You have been fastidiously dedicated to learning another language. This may be your second one or even your fourth. The endless hours spent memorizing, practicing, and conversing whenever (and with whomever) you can is starting to feel like real progress. The goal of fluency is within reach. You can almost taste it! But how will you know? How can you be unequivocally sure that you are fluent in your new language? Is there a finish line of sorts? A parade? A certificate?
The answer is, sorry to say, no. Dictionary.com defines fluent as both “the ability to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily,” and as “easily changed or adapted; pliant.” So, you see, language learning is fluid and something you will keep learning as you go. There is no objective way to measure your fluency. But there are signs to look for and truly celebrate once you see them:
You forget to switch.
After your foreign language class, you may start to forget to switch back to your “native language.” You still think and greet friends in your new language. That is a good sign. Being able to retrieve your new language is becoming second nature and you brain does not need to revert to your native language as much.
You forget some native words.
Has this ever happened to you?
You: Can you hand me the… What is it called?…Arrosoir? Friend: You mean the watering can? You: Yes, the watering can. Thanks. How did I forget that word?
This shows you have internalized your target language to the point where it holds as much validity in your mind as your native language.
Eavesdropping becomes easy.
Remember when you used eavesdropping to help you learn your new language? Following a conversation between two strangers in a foreign language isn’t easy. You must establish context, fill in missing information, and acquaint yourself with the strangers’ linguistic mannerisms. And this all needs to happen quickly. That is a lot to process! Thus, when eavesdropping become easier, it is truly a milestone.
You speak your new language all the time, no matter what.
If you can use your second language with proficiency during times when you are tired or intoxicated, you’re on your way to fluency. Your brain is efficiently processing language if you can speak, read, or listen to a second language while impaired.
It’s getting easier to communicate.
Maybe you can now hold a conversation in Italian with the owner of your favorite Italian restaurant. You have gone from simply saying “ciao” to being able to order your entire meal without mistakes. And you didn’t preface your monologue with “I am sorry, I only know a little Italian.” You are on your way!
You become a translator of sorts.
If you can successfully and easily help translate for others from your native language to your second language, or vice versa, you have a good grasp on your new language. Being able to coherently translate to and from another language without losing the meaning or value shows you are fluent.
And yet, you are no longer translating…
We often consciously translate word by word when first learning a language so we can understand or essentially “read” the text in our native language with our native internal voice. However, as you become better at a language, you interpret the text automatically, just as you would with your native language.
You don’t realize you are reading in your new language.
Have you ever simply read, but, several paragraphs into the text, you realize that you have not actively registered which language you are reading? You are simply just reading. This shows that you can easily switch between your mother tongue and another language and are processing the information subconsciously.
You can multitask.
Learning grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation of a new language takes a lot of brain power, leaving little room for other things such as listening to music, eating or texting. Therefore, an excellent indication of language fluency is when you can multitask. If you can listen to the teacher in class, check a text on your phone and write notes down all at the same time, you are processing most of the information without conscious effort; your second language is becoming an automatic process for you.
You notice your mistakes.
Noticing your mistakes and being able to correct them right away is a strong indicator you have a good grasp of your second language. Even if you don’t know a word, but you are able to communicate your thoughts using other words is also an indication of fluency. For example, if you cannot remember the word for “umbrella,” but you can describe “the object you hold over your head when it rains,” you are on your way to being fluent.
You are no longer tone deaf.
A native speaker can often identify a variety of things from tone and dialect such as sarcasm and inference. If you understand a person’s tone or dialect, then you are unconsciously processing what is being spoken and you are close to being fluent.
Native speakers don’t modify their language for you.
Native speakers no longer compliment you on how well you speak their language. They also stop modifying their language when speaking with you. They don’t switch to simpler words, because they do not consider you a learner. They start to communicate with you as a fellow native. This is a great indicator!
You are “in” on the jokes!
When you start truly understanding all the language that cannot be translated literally—the jokes, discreet humor, slang, idiomatic expressions—then you are understanding the language and culture and you have become proficient. They are no longer “lost in translation” on you! If you can express deep emotions in multiple ways and know the difference between a question and criticism, for example, you have grasped the fundamental idiosyncrasies of your new language. Often the last thing you pick up when learning a language is the jokes, so rejoice if you finally are “in on” all of them!
You start dreaming in your new language.
And last, but not least, you start dreaming in your newly acquire language! This is a significant sign you are fluent. Scientists agree that dreams are demonstrations of unconscious thought. Thus, dreaming in another language is showing that the words and speech patterns are deeply embedded in your subconscious mind. Because you have automatic associations between objects and their target language names, your brain can dream in that language without relying on your cognitive skills to translate.
If you find any of these things happening, celebrate! And enjoy your hard work and new opportunities that come from being multilingual!