How Do We Define Language Fluency?

People often asked me, “so are you fluent in Spanish?” when I would tell them I was moving to Spain. I would usually answer with a “more or less, yeah” because, after all, I studied the language in college and would have no problem surviving on my own in any Spanish-speaking country.

Waterfall in Yellowstone National Park
Falls on the Tower Creek before Tower Falls, Yellowstone National Park
(Get it? Language fluency…flowing river?)
But these questions made me ask myself what do we really mean by “fluent”? Lots of times we have this idea of someone fluent in, say, Arabic or French, being able to completely understand the Algerians they’re talking to or the Belgians they’re meeting. We assume their accents could fool native speakers, and that their grasp on texting lingo and cultural references allows them to make jokes and allude to obscure pieces of history.

There’s a word for this: perfection. And, like Benny Lewis of Fluent in Three Months says, 100% perfection is not the same thing as fluency. Our definition of this word really needs to be much more fluid (*ahem*) and adaptable to personal contexts and situations. Since languages are used for so many purposes across countless locations and social strata, one person’s fluency may look different than another’s.

I propose a pragmatic definition of fluency, one where the second-language learner sets a specific, concrete goal to work towards. That way, when someone asks if they’re fluent in German or Japanese, they can say, “Well, I can talk to my grandfather in Poland about the Cold War” or “I can read my favorite manga comics in the original Japanese,” and those will be perfectly acceptable answers.

People in certain businesses may need to be able to explain blueprints to their employees or finalize €100 million-euro construction projects. They may need to be able to translate Renaissance literature or find equivalents for street slang. Perhaps their job involves interpreting between Chinese- and English-speakers on the Chinese mainland.

We cannot be all things to all people when it comes to speaking another language; even most native English speakers wouldn’t know most terms for practicing law or even be able to tell you what an obscure selection from Shakespeare means. We all specialize in something! So we shouldn’t worry about knowing everything in a foreign language.

For me, I think taking the DELE (Diploma de Español como Lengua Extranjera—Diploma of Spanish as a Foreign Language) test at the B2 level—the third-highest of the six tests—is a concrete goal that I’d like to work toward. Like fellow language assistant blogger Liz Pitt, I’m definitely conversationally fluent: I’ve already been confused for a native by another Spaniard, successfully rented a room in an apartment with Spanish flatmates, and asked for directions and information from complete strangers. But having that DELE certification from the Spanish government would, I think, validate my competence in the language as “fluent.”

But don’t feel like you have to take that test to achieve fluency yourself! I don’t know where my Spanish is going to take me in the future (teaching? multinational firms? government?) so I’d like to keep my options open by learning as broadly as I can. But if you just want to learn, say, enough Hindi to watch Bollywood movies or medical Spanish to talk to your patients, don’t worry about trying to plow through The New Delhi Times newspaper or Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

They’re always there if you want to keep going, though!

Would you consider yourself fluent in Spanish or another language? Why or why not? Talk about it in the comments!

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