What Am I?
We are all familiar with the situation – pen hovering over two check boxes – while you debate over which one to tick. Proficient? Or fluent? You can speak another language, and have maybe even helped interpret for a friend, but can you really say you are fluent? Without a real rulebook, what does it mean to be fluent in another language?
Fluency cannot clearly be measured by mastery of a certain percentage of vocabulary, or in speaking a language perfectly. With those guidelines, many of us would not even be fluent in our first languages!
Donovan Nagel, a lifelong language learner and teacher, uses a measure of being able to learn more of your target language in that language. For example, even if you don’t know a word but you have the vocabulary to ask what that word is, and can thus learn new words, you would be considered fluent in that language.
Luca Saderny, a language app founder and polyglot, likens fluency to driving a car. While beginners may be overwhelmed by the number of things they must remember to do at the same time – check the mirrors, brake gently, etc. – more experienced drivers perform these tasks without thinking. Speaking in another language without consciously thinking of the rules is a similar gauge of fluency.
Perhaps the greatest measure of fluency is comfort. If a person feels at ease when speaking a language, this is a good sign that he or she is fluent. Thinking and dreaming in a foreign language are also excellent indicators of fluency. When learning a new language, they say that once you start dreaming in that language, your subconscious has grasped it. I grew up in Mexico, and when I was 11 years old, I lived in Colorado for one year. My parents sent me there to learn English, and I clearly remember the day when I thought, “I had a dream and I was speaking English!”
A popular language learning app actually tracks your progress as a rate of fluency. Successfully complete a task, and the app proclaims you 52% fluent. This is clearly more a device for encouragement than any real measure of fluency, but it does raise interesting questions. The app also drops your level of fluency the longer you go between lessons, just as we must regularly practice learned languages to maintain fluency.
Do you remember the moment you felt fluent in a new language? Tell us about it in the comments!