28 February, 2015

Being Fluent

The idea of being fluent in a foreign language has always fascinated and intimidated me. When I was in high school it seemed to me like being fluent in a language learned later in life than infancy was the most laudable accomplishment anyone could achieve. I was awed by the seeming brilliance of the super-human creatures who scaled the mountain of a foreign language and arrived successfully and gracefully at the peak of linguistic achievement.

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.


  1. Hi Danielle! I discovered your blog just a few days ago and I have to say that I like it very much.
    Regarding the question you posed: At school, I had English as first foreign language and French as second foreign language. I consider myself fluent in English but not in French. Why? If I had the task to write a text in English and a text in French, then my approach to this task would be very different depending on the language. My first draft of the English text would be in English. Only if there's a word I don't know, I would switch to my native language and fill that particular gap with a German word. My first draft of the French text, however, would be in German and then I would translate the entire text into French by using a dictionary. My French is simply not good enough to write the text in French right away.

    1. Welcome! Thanks for your comment, and I'm glad you are enjoying my blog! :)
      You make a very good point regarding fluency, namely that fluency means being able to use the language as your starting point rather than translating from your native language. I think this is a really good measurement of fluency, in both written and spoken language. At the beginning of my German learning phase, I had to think about what I wanted to say first in English, translate it in my head and then finally say it out loud in German. I really started to feel fluent when I didn't have to take these multiple "steps" first and I could think and speak basically at the same time.