Language abilities

Continuing yesterday’s theme, sort of (not all posts on blog are completely random), my question for you today is at what stage can you claim that you ‘speak’ a language, are ‘fluent’ or ‘proficient’ in a language or ‘know’ a language? And when you make such claims, what do you mean by them?

My English dictionary defines ‘fluent’ as “able to speak or write a specified foreign language with facility”. By this definition, I’m fluent in Mandarin Chinese, and nearly fluent in French, Welsh and Irish. I can read and understand a number of other languages fairly well, but can’t speak or write them nearly as well.

Unless you grow up speaking two or more languages, it’s very difficult, though not impossible, to be as proficient in a foreign language as you are in your mother tongue. If you immerse yourself completely in a language, you will probably eventually acquire native or near-native proficiency, but at the same time you might loose some of your proficiency in your mother tongue. This certainly happened to me to some extent when I was in Taiwan – my Mandarin became fluent, but I was not keeping up with all the latest developments in English.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

14 Responses to Language abilities

  1. Adam says:

    I had always felt that the threshhold to fluency was being able to dream in the target language. But once I was able to dream in my target language, I still didn’t feel fluent. I then thought the threshhold was feeling comfortable in that language, but something tells me that some second language speakers never really feel truly comfortable in the second language. Any thoughts on that?

  2. Esteban says:

    As a native bilingual speaker (Spanish and English), I have felt that it wasn’t a matter of feeling comfortable in one language or the other, but rather a sense of being someone else in one language, and another in the other language. For example, when I speak English, I tend not to use as much slang. When speaking Spanish, however, I use quite a bit of slang and colloquiallisms and become somewhat more animated in my speach. I was not taught one language prior to the other — I learned both at the same time from the time I was born.

    As for a “second” language, I studied French and speak it with near-native fluency, yet I never can shake the feeling that I’m about to commit a horrible mistake! :0)

  3. Joseph Staleknight says:

    Adam: What about thinking in the target language? That would be interesting, too.

  4. That really makes me wonder…I can see where a child would forget his or her native language, or parts of it–but would that really apply to adults? And to what extent? I’m curious about your experiences.

  5. Marisa says:

    What a great blog! This definitely gives me food for thought as I complete my second year living in France (I already had a good base of French when I moved here), last year I had my first dream in French and ever since I’ve been reading up on brain patterns and language. Good stuff!

  6. Todd says:


    I wish that were true for me… I start dreaming way too soon in languages I hardly speak yet. Maybe it’s just “wish fulfillment” on my part.

    ALso, I can imagine you can speak a language fluently without being immersed in it so much that you think and dream in it. The dreaming probably has more to do with environment. I was in Turkey for 4 months and started dreaming in Turkish, even though my usage was appalling.

    Dreaming is a good sign of assimilation though. I live in Holland and always do my shopping lists in Dutch and think to myself in Dutch, but if I go back to the States for a month I get over that.

    The question for me is always: is fluency the same as near perfection, or is it the ability to have a proper, adult conversation on any given subject without any problems. I’d say it’s that later. Are you still fluent if you occasionally butcher the French subjunctive, but can otherwise run a business and keep a household?

  7. Aeneas says:

    “The question for me is always: is fluency the same as near perfection, or is it the ability to have a proper, adult conversation on any given subject without any problems. I’d say it’s that later. Are you still fluent if you occasionally butcher the French subjunctive, but can otherwise run a business and keep a household? ”

    The answer to that, I believe, is yes. I live in Montreal, and a lot of Qebecois speak French with horrible grammar. But that doesn’t mean they’re not fluent in French, just that they don’t really care about being correct…

    Actually, now that I think about, there are a lot of English speakers here that don’t speak too well either, yet I wouldn’t say they’re not fluent. I’m guessing this is the result of living in a multicultural city: many people speak many languages but not many people speak any one language perfectly.

  8. Declan says:

    On the grammer note, I know many people who are native speakers of English, and a french teenager has better grammer. They say things like “Go back to where you was.” and similar. They have that grammer incorrectness from what they heard, and they always make the same mistake, because it is what they learned. So in a sense, they are fluent in a language with slightly modified grammer. A type of dialect.

  9. Simon says:

    Declan & Aeneas

    Native speakers of English, French, and other languages, don’t all speak the standard variety of those languages. Non-standard constructions, such as ‘you was’, might sound wrong to you and others, but such constructions are correct in some varieties and dialects of those languages.

  10. Sam says:

    I would say that you are fluent in a languge if you can handle a variety of reading, writing, listening and speaking situations.

    You should be able to handle a casual conversation with a native speaker in that language. You should be able to do more than greet the person, ask how he or she is and talk about the weather. At the same time, you might not necessarily be able to talk about technical things or use specialized vocabulary.

    You should be able to read signs and material aimed at native speakers with an average or reasonable education. You might not be able to read advanced or specialized material, but you can function in an environment where nobody speaks or reads your native langauge.

  11. gee says:

    @Joseph Staleknight: I’d that if you are able to fully think in a particular language you are fluent in that language. When I am in Hong Kong for example I automatically switch from German to Cantonese. I once made an experiment trying to do all the everyday thinking in other languages. Doing that in English was easy enough (at some point it became almost subconsciously) but with French I kept searching for words or expressions for what I was doing or going to do. The test also failed with each other language I knew.

  12. Adam says:

    Joseph Staleknight – thinking in a second language is definitely a sign of fluency, but it’s hard to define or analyze. When I took Spanish in high school, I occasionally “thought” simple phrases and expressions in Spanish, but I was no where near fluent. I’d usually switch right back to English when I hit a word or grammatical structure that I didn’t know how to say or use.

    Todd – Very interesting. I never heard of anyone dreaming in a foreign language (butchered or not) before reaching fluency.

  13. I know it’s difficult to define such things as “fluency”, but I would like to say it in terms of my goals. I’ve been studying Spanish for several years now, but only recently have I begun to talk to native speakers to try to become fluent. Now then, I will consider myself fluent when…

    1. I can understand the spoken language to the extent that those words I do not know, I can at least get an idea from the context, and
    2. I know enough vocabulary that I can say what I want.

    At this point, when I speak Spanish I get stuck sometimes when I don’t know a word. I know this will improve as I continue to learn new words. One thing I’ve realized about fluency is you do not have to know it all. I know someone who can speak and understand Spanish with ease (much better than I can) and yet doesn’t know many words that I know! This just goes to show that fluency is just another step in the language learning process, it’s not the end of the road. One continues to learn more even after fluency is attained. Just my thoughts.

  14. Ellen says:

    I have a friend who’s Venezuelan, and we always speak Spanish to each other. We’re living in rural Japan, so nobody else speaks Spanish and everyone always tells me that I’m fluent. I’m really not, and since I’m talking to Japanese people it’s impossible for me to accept compliments anyway, but it does make me wonder. Even though I’m skirting around the subjunctive and avoiding some of the irregular verbs I’ve forgotten, I can say what I want and I mostly understand spoken Spanish. I feel like I’m much more fluent than my Japanese friends who’ve had written English crammed into their heads for years.

    I had at least three dreams in Spanish last year, when I was using it every day in school. I wasn’t fluent. However, one of these dreams consisted of me getting upset because I didn’t understand what people were saying to me.

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