Fluency: it’s the elusive goal of any language-learner. But given the seemingly infinite complexities of language, it’s hard to know exactly when we language learners have earned the right to call ourselves “fluent”. The issue is a difficult one: what does it mean, exactly, to speak a foreign language fluently?
Linguists generally agree that you achieve true foreign-language fluency when you switch from controlled to automatic linguistic processing. In other words, you can use the label “fluent” (and enjoy all the bragging rights that come with it) when you’ve mastered a foreign language so completely that you speak and understand it effortlessly and automatically. But it can be hard to assess just how automatically you process a given language.
If you’ve been studying a language for a long time and you’re unsure of whether or not you’ve achieved fluency, read on for some tell-tale signs that you’ve truly mastered a language.
If so, congratulations! Being able to use your foreign language while multitasking is a dead giveaway of fluency.
For many non-native speakers, the ability to speak a foreign language requires that you gather all of your cognitive resources. Between grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation, your brain simply doesn’t have space to allocate to other things, like eating or listening to music.
Therefore, being able to properly speak a language while multitasking shows that your brain is processing it automatically, and still has plenty of space to sing along to Beyoncé.
Interestingly, studies have shown that bilinguals outperform monolinguals when they have to switch between several tasks in rapid succession. Perhaps repeatedly switching between languages trains your brain to multitask better!
If you’re able to hold a conversation with your friends in a foreign language, that’s great! However, it doesn’t quite prove that you’re fluent. Indeed, conversing with your friends is in many ways easier than following a conversation between strangers.
For starters, you’ve previously established a context, so you can fairly accurately predict the direction that the conversation will take. Furthermore, you’re used your friends’ voices and styles of talking, so it’s easier to understand them compared to strangers whom you’ve never heard speak.
But in order to eavesdrop — that is, follow a conversation between two strangers, which you’re not part of — you must do many things at once. You must quickly and accurately establish a context, and fill in any missing information.
You cannot rely on hypotheses regarding how you think the conversation will go, as it could take an unexpected turn at any point. Finally, you must acquaint yourself with the unfamiliar voices, accents, and other linguistic mannerisms of strangers. To do all of this, you must rapidly process an enormous amount of information, and continue non-stop until the conversation ends.
Eavesdropping may be a bad habit, but if you can do it in a foreign language, it’s a good reason to feel proud: you’re well on your way to fluency.
While scholars argue over the true meaning of dreams, one thing is certain: dreams tap into your subconscious. As such, they can shed insight on our hidden desires, our latent fears, and — most importantly — our linguistic competency! Indeed, if you have a dream in which you speak your target language, this shows that you’ve internalized the language enough that it has invaded your subconscious.
Congratulations — you know the language so well that you can use it without even trying.
Note, however, that what you say in the dream matters. For instance, if you have a dream about Taco Bell and you utter their catchphrase, Yo quiero Taco Bell!, this does not necessarily entail fluency in Spanish. However, if your dream involves a complex and thorough discussion of Spanish-language cinema, you might have reason to be pleased with yourself.
One of the beautiful things about not speaking a language fluently is that you can blissfully ignore things that you don’t want to pay attention to. For example, if you’re trying to read a book in a crowded café, it’s much easier to ignore the multitude of voices when they’re speaking a language that you don’t understand.
As renowned linguist Jerry Fodor notes, part of automatic processing language means you can’t choose what to listen to and what to ignore: seeing as you automatically process everything that you hear, you’re unable to filter out the unwanted.
This one might seem counter intuitive: if you speak a language fluently, shouldn’t you receive more compliments about your skills?
Not quite. Think about it like this: if you could turn back the clock and meet Albert Einstein, would you compliment him for being smart? Or if you met Mariah Carey, would you reassure her that she sings well? Probably not, because why state the obvious?
When you’ve truly achieved fluency, you’ve become the Mariah Carey of your foreign language. That is, you’re an expert, and everyone knows it — native speakers don’t even think of you as a learner anymore, so it would be unnecessary to compliment your language skills. After all, you don’t hear native speakers of English say to each other, “Wow, you speak English so well!” So if you’ve noticed a decline in the number of people who have complimented your language skills, don’t be discouraged — this might actually mean that you’re fluent!
Indeed, many language learners are reluctant to call themselves “fluent”, in part due to the fact that fluency is hard to measure. But the items in this list are certainly suggestive that your use of your foreign language has switched from controlled to automatic processing — in other words, you’re becoming fluent!
But if you still haven’t quite reached your language goals, don’t worry: learning a foreign language takes time. Keep at it, and soon enough, you’ll be eavesdropping, multitasking, and dreaming in the target language, just like a native speaker.
About the author:
Paul currently lives and teaches English in Buenos Aires, Argentina. He writes on behalf of Language Trainers, a language tutoring service offering personalized course packages to individuals and groups. Check out their free level tests and other resources on their website. Feel free to contact firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions.