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etignotasanimum's avatar

How can you tell when you're fluent in a language?

Asked by etignotasanimum (3376points) May 4th, 2011

Excluding the language that you were brought up in, how do you know when you are fluent in a secondary language? What I’m wanting to know is, is there a specific definition of what fluency in a foreign language is? What is your definition for fluency? Obviously the ability to read, hold conversations, and understanding are huge concepts, but when does a person’s ability change from “proficient” to “fluent”? Does this distinction matter?

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26 Answers

everephebe's avatar

When you think in that language.

etignotasanimum's avatar

That’s a component that I hadn’t even considered. What about dreaming in that language?

everephebe's avatar

Nah. ^ Consciously thinking is more demonstrative.

dxs's avatar

If you can jump between the two without noticing.

Buttonstc's avatar


That’s exactly what my Mother told me in terms of her own experience.

She was born in Germany and didn’t come to the US until she was a young adult. And unlike my Uncle ( her brother who all his life spoke with a very heavy German accent) she had no trace of an accent at all (except when she had a few too many drinks).

She’s really the only foreign born adult emigre whom I’ve encountered who was able to lose their accent.

But she said that the real line of demarcation for her was when she was able to THINK in English. I thought that was so interesting and until your post I’ve really never heard anyone else express that important distinction. Fascinating.

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Pied_Pfeffer's avatar

I agree with @everephebe. I spent an afternoon with a friend, and we met up with two of his friends from France that were visiting the US. They chatted away the whole time in French, and other than his American accent, I would have guessed that he had grown up there.

And this may be a stretch, but my sister learned American Sign Language while a teacher’s aide at the local school. Whenever she was on the phone with a friend, she just automatically signed at the same time. It was purely out of habit and not because anyone else was in the room.

cazzie's avatar

I dream in Norwegian all the time and think and count subconsciously in norsk. I can read something and then I have to think later to myself… was that in an online Norwegian newspaper, or an English one? but I wouldn’t call myself fluent. I think, the day I can sit down and read Ibsen in Norwegian, like I sit down and read Shakespeare, will be the day I’ll call myself fluent.

anartist's avatar


KateTheGreat's avatar

When the thoughts in your head become jumbled up in different languages.

crazyivan's avatar

Just ask a native speaker. They’ll let you know.

Ron_C's avatar

I believe that @everephebe is correct. Listening and answering while translating to your native language is cumbersome and slows conversation (that’s what I do). Your pronunciation may be perfect but if there is a long pause between understanding and responding, the other guy gets impatient and ends the discussion as soon as possible.. One guy got so tied of he said “please speak English!”

HungryGuy's avatar

When I don’t get any syntax errors on the very first compile :-p

ninahenry's avatar

As others have said, thinking and dreaming in that language. I’d also say that being able to jump between languages in a conversation as @dxs mentioned is a sign you are definitely fluent, though I think not being able to do so doesn’t mean that you aren’t fluent.

@HungryGuy Syntax errors aren’t a true indication as every modern language is spoken in colloquial expressions.

anartist's avatar

When you begin to talk like the monk in The Name of the Rose

dabbler's avatar

When you get the jokes !

Porifera's avatar

Being fluent is broadly the ability to speak with little hesitation and finding right away all the vocabulary necessary to interact in different situations and be understood by native speakers with no difficulty. It seems to me that what you really want to know is when someone actually becomes fully bilingual which involves the highest level of proficiency of the foreign language and then —as it has been mentioned above, you start thinking and dreaming in the FL, you understand jokes, cultural references, etc. Being fluent is speaking quickly and never lacking words when you need them. Being bilingual is beyond having the linguistic competence to communicate in the FL, and it involves other cognitive and cultural aspects .

Aqua's avatar

I can think in Spanish or Chinese, but I would hardly consider myself fluent. I think “fluent” is a very hard term to define and I certainly won’t try to do so here. There are nationally recognized exams (from organizations like ACTFL or specifically the HSK for Chinese) that will give you a good idea of how well you speak/read/write. Truthfully, I expect to always have topics which I will be more comfortable and more able to talk about in my native language.

SavoirFaire's avatar

I agree with @everephebe. The most obvious sign that you are thinking in a language is that you are no longer trying to translate in your head before speaking.

Eleanora's avatar

@noelleptc Well.. I doubt it. My deskmate is a werid person. She’s a Muslin. But she spoke English in her dream when she was in the primary school!! Obviously she didn’t speak English that fluently in her Childhood.

Eleanora's avatar

@Aqua I don’t think those exams on languages tell much,just like the article in the IELTS exam.Our guidebooks have given us the so called five-paragraph templates! Then the teacher and some agencis about IELTS training even try to predict what the examiner going to ask for students. What I’m trying to say is, This kind of EXAM-ORIENTED EDUCATION only contribute to candidates’ score,but not really the actual ability in using this second language.

Eleanora's avatar

I agree with @dabbler. That’s true.Jokes are hard to understand especially when they contains colorful dialect in different regions.

mattbrowne's avatar

I second the dreaming in a second language as a good sign for fluency.

Happened to me about three months after I arrived in Kansas in 1988. Somebody gave me the tip that the best way to learn English in the US is watching commercials. Well, some of them began to haunt me eventually…

SavoirFaire's avatar

The only problem with the dreaming test is that it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference between dreaming in a foreign language and dreaming that you are dreaming in a foreign language.

Nullo's avatar

I’d say that it’s when you can get through the day without reaching for the dictionary. Dreaming in the language would be more a sign of mastery.
Unwittingly switching to it from another language might also be a sign. Always fun when it happens.

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