You’ve been hard at work learning your second language (or your third, or fourth!). It can feel like it’s taking forever to speak a language fluently. The learning process is so gradual that sometimes you don’t feel you’re progressing at all.
Then, in a moment of discouragement, a friend or colleague asks you: are you fluent yet? Their timing couldn’t be worse! But how do you answer? When do you know if you can speak a language fluently? Is there some kind of threshold you cross?
There short answer is, there really isn’t. Language acquisition is a learning continuum. The word ‘fluent’ is etymologically related to ‘fluid.’
In fact, it’s the exact same Latin word, just in its present participle form. Being fluid, there’s no real boundary you cross to speak a language fluently. It’s an amorphic process. As such, there’s no real metric to accurately define whether you can speak a language fluently or not.
You speak a language fluently when you can converse or read in a fluid way, uninterrupted by the thought process of translation. It doesn’t mean you have a perfect vocabulary. You’ll never have a perfect vocabulary, especially if you’re learning a language like Mandarin, which has somewhere around 50,000 characters (a literate native Mandarin speaker knows between 2,000 and 3,000).
We’re always learning new vocabulary, even in our mother tongues. Research shows that we learn, on average, a new word every day until middle age. During the later stages of the language acquisition process, you might speak a language fluently some days, and other days not.
That said, here are a few telltale signs that you’re starting to speak a language fluently.
Photo by Davide Cantelli on Unsplash
1. You Speak a Language Fluently When You Think in It
François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, found that 70 percent of multilinguals report thinking in “both” or “all” languages. This is because thoughts, at their root, begin in a prelinguistic state. We only turn them into language when we are getting ready to speak or write them.
So to be precise, we don’t think in any language. But when your brain maneuvers to turn those thoughts into word forms, you might find yourself articulating them in your target language instead of your mother tongue. That’s a strong sign of fluency.
2. You Have Object Recognition without Translating
When you’re making a grocery list and you write Apfelsaft and Pfefferkuchen instead of ‘apple juice’ and ‘ginger snaps,’ you might be starting to speak German fluently.
You’ll see an object, and the word that leaps to mind is the target language’s name for that thing, instead of the native language name.
3. You Forget Your Native Word for an Object
Has this ever happened to you before?
You: We’re going to need to go get that… what is it called… carretilla?
You: Yes, that wheelbarrow. Thanks. How did I forget that word?
You’ve internalized your target language to the point where it holds just as much validity in your mind as your native language. Hopefully, of course, you won’t forget your native language entirely! Believe it or not, that’s a possibility. It’s called ‘language attrition.’
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4. You Speak a Language Fluently When You Dream in It
Dreaming in a language means that the words and speech patterns are deeply embedded in your subconscious mind. Because you have automatic associations between objects and their target language names, your brain can dream in that language without relying on your cognitive skills to translate.
If you find this happening, rejoice! You’re approaching the level where you can speak a language fluently.
5. You Can Use it Creatively
Creative language use means you can come up with multiple ways to express a thought or feeling. It means you can articulate opinions and engage in debates. It means you no longer rely on memorized phrases, but can come up with word and phrase combinations you’ve never read or heard before.
6. If You’re Getting Jokes You Can Speak a Language Fluently
You know the old truism that humor is the first thing lost in translation? Well, it’s also among the last things you pick up when you learn to speak a language fluently. Even a semi-fluent speaker might find themselves missing out on jokes and trying to piece together punchlines that bellyflop.
If you can keep step with puns and tell funny stories, then congratulations! You are reaching the advanced stages of fluency. Language acquisition does come in stages. It takes a lot of time and patience to get through them all and speak a language fluently.
Here’s a closer look at those stages, and how we move through them:
The Five Stages of Language Acquisition
- Also called the ‘silent period.’
- Listening and absorbing is very important at this stage.
- You have little or no comprehension.
- Instead of verbalizing, you often use gestures like pointing and nodding.
- You start to mimic what others are saying, which builds the foundation for speaking but isn’t original language production.
- Some learners gain up to 500 words of vocabulary through silent absorption.
- This stage can last from a few hours to six months.
- You cannot speak a language fluently.
- Early Production
- Here you go into active mode, using the language for practice.
- You’re forming simple sentences, mostly made of memorized phrases.
- You’re speaking primarily in the present tense, and working with yes/no and either/or combinations.
- You can ask and answer questions about “What, who, how many,” etc.
- Grammatical and pronunciation mistakes are frequent.
- You reach 1,000 words of vocabulary.
- This stage lasts for about six months.
- You’re on the road to being able to speak a language fluently.
- Speech Emergence
- Speech is more frequent, and you can speak in complete sentences.
- Comprehension escalates, but still with heavy reliance on context clues.
- You start reading and writing in your new language.
- If you’re brave, you start initiating conversations.
- Grammar mistakes are still common, but native speakers can understand you.
- Your vocabulary reaches 3,000 words.
- Humor is still difficult to understand.
- Plan to be here for a couple of years.
- Because you can navigate common situations, it’s easy to plateau at this stage. Power through and keep going!
- With a little more practice, you can speak a language fluently.
- Intermediate Fluency
- After you power through Speech Emergence, this stage can last a year or more.
- You’ll reach a vocabulary of about 6,000 active words.
- You can form complex sentences, express opinions, and use creative word combinations to represent thoughts.
- You begin thinking in your new language.
- Newspapers and magazines are easy to read. You can start reading more complex books.
- Few speaking errors, especially in social situations.
- Some gaps in vocabulary remain, as well as in expressions and idioms.
- You’ll often still rely on translation of and strategies from your native language for writing, but writing is improved.
- This will last from about year three to year five.
- You can comfortably say that you speak a language fluently!
- Advanced Fluency
- Also called ‘cognitive academic language proficiency.’
- After five to ten years of active practice, you sound almost native.
- You can study complex subjects in your new language.
- It’s almost as easy as your native language to speak, comprehend and write.
- Learning and development never stop. You need to keep conversing in your new language, as well as pursue tutored lessons, to maintain and advance your ability to speak a language fluently.
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The ability to speak a language fluently emerges between stages three and four. Some measurements add an additional stage there called ‘Beginning Fluency.’ This is when it feels like the language starts taking on a life of its own. Momentum picks up. You’re over the hump of the learning curve.
At that point, you’re still acquiring new vocabulary (as always) and learning the finer points of grammatical structure. But you’re getting to the point that you can say whatever you need to say, if roughly.
Now You Can Speak a Language Fluently - What's Next?
If you’re starting to hit the above landmarks, and you’re somewhere in the latter stages of language acquisition, you can start telling people with confidence that you speak a language fluently. It’s been a long, hard road to get there, but all that studying finally pays off.
The best way to keep challenging yourself, of course, is to live in a place where your new language is native. But that’s not the only way. The important thing is to keep actively conversing in your target language. This can be in person with friends, or even in online forums.
Read materials that increasingly challenge your ability to speak a language fluently. Most newspapers are written for a middle school reading level, so try some novels instead.
From going abroad, to speaking with strangers, to simply diving into a foreign book, being able to speak a language fluently will open a lot of doors.
Can you speak a language fluently? What languages do you speak? What stage of fluency are you in if you're still studying? Let us know in the comments below!