Germans have this funny habit of downplaying how good their English is. I feel pretty confident in saying that, aside from perhaps the Scandinavians and the Dutch, Germans speak the best English in mainland Europe. And yet every time I ask a German stranger if they speak English, they either fidget and shuffle their feet and say “hmm, a little bit,” or they just say “no.” A little more conversation reveals that they’re pretty much fluent in English (of course, if I start in German and make a mistake—they immediately switch to English! Figure that one out).
Admittedly, I’m not all that different. I downplay my skill in adopted languages as humbly as any German. My dad has started introducing me to people by saying, “this is my son, he speaks perfect German,” over my embarrassed protests. Many of us language learners are shy about our language ability, and I think I’ve figured out why: we don’t actually know what “fluent” means.
To be “fluent” in a new tongue is the holy grail of language learning. We want to be able to speak and understand perfectly. The trouble is, unless you’ve already climbed the language ladder once before, you don’t have any point of reference aside from your mother language. And let’s face it—to be so good at a foreign language that it is as good as your mother language is a bit of a stretch. Your language goals are somewhere up in the clouds, intangible and mysterious. You’re reaching too far. “Fluent” does not mean “perfect,” but that’s what you think it means.
So because to you “fluent” means “mother language-level,” you’re easily disappointed. You don’t know what your language level is exactly, but you know it’s not fluent, because it doesn’t come out as naturally as your native tongue. You must still be trudging along the gravelly road, the destination still shimmering impossibly far in the distance. Of course you’re shy when someone asks you if you “speak” that language, you have no idea!
Literally defined, “fluent” means graceful, easy, flowing like a liquid. It doesn’t mean impeccable, it doesn’t mean flawless. It doesn’t mean perfect. What it means for your language ability is up to you to decide.
When I decided I didn’t want to live in Berlin forever, but I wanted my German to be better than it is, I realized I had to set a very specific goal for my language learning, or I’d never think it was good enough, and I’d never leave. I decided I don’t care much about prepositions, articles, or adjective endings—you can be perfectly well-understood in German without using them perfectly, and anyway, even Germans routinely screw them up. Rather, I want to be able to speak without thinking too much about what I’m saying. Specifically, I want to be able to use all the verb tenses (future perfect, past perfect, pluperfect) and moods (past and present subjunctive II) without sitting there for ten minutes running conjugation charts in my head. I can talk about what had happened, what will have happened, and what would, should, and could have happened. At that point, I will be able to speak German fluently, by my own definition. I’ll be able to fully communicate. The rest is just new vocab words.
Now that I have defined my goal, I’m able to own my language level. “Do you speak German?” someone will ask. “Yes,” I’ll say. It’s true; I do speak it. But just as “fluent” does not mean “perfect,” “speaking” a language does not mean “fluent” in that language.
You have to decide for yourself what “fluent” means.
What about you? How do you define “fluent”? Have you reached that fluency in a language? Does that help you meter goals for other languages you’re learning?