be really fluent, but fluent enough to have conversations flow, people are happy to speak their language. I was able to see the difference with French because for about 3 years I came to France a few times with a better French level every time and it was very interesting to see how much more receptive people are becoming. So don't give up, just try to improve, that's what I learned...
Also, I don't know about British accent, but Americans have a problem with imitating accent, so it's just very easy to recognize them and naturally move to English.
About gender, I actually felt the opposite. I really didn't feel that the fact I'm female was a problem. So that's interesting...
That's such a nice story about your successes in learning French. I'll take a tip from you and remember not to get discouraged!
I laughed at your comment about American people struggling to imitate accents. Yes, that's EXACTLY true about British people, too! I'm sure part of the reason that British people aren't always taken seriously in other languages is that we always sound slightly ridiculous... (fellow Brits are free to disagree with me, though!)
Thanks again for your interesting comments, Miri :)