Here I am now, almost 7 years out of high school, and I can safely consider myself fluent in German. The way to this point certainly wasn't graceful and the success was hard won, but here I am nonetheless. But what does being "fluent" mean exactly? When do you know you've crossed that threshold?
The truth is that fluency happens differently for everyone. Some people feel fluent in a new language in just a few months, while others never get there after years of learning. Everyone has a different level of comfort in the discomfort of a foreign language, learns at a different rate, and has different opportunities for immersion in the language. All of these things and more affect when in the learning process someone considers him- or herself fluent, and a whole other set of considerations, like accent, word choice and grammatical accuracy, affect whether listeners consider another speaker fluent.
For me, there wasn't a clear moment when I went from being "un-fluent" to suddenly being fluent. Realizing I was fluent happened in retrospect, after countless moments of failure, when I didn't understand something or couldn't think of the right words, and moments of success, when I was able to have easy conversations in German or answered a question without thinking about it first. I started to feel like I could have a real, substantial conversation in German after eight or nine months of daily studying and immersion, and I didn't admit that I was fluent, either to myself or out loud, until well past the year mark. Even admitting to myself that I'm fluent in German was difficult. I have a tendency to doubt my own abilities, and even if I do believe that I'm good at something, I'm often afraid to admit it in case I'm not actually as good as I think I am. For all I know, people who I spoke to in German may have considered me fluent long before I considered it of myself.
Even after admitting to my own fluency, I keep coming back to the same question: what does being fluent actually mean? Does it mean that German is no longer difficult? Of course not. Does it mean that I always know how to say what I want to say? Definitely not. Does it mean that I am done learning? Not by a long shot! I'm still prone to mild panic when I have to speak to someone in German, particularly someone I don't know. I am constantly reading and hearing German words I don't recognize and attempting to explain things with vocabulary I don't have. I still have good and bad moments; sometimes I feel like I can say anything I want in German, and other times each word is a battle. I have come to realize that language fluency, more than any other type of knowledge, is a constant and never-ending learning process. No matter how many German words I learn, there will always be more out there that I don't know. With language, there is always something more to learn, and every conversation is simply practice for the next one.
I have accepted the fact that I will probably never feel as comfortable speaking German as I do speaking English, since there is something undeniably special about a person's native language that can't be duplicated by any other form of communication. When I imagine my life in the future, whether it be in Germany or the United States, I picture myself speaking English as my primary home language, regardless of the language I speak with friends or at work. There is comfort, familiarity and ease when speaking English that I am not ready to give up, and I probably never will be. But that doesn't detract from my accomplishments. Being fluent doesn't mean I have to abandon my native language. It just means that I can communicate easily with other German speakers and I have one more choice when it comes to what language to speak in my day-to-day interactions.
German fluency is an achievement I'm very proud of, but I'm not going to just sit back and relax now. I plan to continue learning and to tackle the next big hurdle: understanding the various dialects of German. There are a lot and they can very dramatically from Hochdeutsch, or high German, the standard dialect. But that's a topic for another post.
I'll end with a question for my readers: If you've learned a foreign language, when did you consider yourself fluent, if ever? What does being fluent mean to you? My opinion is just one of many, and I'm curious about others.