What does it mean to be fluent? The different stages of learning a foreign language

Image via KEXINO (Flickr). kexino.com

While working as an English Language Assistant in Germany, I was surprised to hear that many of the older pupils considered themselves to be fluent in English, and although I taught several students who spoke very well for their age, it is debatable as to whether or not they could be described as fluent. The dictionary defines fluency as the ability to express oneself easily and articulately, but is it really as simple as that?

Those who study languages will often be asked if they can speak at a fluent level. Upon being asked this question, it is very easy to say no, just because you don’t have a flawless command of the language; however, it is virtually impossible to describe fluency in such black and white terms. It is not simply a question of being either fluent or not fluent, but rather establishing the point at which you are at within the various ‘in between’ stages which constitute the process of learning a foreign language.

Like with all subjects, this process starts properly when you begin to pursue an interest in learning a language. This may be deciding to study languages at university or taking higher level language classes. Making this decision and getting on to the first rung of the language-learning ladder is an important step in your quest for fluency.

However, there is only so much you can learn from reading books and practising grammar. There comes a point when you have to use what you have learned actively for a prolonged period of time. For most people, this will be on their year abroad and it can be a daunting experience to have to fend for yourself linguistically for the first time in a foreign country. Add in the pressures day-to-day life and it is easy to feel lost and confused. Simple things such as buying a sandwich can seem daunting, but there is no need to panic because you will soon start to see rapid improvements.

You will quickly find that your comprehension of the language becomes less and less of an issue to the point where you can understand most things, but at the same time not necessarily be able to express yourself in the way that you want. Nevertheless, you should soon find that you go from being able to concentrate on one conversation at a time, to picking up things from conversations going on around you, just as you would be able to in your native tongue. This is a big milestone in the language-learning process. How quickly you improve is normally determined by the level of exposure to the language you experience.

Having got to this stage, the wheels are now in motion and being able to understand everything means that you will pick up lots of everyday phrases and begin to get a feel of how the natives use their language. The more things you pick up, the more confident you feel to use them yourself. So despite feeling like you may still lack a lot of vocab, you will notice that you start to express yourself more like a native would. This will, in turn, lead to a level of language where you don’t have any trouble saying what you want to, and although you might not be able to find the exact phrase which corresponds to the point you are making, you will be able to find another equivalent expression. That’s the beauty of languages – there’s almost always more than one way of saying something.

Reaching this stage is a real achievement and you should give yourself a pat on the back for getting this far. On the other hand, there is still one final elusive stage. Understanding and replying without problem doesn’t really show off your personality. The best way to communicate who you really are is to spend as much time as you can with natives in as many different environments as possible. I found a very good way of doing this is to socialise with the locals – if a group of colleagues are planning a picnic on a National Holiday or going on a bike ride at the weekend, ask to go with them. You have to live the culture and the language rather than just appreciate and understand them. Be a part of what makes France French or Germany German.

It is by far the hardest stage to achieve and does require real persistence and determination. Don’t be put off though – you’ve come this far – why stop now? It is true that reaching this level of ‘fluency’ may well require living abroad for a more prolonged period, but it can be done if you put your mind to it.

As far as languages go, you have to play the long game. The longer you stay in a particular country, the better you will become. You also need to factor in time to adapt to different cultures and traditions. It can be frustrating getting to a certain stage whilst abroad and then finding you have regressed the next time you go back to that country. Fear not for this is completely normal, and having reached a particular level, you will find that each time you return, it takes less and less time to get back into the swing of things and start improving once again. Obviously everybody learns and improves at different paces, but these different stages are attainable and can be achieved by anyone if they persist and have the desire to improve. The important thing is to have confidence in yourself and your ability. The rest will take care of itself.

So there you have it. Everybody defines fluency differently, but this should give you a better indication of how far down the language-progression line you really are. So the next time that somebody asks you if you are fluent or not, tell them where you’re at and let them decide!