How to check for language fluency

What does it mean to be fluent in a language?

Someone once told me that no one but a native should ever claim fluency in a language. By that definition, it’s as though even native speakers aren’t fluent – they just get to say they are because they were born into the language.

I mean, who actually knows all there is to know about a language? I can barely spell in English.

For practical purposes, I think there are better ways to check for fluency. I learned these two from Benny, the Irish polyglot.

  1. Confused for a fluent speaker: If someone who doesn’t speak the language hears you speaking to a native speaker and thinks you’re fluent, then you’ve reached fluency. Even if someone doesn’t speak the language, they can still hear your pauses or the slower flow in the conversation. They can also ask you to translate, which gives away a lot.
  2. Confused for a native: If you can speak a language well enough that a native thinks you’re a native, even for a minute, then you’ve reached fluency. This one has some problems because obviously no one’s going to confuse me for, say, a Korean, unless I’m only talking over the phone. But if you can physically blend in with natives, I think this is a great measure.

Another one that’s interesting but not as practical as a target is dreaming in the language. If you dream in a language, then you’ve reached fluency.

My aunt told me about this from when she was an exchange student in Brazil. She woke up one morning from dreaming in Portuguese and knew she’d reached a turning point in the language.

Depending on your goals, I’d say you could use any of these three to measure for fluency. When it comes down to it, fluency should be more about thinking and communicating in a language, not about spouting out verb conjugations or obscure vocab.

Fluency is fluidity, not perfection.

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