Are You Fluent In Spanish?

Dear Jacob,

I find that people often wonder what it means to be fluent in a language. In fact, “are you fluent in Spanish?” may be one of the most frequent questions people ask me when I tell them I’ve lived abroad for years. And when they ask me if I am fluent in Spanish or Portuguese (to which I tend to respond, “What does fluent mean?”), they also tend to ask what language(s) I think and dream in. At the end of the day, I do consider myself to be pretty good at the languages I speak, so I would say ‘yes’ I am fluent. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that, if we are going to be totally honest, sometimes my brain is a big pile of mush because I don’t always control the language that I think―and even less dream―in.

Working in Spanish

When I am working with Spanish people (which is my current reality), my brain is most likely in Spanish; when I am with English speaking people, English; and when I’m with Portuguese speaking people, Portuguese. From what I understand thinking and dreaming in a language is a sign of being fluent, however, it is also a sign that you can, on occasion, get mixed up or tired because your brain is working overtime. 

I am perfectly capable of walking around the city center without having any idea of what language I am thinking in...until I cannot remember a word I want to use.

I am perfectly capable of walking around the city center without having any idea of what language I am thinking in...until I cannot remember a word I want to use.

And it is not just living in Spanish that is tiring. The truth of the matter is, no matter how ‘easy’ it is to think in my mother tongue, that language is not the one I use most on a regular basis (especially when interacting with colleagues and friends). This means that I can find myself in a meeting in English, but I want to make a comment in Spanish or find myself tired because it is so much English!

[day]Dreaming in Spanish

In fact, I think the times when I am ‘most tired’ when I wake up are the days where I have been dreaming with a mixture of different people who speak different languages. In these situations it is really hard for my brain to piece together different groups of people into one coherent dream. At the same time, I can be walking down the street, talking to myself (is this just me being socially awkward, or are other people like this too?*) and stop and think “how do you say that in Spanish?” And then I think “why are you thinking in Spanish when it is so much easier to think in English?”


Becoming fluent

Now, you may want to know if it is possible to be ‘fluent’ in your six month or year-long study abroad/work experience and honestly I really think it depends. My brother was super immersed into Spanish culture and after two years had better grammar than some of his Spanish friends**. When I first started studying Spanish in a school in Granada I mostly hung out with foreigners and spoke English outside of class (even though I was one of the best at my school at that point) and that didn't exactly help me push into fluent territory within that time. However, when I went to Brasil, I was with Portuguese speakers all the time and was living, speaking, and thinking in Portuguese after three or four months. I also know people who have been abroad for years and haven’t really been able to become fluent in the language (although they are able to communicate).

Therefore, I think it is important for you to be aware of your own limits―both time and personal abilities―when trying to become fluent in your language abroad. Even though I am comfortable in all three of the languages I speak, when I don’t practice one of them (hello Portuguese), I become rusty. In addition, there are moments when I am in one language or the other and I cannot manage to get the word out in that language.

So, where do you think you are on the fluency chart? What is your favorite way to get good language practice in? Is it one-on-one intercambios or group intercambios? Is it language school? Do you like reading in Spanish and finding other ways to learn the language? Or is it just hanging out with native speakers? Let us know how you are doing!


*Dani tells me this happens to her as well so, seriously, we would love to know we're not alone!
**Okay, this may be an exaggeration, but now he definitely has better grammar than most of them.