Learning a foreign language is a challenging yet rewarding journey. One day, the endless hours of learning vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation will have paid off and you’ll find yourself speaking the language fluently. But what exactly does fluency mean?
As we previously discussed here, language fluency is difficult to define precisely. That said, some linguists consider someone to be fluent when they are able to use a foreign language with a high degree of automaticity. This basically means you can speak the language with both speed and accuracy, without thinking too much about the process.
However language fluency is defined or perceived, it’s for certain that language learners don’t ever receive a ‘congratulations, you’re fluent!’ card in the post when it happens – though this would be nice!
So, how do you know if you are actually fluent in another language? What are the clues that suggest you’ve finally reached the ultimate goal of full fluency? Here are 7 signs that suggest you’ve finally made it!
1. You’re Able to Correct Yourself
Speech errors aren’t limited to non-native speakers; everyone makes mistakes while speaking. However, a tell-tale sign that you’re fluent is being able to correct yourself in the moment.
Native speakers are, in general, able to quickly correct their mistakes and continue on with what they were saying. If you can do this in a foreign language, you’re getting close to being fluent!
Along the same lines, it is also natural to sometimes draw a blank when you’re looking for the right word. You’re trying to explain something and you know in your head what you want to say but you just can’t think of the key word. When this happens, native speakers are able to convey their message by using alternative words and phrases.
If you can’t think of the exact word for something when speaking in another language but you can instantly use other words to make your point, you just might be fluent! Indeed, correcting your own errors and using a vast range of vocabulary to communicate your ideas are sure signs that your studying has paid off.
2. You Can be Cheeky
Language is intertwined with our identity. In addition to using a language for functional purposes like ordering food, buying tickets, and getting directions, we also use language to make jokes and express our identity.
However, one of the hardest parts about speaking a foreign language is figuring out how to use that language to express your personality.
In our native language we use sarcasm, slang, and jokes to express our personality. This isn’t as easy to do in a foreign language because it’s not really taught in grammar books.
Once you can crack a joke, use slang or irony in a foreign language, you can give yourself a pat on the back because you are sounding more like a native speaker!
3. Your Thoughts are Bilingual
We all have that little voice inside our head. If you’ve ever found yourself in line at the supermarket behind someone who has clipped a coupon for every single item they are purchasing, you probably thought to yourself, “How long is this going to take?”
If you’re bilingual, it’s quite possible that you’ll have these kind of thoughts in both languages, depending on the situation you’re in. The thought process is mostly subconscious and automatic. When using a foreign language becomes automatic, like our thoughts, you are reaching your goal of becoming fluent.
This also applies to your dreams. Dreaming and thinking in a foreign language are excellent indicators that you’re becoming fluent!
4. Speaking on the Phone is a Piece of Cake
When we are first learning a new language, we rely on a lot of contextual clues and body language to understand others.
Similarly, we use hand gestures and facial expressions to help us communicate our thoughts. Unable to rely on contextual clues, body language, hand gestures and facial expressions, early language learners often have trouble speaking on the phone.
Easily speaking on the phone in a foreign language means that you’re relying solely on listening and speaking skills. If you’re able to do this in a wide variety of potentially difficult situations (i.e. discussing your tax returns with your accountant, complaining to an airline about lost luggage, negotiating a business contract) you are likely considered to be a fluent speaker of that language.
Bonus points if you can multitask while talking on the phone! Being able to multitask while holding a conversation is an indication that you are using the language spontaneously without conscious thought or intention.
5. You Can Communicate With a Wide Variety of People
A friend once described their disappointment when after months of practicing Chinese with a friend they arrived in China and could hardly understand anyone! What went wrong? The problem was, they had only learned how a small number of people speak Chinese. This will only get you so far.
To become fluent in Chinese or indeed any language, you need to understand a variety of ways to communicate and preferably interact with and learn from a wide range of native speakers.
Individuals have speech patterns that are unique to their personalities. When you first start learning a language, speech can seem a bit robotic. However, the further you progress, the more speech variations you learn.
For example, in English, instead of saying goodbye, people sometimes say, “catch ya later”, while others say, “see ya later,” and some people simply say “later.” Understanding these types of variations is key to fluency.
Remember also that whichever foreign language you learn there will be multiple dialects and accents within that language. Take English, for example. There are approximately 160 distinct English dialects throughout the world. There are also a vast array of different accents within primarily English speaking countries, such as the US, the UK and Australia. Read more here.
When you are able to communicate in another language with a wide variety of people, you’ll know you’re on track to becoming fully fluent.
6. Native Speakers Don’t Use Your Native Language
When you’re using a foreign language with speakers who also speak your native language, they often revert to your native tongue when they can’t understand what you are trying to say.
This can feel frustrating when you really want to use the new language. But if the native speaker can’t understand you, this is often what naturally what happens. And if they don’t know your native language, they might try to accommodate you by simplifying their speech.
A sure sign that you’ve become fluent is when native speakers stop doing this. When native speakers talk to you in the same way they would other native speakers, it shows that they consider you to be fluent!
7. You Listen to Music and Watch Shows
Media can be a great tool for language learning. Language teachers often use songs, movies, and television shows to help advanced students learn to speak more naturally.
Songwriters use metaphors to create a sense of emotion and express complex ideas. Learning metaphors, idioms, and slang all help you understand the complexities of a language. The way actors speak in movies is often not the way you were taught to speak in grammar class.
Accessing this level of the language is a sign that you are a fluent speaker.
It isn’t easy to become fluent in a foreign language but it is indeed possible! One day the hours of work you’ve put in will pay off and you’ll find that you’ve opened up a new door of possibilities in life.
Keep these 7 signs in mind and be sure to celebrate each accomplishment! Once you can check off each of the 7 signs, you can feel confident in your abilities as a fluent language speaker!