Has someone asked you this recently? How do you know if you are fluent in another language?
I get this question a lot when I tell people that my first language is English, my second is Spanish, and my third is Arabic: “Are you fluent?” This question makes language learners, language teachers, and language researchers flinch. Let’s look at a language, any language – let’s say Finnish – as an example.
At the end of your first conversational Finnish course, you have enough language to greet your friends, tell time, describe the weather, name basic clothing items and colors, and address letters to all of your family members. We could say you are fluent in survival Finnish.
Now let’s assume you continue your Finnish studies for a full year. You know basic grammar and can write or speak a simple sentence. You can order a meal, make a doctor’s appointment, and struggle through a conversation with a native speaker. We could say you are fluent in elementary Finnish.
Things are going well and you decide to move to Finland! You go to work as a waiter/waitress in a local café. You make friends and hang out after work. You’re very comfortable with ‘street’ Finnish and can easily solve day-to-day problems that come up. We could say you are fluent in working Finnish.
While you enjoy your friends, you dislike working in a café. Your true passion is in human rights and international relations. You enroll in the local university, hire a tutor to help you perfect your grammar, and start writing blog articles in Finnish on human rights issues in, let’s say, Africa. Soon you become an active member in the local human rights organizations and present on papers. We could say that you are fluent in professional Finnish.
Of course, each of these examples is simplified to give you a better understanding of what ‘fluent’ might mean. Language is incredibly complex, making clear-cut categories, like being fluent or not, difficult. If you grew up in Finland and spoke Finnish since you were a child, but knew nothing about international business and could never stand up and deliver a professional presentation on the topic, would you still be considered fluent?
I urge you to think about what you can do with your language right now and what you want to be able to do in the future. Think about that future goal as being how you define your fluency!