If you move abroad to a country where they speak a different language than your native one, you will probably find that people, both where you are from and in your new home, will ask you if you speak the language. And it is not uncommon that they ask you if you speak it fluently. This can feel quite uncomfortable because it is really hard to know what people mean when they ask this question. In fact, when asked this question, Claudia will often ask the person what they mean by “fluent” to be able to gauge the response accordingly.
Over the years though we’ve spoken a lot about what it means to be fluent to us and also done quite a bit of research about this too. Everyone seems to have a different opinion. For some people it means that you are able to communicate relatively well. For others, it has more to do with thinking or dreaming in that language. Still others relate being fluent with being completely bilingual, something that is more complicated to achieve.
And if you ask us if we think we are fluent in Spanish, the answer could depend on the day. Yes, we are both able to communicate in Spanish and we may think or dream in the language as well. However, being completely bilingual is another question and it is one we don’t always have the answer to because we spend a lot of time working and engaging in English (or other languages) too.
Still, if you are wondering if you are fluent in Spanish (or any other language you are learning), here are some of the ways we think you can measure yourself. And keep in mind, we are not trying to tell you this is the “right” way to think about things, this is just one way we think about things.
Working in Spanish
If you are working in Spanish and you are continuously needing to process and communicate in that language, it is most likely that you are achieving a level of fluidity, if you are not there already. When it consists of daily interactions, you don’t often have time to process thoughts and words through multiple languages so you are, most likely, already fluent in that language.
At the same time, we believe that living in your non-native language can be quite tiring. And if you are jumping between languages, this can also become confusing for your brain. For example, it has gotten to the point where we are so comfortable in Spanish that we can throw Spanish words into an English conversation without any issues. However, if we are speaking with family or friends that don’t understand Spanish, if we start to use Spanglish, they will probably get confused.
All this to say that we believe that if you are able to work in a language, you are probably fluent in it. Keep in mind though that this doesn’t mean you won’t get tired or frustrated or confused.
Reading/Watching TV in Spanish
Do you read books or watch tv or listen to the radio in Spanish and understand almost everything? If so, we think you are probably fluent too. These sorts of daily activities, while they are not working in the language, require an understanding about what is going on and the ability to follow a storyline in Spanish.
That is probably why we recommend watching tv and reading books as a good way to learn or improve your Spanish. It can also be quite tiring as your brain will have to work overtime (at least at the beginning) to understand these activities in a foreign language, but can be incredibly beneficial overall. You can find our top book recommendations in this post and some of our favorite things to watch in this one.
[day]Dreaming in Spanish
One of the ways people tend to judge fluency is if you have dreams in the language. We are not sure how true this is but both confess that we have found ourselves dreaming (and daydreaming) in Spanish. Sometimes these dreams make total sense and sometimes, usually when we are more tired, they can seem totally random or all over the place.
Still, dreaming or daydreaming in a language is yet another sign that your brain is able to function fluently in that language. Sure, it might not always be clean and even might cause a bit of a mess on occasion, but it is your brain working in another language. And if you stop to think about it, that in itself is truly beautiful.
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 we really think it depends. Claudia’s brother moved to Spain at 16 and was super immersed into Spanish culture and after two years people thought he was Spanish. In comparison, when Claudia moved to Granada, she mostly hung out with foreigners and spoke English outside of class. Even though she was studying Spanish at a language school, her progress was much slower than her brother’s in a similar amount of time.
We also know people who have been abroad for years and although they are able to communicate, they haven’t really been able to become fluent in the language. Because of this, we believe that everyone moves at their own pace and you shouldn’t base your progress on other people’s experiences.
That is why we believe that if someone asks you, or you want to get to a point of fluency, that you should remember to be aware of your own limits―both in time and personal abilities. And embrace your own progress. Nothing good comes out of beating yourself up about your language skills. If you are happy where you are, that is great; if you want to brush up on your language skills, we think that is a good way to spend your time; if you want to take on a new language, hats off to you because it isn’t easy even if it is an investment worth making.
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!