What Does It Mean to Be Fluent in a Language? Fluency Levels Don’t Really Exist
Spoken or written with ease
That’s the primary definition in the dictionary for the word “fluent”, and you know what: that’s the only thing that the word “fluent” absolutely, definitely means regardless of who you’re talking to. That’s as far as I’m willing to go on the issue–the term is such an arbitrary one so widely open to differing interpretation that it is just short of meaningless.
The only thing you can say for certain is that if someone is to be called “fluent” then their speech and/or writing should be relatively smooth, it shouldn’t seemed forced, choppy, or difficult for them to perform, and even then I guarantee you I’m going to get shit over that definition (someone will pop in and say how someone can still be “fluent” while having trouble speaking in the language in question, just watch it’ll happen). Just to back myself up again, from the Wikipedia entry for “fluency”:
Language fluency is used informally to denote broadly a high level of language proficiency, most typically foreign language or another learned language, and more narrowly to denote fluid language use, as opposed to slow, halting use.
Look, that’s pretty much it as far as a concrete definition is concerned: it should “sound smooth”.
A quick side note: if you’re learning spoken Spanish, you need to know about this…
I’ve got an entire book about how to put together your own personal, custom Spanish-learning system that’s based on using online resources (mostly free) and Spanish-language popular media such as TV shows, movies, books, etc. It’s designed especially for beginners and intermediate learners, it shows you how to get started right by learning modern, normal, everyday spoken Spanish (what native speakers actually use to talk to each other in most common situations) so that you’re learning the most useful type of Spanish and not something outdated or overly formal like what you might find in a textbook. The biggest emphasis, however, is having fun because if you don’t do that then odds are extremely good you will fail because the most common reason people fail to learn a language is that they get bored and frustrated and then they quit! If you get to choose whatever TV show, movie, or book in Spanish that seems like it would be interesting and/or entertaining to you, and then use it to teach yourself Spanish, how could that not be fun?! In this guide I even include 4 lists, each in its own appendix at the rear, of all the free online resources you will ever need as well as a review of many of them and information on how to use them. If this sounds like something that might interest you, please check out my book here on Amazon.
Ok, pardon my sales pitch (doing that sort of thing is how I’m able to provide you with this kind of free content and not run any sort of ads on this site, by the way), on with the rest of the article!
What do I consider fluent?
I personally have two different types of fluency, I think this works really, really well, and it’s very simple and easy to understand:
1. Native fluency: Simple, this is when you’re at the same level of proficiency in the language as a native speaker–you have their vocabulary, you know all the idioms and slang and cultural references a native would, and you have a perfect accent. If a native speaker were to have a 3-hour-long conversation with you face-to-face (presuming your appearance wouldn’t give you away as a non-native) and they were asked afterward by someone if you were a native speaker of their language, they would say with 100% certainty that you were.
I’ve known one person like this, a cute little Japanese girl I knew in college named Saria. She came to the U.S. for the first time when she showed up for college (she would’ve been 18), and she spoke perfect American English, if you had talked to her for an hour or so you would’ve sworn she was an American (obviously of Asian descent due to her appearance, but definitely American none the less). I seem to recall she had been learning English since grade school and had taken a personal interest in it and American culture, so she watched lots of American movies and learned the accent and all the slang and idioms and such from that.
2. Conversational fluency: This is what I aim for when I’m learning a language, and when I’ve achieved it then it’s time to move on to a new language. It’s when you’re capable of having a conversation about normal everyday things with a native speaker at a normal conversational rate of speed–things in the news, sports, grocery shopping, buying a cup of coffee, buying clothes, picking up a girl at a bar, making jokes, etc.: everyday stuff. The way that I test this is the following criteria that I got from Tim Ferriss (also a well-known polyglot) and modified a bit:
I must be able to speak for 30 minutes straight with a native speaker about items randomly pulled from a newspaper (online or paper, doesn’t matter) without using any reference materials. I cannot choose not to use a randomly chosen item (I can’t say “oh, that one’s too hard, pick another”), though I may ask the native speaker for help if I run into a word or phrase I don’t understand (just like you’d be able to in the real world–the reason I don’t allow any other references is because you wouldn’t typically have those in the real world). Also, this must be done at a regular conversational rate of speed (the rate of speed at which a native speaker would normally speak).
There ya go. I’m really curious to hear what other people’s definitions are of fluency, put them in the comments!!
Oh, P.S. For those of you who want something really complicated (and it’s official, too! U.S. Foreign Service Institute stamped and approved!), check out the ILR (Interagency Language Roundtable) Scale.
A Quick Note Before We End…
I’ve got two posts that I’ve put up that I’m recommending everyone interested in learning Spanish go read if they haven’t already (if you have, ignore this, sorry): How to avoid wasting months learning Spanish the wrong way (basically this is my “how to get started right in learning Spanish” post for complete beginners) and The Telenovela Method where I cover how to use popular media like movies, music, and books to learn Spanish. Additionally you can check out the front page for a more complete list of my best and most popular posts.
Get my list of the internet's top 33 FREE Spanish-learning resources here!I put together a list of the internet’s Top 33 Free Spanish-learning resources, my favorite language exchanges and Spanish chat rooms, and more. I’ve spent a great deal of time putting together a 3-part series of articles for you on the internet’s best free resources for the Spanish-learner that you’ll get when you sign up for my newsletter–in addition to all of what you get below, I’ll be sure to send you any updates about cool new sites, resources, and learning tips and techniques that I come up with (I’m currently putting together a whole series that will teach you in great detail precisely how I go about learning a new language):
Part 1: A very long list of my favorite Top 33 free online Spanish-learning resources (tools, references, sites with free lessons, articles, blogs, forums, etc.) that’s far too long to include here, especially with all the other stuff I’ve got here that’s available just on this site alone, and I’d like to offer it to you (completely free, you don’t have to do anything other than sign up) right now.
Part 2: I explain what language exchanges are (essentially they allow you free access to an unlimited number of native speakers to practice your Spanish with), why they’re absolutely essential if you’re teaching yourself (I’m serious when I say this: it’s impossible to get fluent without them if you’re learning a foreign language on your own), how to use them, and which ones are the best.
Part 3: I cover chat rooms which are specifically devoted to connecting you with native Spanish speakers who want to learn English so you can chat with them in Spanish (and they’ll help and correct you) and then you do the same for them with their English (these are completely free to use, but rather hard to find, but I’ll tell you where the best ones are!). Sign up below!