Languages

When Can You Call Yourself Fluent in a Language?

Nearly nineteen years living in the Netherlands and I live my daily life in Dutch. Would I call myself fluent? No, nee, absoluut niet. So when can you think of yourself as fluent?

This post was prompted by this tweet.

When Can You Call Yourself Fluent in a Language?

What does Fluent Mean?

When a person is fluent, they can speak a language easily, well, and quickly.
When a language is fluent, it is spoken easily and without many pauses.

Cambridge dictionary

But operating in a foreign language is not just about speaking. There are other things to consider; you may speak a language flawlessly, but make numerous grammatical errors when writing. Can you still claim fluency?

Another definition of fluent is “capable of using a language easily and accurately“.

Merriam Webster

So not just easily being able to speak a language, but being accurate in your use.

Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) distinguishes fluency at around level B2 and states that this means:

  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

Does having a B2 language qualification mean you can call yourself fluent?

Other Ways to Define Fluency in a Language

Can you understand natives talking to each other? When a group of Dutch people are talking with each other they will tend to talk faster and use vocabulary they wouldn’t necessarily use with a non-native. I notice my own husband does this if he is retelling a story to his family. Do you get their drift?

Can a native speaker understand you without huge effort? The CEFR details ‘interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party’.

I’d like to think that my talking causes no Dutchman any strain whatsoever, but I can’t be sure. I know Dutch people I talk with certainly have to concentrate when they are listening to me – particularly as I live amongst people who talk the Achterhoek dialect and actually have to switch to regular Dutch to have a conversation with me.

Are you translating in your mind whilst you are listening to a foreign language? I remember being told once that fluency starts when this tendency ends. I know I no longer translate Dutch into English in my head – I just know what the Dutch means. A step further is actually struggling to put it into English because there isn’t actually one word which conveys the sentiment there is to a Dutch word.

Does being fluent mean you speak with little accent so that people cannot even recognise that you are not a native? Then I put my hands in the air and surrender now. I have an accent and always will when I speak Dutch. Who doesn’t?

Is fluency never having to reach for the right word? To be fair I have to reach for words when I am speaking my native language so I’m not sure how far this can be used as a measuring stick.

If you can get through a normal day using only the foreign language can you call yourself fluent? I can get through a regular day speaking Dutch but if I face a new situation (for example a new medical situation with one of the kids, or a building project on the house) then it is clear to me that there is a whole new set of vocabulary to learn. Throw me in a school meeting and I can get by. Throw me into a discussion on the new bathroom plumbing and you can forget it. Is there such a thing as situational fluency?

How do You Know You’re on The Path to Fluency?

You don’t just wake up one day and find that you’re fluent in a language of course. There are steps to fluency and I love this summary:

“Next comes the final step before fluency: no-longer considering the language as ‘foreign,’ forgetting that your friends and family (who don’t live in the same country as you) don’t know the cultural quirks, the little expressions, or the popular songs. People now greet you as a ‘local.’” Language Learning the Full Immersion Way on Multicultural Kid Blogs

When you reach this stage you can smell fluency!

Fluency Doesn’t Translate as Perfection

Shannon Kennedy, Eurolinguiste, states:

“In my opinion, “fluency” is when you’re able to speak and understand a language enough that it doesn’t hinder your ability to communicate. This means that you might still make mistakes and misunderstand certain words or expressions (especially those that are steeped in cultural context) on occasion, but it doesn’t keep you from expressing yourself in the language or from having an good overall understanding of what is being said to you.”

Can we say that all natives speak their language perfectly? No. Categorically no. So being fluent in a language certainly doesn’t require perfection.

It’s more about using language with a natural flow.

You Decide What Fluency Is

Situational fluency. That hits the nail on the head, as far as I am concerned.

If your work involves you operating in a foreign language and you possess the vocabulary to do your job perfectly well then you can surely call yourself fluent in a language. Your language competency meets your goals.

If you can communicate with the people around you, live a normal life using a foreign language and get things done then go ahead and call yourself fluent if you like.

If your language skills match your language goals then you’re good to go.

As Laura put it – it’s about perception.

Be confident about your language skills.

From here on go with the motto: I think I’m fluent, therefore I am.

Further Reading

Over to You

What is your definition of fluent in a language? Let me know in the comments below.

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4 thoughts on “When Can You Call Yourself Fluent in a Language?”

  1. After reading your article on Fluency, I strongly believe that I’ve a long way to go. How was it raising up your kids in a bilingual settings while struggling at the same time to be Dutch proficient ?

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    1. We take the OPOL approach and that has worked well. That way my Dutch and the kids learning English are two separate things. There have always been lots of ways for me to improve my Dutch but still talk to the kids a lot of the time in English. When the five of us are together it tends to be a mix of both languages and it works. We have found our way through – I can get by in Dutch in the outside world and my eldest has just opted for a Dutch/English TTO course when he starts secondary school in September.

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  2. I like your idea of situational fluency.
    It works like that in my native language too: I’m not an engineer and don’t speak fluent ‘engineer-speak’ even in my native language.
    It may be easier in one’s native language to acquire the relevant vocabulary expansion when it becomes necessary, but the principle remains the same.

    It also works in both directions. I’m Dutch, but read a lot of SF and science news in English, and very rarely read or talk about those subjects in Dutch. As a result, I’m more fluent in (written) English than Dutch on those subjects.

    Liked by 1 person

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