5 Tell-Tale Signs That You Speak a Foreign Language Fluently

When am I fluent
 

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.

1. You’re able to speak the language without making mistakes – even when you’re multitasking
 Imagine that you’re at work, writing an email while sipping on coffee and munching on some cookies. In the background, you’re listening to Beyoncé on the radio, and you’re intermittently chatting with some of your co-workers in the office. Suddenly, one of them talks to you in your target language. Can you respond in that language without making mistakes — and without putting down your coffee or turning off Beyonce?

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!

2. You’re able to eavesdrop

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.

3. You have dreams in the language

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.

 

4. You find it hard to “tune out” background conversations

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.

However, if you’re truly fluent, it will be much harder to tune out. This has to do with the automaticity that comes with the mastery of language.

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.

5. Native speakers stop complimenting your language skills

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!

Conclusion

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 paul@languagetrainers.com with any questions.

 

 
 
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  • W8post

    Once I was told by a linguist “if you’re be able to make jokes in a foreign language, you know that language; however, (he said) you don’t have to be ‘fluent’ in that language.”

  • W8post

    about ‘2’, eavesdrop. It is the same as ‘reading’ a book in a language you don’t master. I do quit well on the subject of archaeology. So reading a book in (say) Italian about Maya culture, even I don’t speak -or don’t understand spoken Italian- I can tell you what the book/reading is about.

  • Paul Mains

    Interesting question! I think this taps into the fuzzy definition of “fluency”. If you can understand 100% (or almost 100%) of what you read in a language, then you’re surely fluent in reading, right? But if you can’t speak, does that still count as being “fluent? I think you raise a great point that we need to be more specific by what we mean when we say “fluency” — in this article, I was thinking more of speaking/spoken comprehension fluency, though reading/writing certainly entails its own type of fluency as well

  • Paul Mains

    Ah yes, I remember when I made my first pun in Spanish. A very proud moment, haha 🙂 Jokes definitely require some level of proficiency, though I’d agree that even non-fluent speakers can make/understand some jokes

  • I had dreams when I spoke in target languages, well in every language I started. In Italian it took me four years, in Polish only half a year. It does not prove anything special. Although it’s so much fun.

  • This post is about Steve Kaufman’s definition of fluency (that I’d name “mastery”), but I subscribe to Benny Lewis’s definition, which extends only to speaking and can be attained much earlier.
    You can see why I prefer this definition – it’s easier.
    My blog allthetongues.hol.es (by any measure I’m not fluent in blogging)

  • I’m not sure that the author is saying that all of these things necessarily mean you’re fluent, only that these are five indicators that you could be.

    Dreaming in a language is a tough one because I’ve experienced it as a beginner, so obviously that in and of itself isn’t an indication of fluency for me. But it doesn’t happen often.

    Some people claim that their dreams do not involve speech. So that rules them out of course, and for those of us who don’t usually remember our dreams what difference does it really make?

    I think he’s just saying that consistently dreaming in a foreign language might be a good indicator that you’re quite competent. I don’t think he’s saying that beginners and intermediates never do it.

  • Paul Mains

    Yes, definitely very fun! I think it’d be interesting to do a kind of large-scale analysis of language and dreams — to see at what point people start having target-language dreams, if there’s any correlation with dreams and people’s learning style or general language-learning aptitude. Thanks for the comment, Roman

  • Daryl Flamm

    If we measure fluency by reading, shouldn’t we just base each language against what that nation’s average literacy level is? I recently read that only 1-in-3 mainland Chinese can read Simplified Chinese-Mandarin. I know in the US, news papers are written at 6th grade reading level. So can’t we judge base on levels like this?

  • Wasn’t sure what I’d find when coming into this article, but these are actually pretty reasonable indicators. #2 especially is what I’ve noticed I can still struggle with in many languages where I’m otherwise fluent.

    I think #5 depends on the cultural context and your relationship to the speaker. I still get comments that I speak “very good Norwegian” despite being American. But I think those comments are a bit different than the type in #5; it’s just to have something to talk about, or implicitly asking why, maybe. It usually only happens once.

    One time, a person in Norway I emailed to establish contact — I was moving abroad and, as I work for myself, I wanted to establish some leads ahead of time — asked me if I had emigrated to the US and started a business. They thought I was Norwegian! Of course, that was written, but I was happy about that.

    • Thanks for your comment! I think the original author is at this point no longer commenting, unfortunately, so I don’t know what he’d say.

      But in the case of #5 I agree with you, and I think in general it’s hard to necessarily predict how someone will react to your fluency or lack thereof.

  • Nikki

    Very interesting article. German is my first language. I am in my late 30s, have studied English since I was 10 and lived in the US for the past 14.5 years. I have written my dissertation and published in my second language, English, and would consider myself fluent in it. Yet, some of these points do not apply to me.
    Especially #3 bothers me, because I often get asked in which language I dream. The truth is, I only dream in pictures. I don’t speak in my native language or any other language in my dreams nor do I listen to anyone talking in my dreams (or at least, I cannot recall it).
    #1 probably doesn’t apply to me either. Generally speaking, I am a person who can only focus on one thing at a time. So, even in my native language, multitasking is a challenge. I often don’t finish sentences when I am focused on something else while speaking. Or I miss a turn when having a conversation while driving.
    And what does “fluent” really mean when it comes to accuracy and making mistakes. Can you only claim fluency if you never make a mistake? How many mistakes are okay to still keep your status as a fluent speaker? If someone can fluently talk in German (for example) but the gender of every other noun is wrong, yet, he has no problem being understood by native speakers, dreams in that language etc., is that person still regarded as a “fluent speaker”?
    What about being fluent, but still having an accent? In my experience, the compliments of native speakers (#5) often relate to pronunciation and accents. So, a lot of people get compliments about their language skills even when they make a lot of mistakes, just because they have good pronunciation. On the flip side, some people are perceived as bad speakers because of their accent. They might be accurate and fluent but because of a thick accent, some natives might not regard them as “fluent” or “good” at the language.
    I like this article because I think it is a good starting point to think about fluency, but the concept is just too complex to summarize it in 5 quick points that apply to every fluent speaker out there.

  • Jordan David Wirth

    I disagree with this article. All of the points seem very flawed to me, and I am someone who fluently speaks a second language. #1 You make mistakes constantly in your native language, so making or not making mistakes is a poor indicator of fluency in your target language. Sure, you will make less mistakes as you become more fluent, but you will still frequently say things wrong. #2 This one I can agree with to an extent, but you have to keep in mind that eavesdropping is often at a distance, with noise separating you from a conversation. To think that because we don’t understand a conversation at a distance means we do not speak fluently is fallacious. If you were to try and eavesdrop a conversation in your native language at the same distance, in most cases you would still struggle to understand, unless they were close by. #3 This one is also quite murky. I was having complete dreams in Spanish after learning it for only 2 months, even though I was not even conversational at the time. #4 This one is completely wrong. I have been studying Russian for a year, so clearly I am far from fluent, but it is nearly impossible to focus in an area crowded with Russians because I will pick up enough of their conversations that I can understand and naturally follow along. So unless you’re talking about brand-new learners, then it is false. #5 This one makes no sense whatsoever. You logically compliment people who do things well, even Mariah Carey for singing well. People know you are not a native speaker in 95% of cases, and they will compliment you even if you speak so well that they cannot find mistakes. Getting compliments is no indication of fluency or lack thereof.

    I normally wouldn’t comment on articles like this, but this one has so many things that are either entirely opinion based, or just plain wrong, that I don’t want people thinking that their fluency is dependent on whether or not they meet these arbitrary standards. I don’t mean to say that these aren’t helpful pointers, but the title of the article makes them as more than that. Fluency is not something that we can mark as yes or no. You can’t say that unless someone fits some ticks on a list they are not fluent. Fluency involves so many factors that not even linguists agree on when someone has reached it in another language. Fluency can be considered just holding a conversation about everyday life with a native, or it may discussing fictional literature. People who actually speak languages need to dispel this idea that fluency is a defined skill with a definite place.

  • LingoSpace

    5. Native speakers stop complimenting your language skills

    This is very true for Korean.

  • Daniel Kolsi

    I disagree. This doesn’t even apply to my native language (Finnish). Maybe because I’m more “writative” than talkative. I don’t talk that much, but I’m very fluent what comes to writing. I think these are more like personality traits than indicator whether you master the language. At least in Finland the emphasis is more on grammar and writing / reading than in talking. Finnish people in general are not very talkative, especially men, but they do still master the language. Good (fluent) communication skills are so much more than just pointless speaking. It’s about listening, asking the right questions, choosing the correct words etc. It’s more about quality than quantity.