Unnecessary elitist standards: get rid of them and fluency is yours for the taking

When discussing language learning with people who have unrealistic standards for what they must have in their second language before they consider their level good enough, I’m left amazed at the screamingly obvious issues they don’t seem to be aware of:

The elitist standards you require are something that we may not even have for our native language, so why should we have them for our second one?

Someone may say that to speak a language fluently or “good enough” by their standards, you must be able to:

  • Participate in a debate on a complex topic, such as one on philosophy
  • Speak with no hesitations
  • Use complex vocabulary and advanced expressions
  • Never have any serious miscommunications
  • Be able to give the definition or translation of a low-frequency use (but still important) word
  • Write a complex essay
  • Never make basic spelling mistakes or misuse a common word
  • Be able to participate in a discussion that any typical native may have

But here’s the thing – based on these criteria I don’t speak fluent English, my native language. I break many of these rules and others. Going through this list again, in order:

  • Philosophy is something I’m quite weak at, and debating is something I’m even worse at. If you gave me this test in English, I’d fail it. This is a fact of life; there are some complicated matters I can discuss, but many I can’t.
  • I’d fail miserably at a requirement of no hesitations too. Have a look at my fist (non scripted) TEDx talk, and count how many times I say “ehh…” in the first few minutes. It’s a LOT. Hesitation can be caused by lots of factors (in my case here, by nerves from talking on a stage. In my second one where I had a script I prepared in advance, this wasn’t the case, but I don’t have scripts throughout my normal life in English of course).
  • I don’t have as many videos in English as I do in other languages online, but there are still a lot. If you watch any of them (like these interviews) you will see that I don’t tend to use really big words, and I don’t go out of my way to pick clever quotations or use really well worded expressions. In fact, many English learners tell me that they enjoy reading my blog because I have a straightforward and simple way of writing. This isn’t intentional; I simply don’t use extremely complex English with anyone. I did quite poorly in English in school actually.
  • Because of speaking Hiberno English, I’ve had some moments where I have had to scratch my head and wonder what the hell that other English speaker is saying, or vice-versa. What the F is a “nitch”?? Why are they so confused by me saying “Stop giving out about your man”? And that’s forgetting the cultural misunderstandings; I’ve had way more with Americans than I have with Spaniards for example.
  • Many times, people have said words to me that I probably should know, but simply don’t. One of my most common uses of Google is actually “define X”, where X is some English word. With enough context I rarely have to do this, but sometimes it’s unavoidable.
  • I can’t write an essay at academic standards. I rely on spellcheck all the time when writing something like a blog post. And even despite that, since Firefox doesn’t have a context-homonym-spell-checker that I’m aware of, there are still one or two mistakes that make it through that someone comments about. Right now (pretty much only from writing so much on this blog), I’m very confident about which to use between your / you’re or it’s and its, but to be totally honest, 3 years ago I had no idea. Many natives don’t; I see these mistakes every day from my family and friends’ Facebook updates.
  • I can’t participate in “any” discussion. If I find it boring, I’ll lose interest and lose track in what’s going on in the conversation. Sorry, but this is just the truth. There are a very large amount of possible conversations that I can’t participate in English, even when it has nothing to do with technical issues or enough vocabulary. Talk about shoes/fashion or many sports I don’t follow and you’ll quickly lose me, even though these can be quite simple conversations.

Many language courses and discussions take place or are prepared among those who are clearly in academic circles (such as linguists). This is fine, but I have one very important criticism about what many of them do: they hold their academic standards to what speaking a language is, to others who don’t value these standards in their native language.

I am not an intellectual. If you like to have philosophical debates, use complicated expressions, and have the oration skills to never slip up, that’s fine, but that’s just not me nor is it the vast majority of people.

I find it incredibly arrogant to force these standards on others. It’s elitist: to them you only speak a foreign language if you speak it like rich very well educated people do. I compare myself to normal people I hang out with, and make sure I’m as comfortable and confident as possible with them. Rather than learn formal dialogues, I’d rather learn slang and text language.

Most people talk much more about every day things than the complex situations that some elitists demand. Football games, how the work day was, how cute that girl is, how shitty the job situation is, how they can’t wait for that holiday, or many other things that normal people talk about. Not epistemology or quantum physics.

There are, however, times when we do get more technical with our languages, but something you must never forget:

The standard that REALLY matters: can you do what you do in your NATIVE language, in the target language?

Forget all of those ridiculous requirements others are imposing on you, where they are trying to turn you into clones of their academic ideal of how and what people should be talking about. My criteria for any language is simple: can I live my life in that language the same way I would in English?

For me this means that the technical and complicated things that I need to know are related to the technical and complicated things I know in English. My Spanish and French are C2 (“mastery”) level because I’ve worked as a professional engineer and translator of engineering documents in these languages. I can talk or read all about transistors and remote control interfaces and software specifications in the language. The fact that the Instituto Cervantes also agrees with me helps (i.e. I was awarded an official C2 diploma in Spanish, which can’t be disputed), so I’m not dreaming this up.

One interesting nitpick that has come up lately (from the incredibly long list that I get on a daily basis) is that if you look through videos of me online talking in Spanish, you could suggest that my level is only B1 (“intermediate”), which seems to conflict with my C2 assertion above. But the thing is, I’m talking about my friends’ experiences as aupairs, and don’t use much complicated vocabulary on purpose. Why on earth would I use complicated vocabulary in a casual chat like this? The only reason I can think of would be to show off for the camera, rather than stick to the topic at hand.

I could upload a video of me explaining the technical workings of trellis code modulation (what my undergraduate thesis was based on) in several languages… but that would be incredibly boring for most people, and really pointless to watch. I think the cultural topics I actually tend to share are much more interesting, and the level of Spanish I used for them was quite fine and aligned with that of the person I was speaking with.

To me, if I’m having a casual chat with someone in English and they use very big words or formal language when it’s not appropriate, I find this pompous. If anything I feel that this shows poor command of the language, because they aren’t appreciating context and social dynamics.

So far, things are going well with my Chinese mission (despite lots of stress, which is part and parcel of learning any language as intensively as this). You’ll be very happy with what I have planned to demonstrate my level in April! But the fact of the matter is that I know that a lot of the perfectionists who have been critical of me the whole time will not be pleased, because I’m not going to use Mandarin like they would. I won’t be debating politics, I won’t be quoting Confucius in his original words, and I’ll still be nervous at times and slip up or hesitate…

… exactly like I do in English.

Time to take languages back from the academics

Sometimes I feel like those who put such unrealistically high standards on languages almost want to keep the languages to themselves. Like if people like me who have a history of not being good at languages into adulthood found out that we can actually have fun with our languages if we used them the way we want, then speaking a foreign language wouldn’t be their special thing any more. I say enough of that.

Languages need to be taken back from those who hide them behind the bars of “use the language like we do, or we won’t give you our seal of approval”.

For example, when I was teaching English I found out what my students wanted to learn rather than what I wanted to teach them. I modelled some of my classes around Sponge Bob Square Pants episodes or used the scenery from their favourite computer games to teach them vocabulary. It was far more interesting and relevant for them, and it inspired language learning even in the weakest students.

So if you are learning a target language, and see it as impossible because of these stupidly high standards that others impose on you, forget them. This language is yours to use as you wish.

What I say about ignoring those telling you what to do applies equally to what I say. Speak if you want to do that, but forget my advice or that of any particular method and watch TV or read comics if that’s what you prefer to do in your target language (I am totally and utterly wrong to follow if your priority isn’t to speak a language socially, since I don’t care much for TV/comics etc. I suggest checking out many other language blogs for other priorities). Focus on reading if that’s the enjoyment you get out of foreign languages, and aim to read the kind of things you would read in your native language.

If you read comics in your native language, read them in your target language. If you watch Star Trek in your native language, watch the translation in your target language. I like how Khatzumoto does this for Japanese.

And, of course, if you enjoy debating politics, speaking with no hesitations as you do in your native language, and using fun references to classical literature, then by all means do that too. In that case it truly is how you were meant to use the language.

Hold the same standards for your target language as you do for your native one, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.




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  • http://www.englishandculture.com/ Lindsay McMahon


    Great post! Thank you! I agree with you. Language is about communication. It is easy to get paralyzed when we are learning a new language and to feel that we are not ready to speak that language because our grammar is not perfect or our pronunciation is not quite right. If more language learners could take on the attitude that making mistakes is a sign that they are actually succeeding, language learning would be a more enjoyable process and much more productive. This goes for a lot of things in life, not just for language learning. We need to stop judging ourselves based on other people’s standards. This post is inspiring, thanks again!


    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

       Glad you enjoyed it! :)

  • http://www.aswesawit.com/ Linda Bibb

    Thanks, Benny, for putting language learning back into a more useful context. I’m in Panama and Spanish is not my mother tongue. As when I was in Italy and Indonesia, my ultimate goal is to “think on the fly,” to speak without first mentally translating the words. I have intermediate goals of being able to function in daily society: using a taxi, asking for directions, ordering at a restaurant, chatting about elementary topics with a local, shopping in the stores.

    I never have “enough” vocabulary to express everything I’m thinking but I can usually find a way to express myself anyway. If I seriously lack needed vocabulary I can communicate via Google Translate, as I did when the cable guy came to fix a problem. When I found myself arguing with a parking attendant recently, I realized my Spanish is pretty darn good.

    I’m still working on my verbs, but that never stops people from understanding me. And hey, like you said, that’s what language is for anyway.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Keep up the good work :)

  • Peter D.

    Very well said! Thank you so much for posting this. I really respect the time and effort you put in to learning language. Being an exchange student and sitting in on English classes I have really realized how poorly I speak English, according to “their standards” as you wrote above. Being a perfectionist has definitely been my Achilles’ heel when it comes to learning Finnish. That being said, it often works to my personal benefit because I love learning ‘why’ something is said the way that it is. All in all, you are definitely right about getting rid of these elitist standards. I beat myself up too often for not reaching this textbook standard but all the native speakers whom with I speak are always so impressed with my fluency and I should take more moments to recognize this too.
    On another note, are your dreams multilingual? Or always in English? Or do you even remember your dreams?
    Thanks again for posting about your language hacking experiences.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Glad you’re starting to realize you really are beating yourself up way too much ;)
      I answered the “what language do you dream in” question here: http://www.fluentin3months.com/learner-faq/

  • Anonymous

    Well said, Benny. You are somehow seen as a threat to the established order by the powers that be and the conventional wisdom. Keep up the good work!

  • Andrea Austoni

    The word fluent is arbitrary and hardly definable. I prefer Couchsurfing’s Expert/Intermediate/Beginner.
    I meet a lot of people who can have conversations in foreign languages without awkward hesitation yet they make a boatload of mistakes. Their command of the language is fluent because they speak it everyday but their knowledge of it is approximate at best. This usually stems from not learning the language properly or seriously. Most people are content with understanding and being understood in most occasions and they don’t bother with anything above that. Most people are intellectually lazy.
    I think there’s more to languages but it’s a free world.

    You’re/your etc are not spelling mistakes. Apparently nobody has any idea what those words are anymore but then nodoby reads books or pays attention to serious stuff anymore. Jersey Shore, the Kardashians, cat videos, etc are the norm for most people.
    Such mistakes betray a lack of grammatical knowledge, which in the case of one’s native language is unforgivable and the no.1 obstacle to learning foreign languages. (For example, good luck explaining to a native speaker of English/Danish/Swedish/Norwegian/Italian/Spanish… what a genitive is. Surprise, they have a hard time learning Slavic languages.)
    This is not limited to English speakers. Functional illiteracy is a fact in most countries nowadays.

    Languages are the most beautiful collective artworks ever created by humans. I think they deserve respect and dedicated study, not the hackjob most people do.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      A language is a tool. A means to an end. It deserves as much respect as a toaster does.

      PEOPLE deserve respect. The tone of your comment doesn’t show this: “nobody reads books or pays attention to serious stuff anymore” is quite the generalisation to make.

      Nobody (a more accurate generalisation) talks about what the genitive is, nor should they. If you aren’t watching those cat videos then YOU’LL be the one who won’t be able to keep up with the conversation ;)

      This is the irony of ridiculously high standards; when you have them and shun what most people do as beneath you, then you won’t be able to talk to most people, which is presumably what the point of the language is in the first place.

      • Stephen Frug

         It deserves as much respect as a toaster does.

        Lives there a man with soul so dead

        He’s never to his toaster said:

        “You are my friend; I see in you

        An object sturdy, staunch, and true;

        A fellow mettlesome and trim;

        A brightness that the years can’t dim.”?

        Then let us praise the brave appliance

        In which we place this just reliance.

        And offer it with each fresh slice

        Such words of friendship and advice

        As “How are things with you tonight?”

        Or “Not too dark but not too light.”

        — Thomas M. Disch

    • http://www.facebook.com/enigmagico Fábio De’Rose

       You don’t have much fun in life, do you?

      • Andrea Austoni

        I can see how my comment might be misunderstood but assuming that I’m a boring, arrogant person who looks down on people is offensive.
        I hope we meet in person one day so I can show you how wrong you are.

  • Mary _

    What a great post!  Reading the list of standards I caught myself willing to do most of them. But now I realize you are so right, I can’t do some of them even in my native language. Actually the last days I was tormenting myself by comparing myself to other English learners. So your post made me to reconsider some goals. Thank you!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

       Glad to hear it :) High standards are important, but if you can’t do it in your native language, then it’s wasteful.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Gerard-Costello/100001221561351 Gerard Costello

    Good article Benny. I was thinking something similar recently. Like yourself I’m from Ireland (Belfast) and was thinking about people in the poor estates there. Basically poeple on the bottom wrung of the economic ladder living in sqaushed estates. When you listen to them speak they use an extremely narrow range of vocabulary, they might talk about football, work, people they know and stuff like that, but you will never hear complex words or academic words, they never discuss complex topics, and at an extreme level (chavs) the use of language becomes extremely narrow and almost entirely colloquial to the point that it would not qualify as standard English. If a French guy spoke an equivalent number of active words he would be thought of as someone who spoke poor English.
     This is a personal observation but it obviously applies in any country which has a large number of poorly educated people living in close proximity (council estates in England for example).
     I do disagree with you though when you say a language is a ‘tool’ and ‘deserves as much respect as a toaster’. A language is a way of looking at the world, it is a window into the soul of a culture and people.
     Anyway great article and best of luck with your Mandarin. I don’t think it matters if you attain heaps of approval or not with the end result of your three month journey, it’s what you achieve that matters, not what you don’t achieve.
     Also I read your article ‘reasons why I wouldn’t in the USA’ and thought you really hit the nail on the head. I was in the States for three months last year and can identify with everything you said. I worked in a summer camp for 2 of those months and got on very poorly with the (massively over sensitive) Americans working there. That said I did meet some truly wonderful people after I left but in terms of just telling it like it is and having a truly human conversation, it’s way easier with Europeans than with Americans.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Fair enough argument against my respect issue, but keep in mind that I don’t like learning languages, so I simply can’t agree with you. For me the beauty comes in USING them ;)
      And this aligns with your conclusion :D

  • William Crawford

    So true!  Since I’ve been learning other languages, I’ve been noticing how often I have trouble remembering words in English.  It’s actually a surprising amount, for me.  

    I really don’t understand people who try to learn a language without intending to use it.  I got into Japanese for certain books and comics that never came to English, but since then, I’ve found plenty of other uses for it.  Especially meeting people.

    The other day, one of my Skype partners made me try to stay in Japanese for 10 minutes.  In the end, it was 20 minutes, but I slipped into English a couple times for really basic words I just didn’t know.  I’m really thankful, because it’s given me the confidence to keep at it, where before I just couldn’t bring myself to *try*.

  • Anonymous

    Benny, you definitely picked up on something I have been
    thinking about a lot lately and it has truly helped me overcome several
    obstacles in my way.  First of all, you’re
    absolutely right about how pointless it is to focus on subjects you will never
    use in your own personal experiences. 
    This is why I moved away from language learning programs that offered to
    have me speaking Spanish in 10 days.  Yes,
    I would be speaking about making hotel reservations or asking how to find the
    beach in 10 days, but that didn’t take into account the fact that I had no use
    for these topics.  I study Spanish at
    home, hoping to converse with native Spanish speakers who live alongside me
    here in the U.S.  I won’t be travelling
    to any foreign countries to immerse myself, therefore knowing how to exchange
    dollars for pesos is irrelevant.  My
    great strides of late have been made by watching cartoons and movies dubbed in
    Spanish or reading popular books translated into Spanish.  Why? 
    Because they are speaking about topics that actually interest me and
    allow me to talk with my co-workers about silly things like “Dancing With the
    Stars,” or some other goofy television program.

    That being said, I truly admire your response to Andrea in
    the above comments.  While everyone is entitled
    to their own feelings on language learning, I think bashing those who do a “hack
    job” learning a language is simply missing the intention of the person in
    question.  If you want to learn a
    language for academic reasons, go for it, but don’t knock those who want to get
    out and enjoy life by being able to communicate, regardless of their “boatload
    of mistakes.”  I made several mistakes
    speaking in Spanish today, and yet I am proud to have made the attempt.  I don’t judge the intelligence of a person
    based solely on their grasp of the language, as I have had college professors who
    could barely speak English and yet they taught at a university.  Ok, enough rambling on my part…thanks for
    another post that is not afraid to attack the elitist snobs out there.  J

  • Jonny

    Benny, no tienes ni idea de que tan de acuerdo estoy contigo!!! Yo soy inglés y estudio las lenguas extranjera en la uni. Voy en 4to anio, y apenas volvi hace unos meses de un anio en Mexico que fue un requisito de mi carrera (ve cuando tengas chance, es un pais fenomenal). Tengo mucha confianza en mi nivel de espaniol, pero una vez que había venido de alla, ya empezaron a criticarme aqui en la uni porque mi espaniol es super informal – entonces ahora me toca escribir ensayos y aunque alcanzo redactarlos, me choca que haya esa actitud en el departamento universatario de que el espaniol académico es el más importante. De hecho, ni en el examen oral (que cuenta por 10% del anio) podremos hablar de manera formal, eso está medio chingado (perdon, ‘lo anterior constituye un factor considerablemente desagradable desde el punto de vista de un estudiante…) 

    Para mi, sigue importante tener hasta un cierto punto la capacidad de expresarse de manera mas elegante, digamos, en otro idioma, pero la importancia del aprendizaje del argot y de los modismos no deberia ser ignorada! 

    Suerte con tu chino, sigo con mucha atención tu blog, me impresionas. Espero aprender yo también el chino, será mi sexta lengua, pero la primera vez fuera de la seguridad de los idiomas europeos!! Jaja.


  • catlike typing

    I definitely agree that my (and others’) attitudes and expectations can be a serious obstacle in becoming confident in using a second language. I am a linguist and I also tend to expect too much too soon from myself sometimes, which definitely hampers progress and lowers morale. Though I do love learning about the technical side of how languages work and are used, and I always will, at the end of the day, when I’m actually trying to converse in Mandarin none of that stuff about syntax trees ever enters my mind.

    It’s all about priorities. For example, my most immediate language-learning goal is communication with my boyfriend’s mother, who speaks Mandarin and Fuzhou hua, but no English. If I can have the level of conversation with her that I have with my English-speaking friends and family, I’ll be happy. But my long term goals are a little more demanding. 

    Also, my motives for learning French are not the same as the ones I have for learning Chinese, and most language learners’ motives for learning multiple languages differ by language, anyhow.  Great post, you brought up a lot of very interesting points. 

  • Alyx

    Estoy de
    acuerdo contigo, Benny. Para mí una conversación sobre ropa de moda, deportes o
    lo que pasó en la más nueva telenovela me aburre de inmediato. No escucho y
    empiezo a pensar en otras cosas. Y lo hago en mi idioma materno también. Es
    igual. Pero, la verdad es que en América Latina los temas de conversación son más
    sobre chisme, drama, y la vida cotidiana que otras cosas. Si quiero tener una conversación
    más elevada sobre temas como política, la economía, el estado del mundo en
    general – temas de que me encanta discutir en mi idioma materno – tengo que
    buscar muy bien antes de que pueda encontrar una persona que quiere discutirlos.
    Pero, así es en inglés, mandarín, alemán, francés, y otros. Es poca la gente
    que realmente tiene interés en temas profundos. Mi consejo es busca los viejos.
    Por lo menos puedes discutir la diferencia entre la vida hoy en día y la vida
    hace 30 o 40 años. Eso me interesará mucho más y escucharé muy bien.

  • Victor Berrjod

    I agree with this. When you’re going to spend your time learning a language, you might as well learn the relevant parts of it, since you won’t be able to learn everything anyway. That said, there are some topics that are easier for me to talk about in Norwegian and others that are easier in English. That’s probably just a consequence of the Norwegians I know not having the same interests as the non-Norwegians I know.

  • http://www.pagef30.com mithridates

    Native speakers serve as a good benchmark for how fluency should be defined. Native speakers are fluent (i.e. flowing) in both output and input: they can say exactly what they want to say whenever they want even if they are lacking specialized vocabulary, and they are exceptionally good at passive understanding. That is, you could take a native speaker and put him in a classroom in a subject he knows very little about, and perhaps almost none of the vocabulary, but he would come out understanding the basics afterward with a bit of good concentration through context.

    Another good way to see if someone has attained native fluency in passive understanding: fantasy books. Especially ones with eccentric vocabulary and a lot of place names and demonyms. Unless the language has a good way to guess where proper nouns and names appear (English does, Japanese does with Katakana, German doesn’t so much as all nouns start with a capital and Portuguese etc. also aren’t that obvious because names of languages etc. are not capitalized) you’ll catch the student looking up a lot of proper names, thinking them to be actual words that must be learned, that a native speaker would recognize right away.

    Chinese and Japanese native speakers also have a great passive understanding of the written language, but put a pen in their hand and ask them to write characters X, Y and Z and you’ll get a lot of blank stares. Recognizing the written word is a characteristic of a native speaker; being able to pull any character out of a hat at a moment’s notice is the characteristic of a scholar.

  • Katharina

    Hi Benny,
    Thanks for this post! It made me feel better about the level I’m at in the two languages I know best – my native German, and English. I’ve got more realistic goals for the other languages I’m learning, but with these two that I’m supposed to be fluent in, I’m always worrying about whether I’m using the right vocabulary or grammar or punctuation or spelling, even in situations where such details aren’t really that important (such as on blogs like this, comments on youtube, etc.)

    I’ve always been good at languages and was fluent in English at 16, although I realise now that my standards were ridiculously high. My favourite English books included the Sherlock Holmes stories and Tolkien’s works, which use archaic language and complicated words. My mum is a professional translator, and we used the three-volume Webster’s dictionary for our games of Boggle and Scrabble. At 17, I took part in a session of the European Youth Parliament, where we discussed politics in English. After school, I studied English literature for a year before losing interest, and since then, I thought my grasp of the language has been getting worse because I only use it in “normal” situations and avoid the longer words that I used to love so much. After reading your views on fluency, I realised that I may actually be getting better!

    You said: “If anything I feel that this shows poor command of the language, because they aren’t appreciating context and social dynamics.”
    Looking back at my own experiences, that seems to be pretty accurate! A few years ago, English native speakers used to compliment me on my language skills while saying I sounded “posh” because of the received pronunciation I learned at school. Now I get hardly any comments on my English, probably because my pronunciation has become sloppy enough that my stilted accent isn’t distracting anyone from the conversation – so I suppose that’s a good sign, right?

    Thanks for giving me some new thoughts and for boosting my confidence with your post!

    And I’m very impressed with your Mandarin mission, although I don’t speak the language myself. Way to go!

    Best wishes from Austria!


  • Anonymous

    Hi, you’ve made a forceful argument that as learners we should feel free to determine for ourselves what model and standard of L2 fluency we are aiming for. You are happy with the position that  the fluency that matters is being able to do in another language what you can do in your native language. To me, this is fair, but to defend yourself against what you claim are the elitist claims and standards of those who promote a different range of language abilities as ‘fluent’, you start to load your argument in dodgy ways. For support you use some emotionally compelling oppositions that for me are unneeded and unnecessarily black & white – like normal vs academic, everyday life/slang vs intellectual pedants.

    I don’t see these as true distinctions, only exaggerations that let you amp up your “take language back” and “us normal folk” against “the elitists and academics” rhetoric to defend a sensible view that individuals should feel comfortable about taking control of their language fluency goals.

    That said, I for one am a strongly intellectual person in my interests and would love to be able to pursue those intellectual dimensions in the languages I’m learning, that is to discuss processes, structures and ideas in a careful and detailed way. So it makes sense that I include that aspect of fluency in my goals for these languages. But that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be able to understand and use slang; enjoy the language’s sense of humour or meet and get to know people in the language. But equally I know for certain that in some domains of fluency I be the same dunce/or child I am in English – for example, I won’t be learning how to program or design trellis code modulation systems (?), conduct science experiments or breed horses.

    I hope that feedback is of use.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      The problem is that some people are already telling me how “lazy” I am to dare to suggest that fluency requires the same standards as one has for their native language (and not the standards an institution or smart-arse like them decides), so I am definitely feel the “us normal folk” vs “the elitists” conflict :P Glad you can appreciate it as a sensible view though :)

  • Peter Sipes

    The last section was great. As someone with a sick love for dead languages, there’s a lot of academic overhead in the materials for learning these languages. What do I care about deictic iota when I’m trying to read something? (Well, maybe when I’m doing my linguist thing, but not when I’m just reading for fun.) It’s really frustrating. Some wonderful books are being chained up behind walls of academia. 

    Like you, philosophy isn’t my cup of tea either. I tried reading some of Plato and couldn’t do it. It was too boring. I’ll stick to history and drama in the future.

    And don’t run off those of us who primarily read (though I do appreciate the links). Your approach has a lot of value in my eyes.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Appreciate the kind words. I don’t happen to enjoy reading as much as many, but I’m glad those with very different goals to mine can find value in my words.

      Enjoy those dead languages! It’s not for me, but it would be arrogant of me to demand that you follow my rules of what’s interesting to learn, as suggested in this post. Keep up the good work!

  • Juba

    yaaaaaay!! hahaha

    Well, to be honest I am searching your site for actionable information that will help me become fluent, efficiently.  

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Actionable information: Stop searching through English language websites and do something with your target language now ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I agree 100% with your post, especially with the idea that “hip hop and African American English are just as artistic” and this idea of looking down on people as not using grammar, as being ridiculous.
    [I had to edit one sentence since I prefer people stay on topic in comments, and that one sentence was not productive.]

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    “Academics are normal people with a different approach to learning”. Agree entirely. My issue, and why I stand by claiming that it’s elitist, is when those people demand THEIR goals and standards upon other people.

    If someone demands that I should have a philosophical debate with them to prove my worth, then I’ll demand that they argue the pros and cons of the temporal prime directive of different Star Trek series, whether they watch the series or appreciate science fiction or not. It’s stupid to expect people to follow my rules of what’s interesting to talk about or what efficiently shows my level, if you can’t even do it in your mother tongue well.

    I agree with your last statement and hope that more people will accept that many of us do NOT have their goals. I have nothing against people who learn languages for topics I find uninteresting, and would never suggest they do otherwise if that’s what they enjoy discussing. More power to them.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    That’s precisely right. I’m glad you read the whole post through to see that it’s actually not that strange a point of view after all!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Yes, of course for professional interpretation you will indeed have to learn and use the language extremely differently to many other people :) The goals and approach should always reflect on what you ultimately want and need to do with the language!

    Glad you are applying some of my non-perfectionist mentalities to get speaking though :D A mixture of many different approaches for precisely what you want to achieve will yield the best results!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Yes, I’ve already been learning some basic 中藥 words and concepts as they’ve come up when I’ve least expected them! I’d add the addendum to my “use the language as you use your native one” in taking adaptations like this into account. This counts as my “chat with most people” criteria.

    In Spanish I know way more dance terminology from my tango and salsa lessons than I do in English.

    Agree with your revised definition, thanks!

  • http://www.facebook.com/stevenjc Steven Collins

    I found this article interesting as I have long pondered myself the same thing.  No doubt this varies considerably from person to person, but for me I consider myself to have reached “fluency” once I can:

    1. Understand the target language over the phone.
    2. Understand the target language in a noisy environment without too many difficulties.
    3.  Hear each word clearly when spoken at normal speed, even if some words are not known.

    I’m enjoying your website, keep up the good work. 


  • Annette

    I really like this post!  I completely agree that so many of us put too much pressure on ourselves when it comes to the target language.  We expect to be able to do things we don’t even do in our native language!

    This semester I’m taking a fourth year Italian class.  It’s the most challenging Italian class I’ve ever been in and I was panicking at first because I didn’t understand everything the professor was saying, but you want to know something funny?  I have the same professor for another class that is taught in English, and there are plenty of times when I don’t know what he’s talking about in that class, either!  haha :D  In any case, my Italian has been improving by leaps and bounds because I’m so stretched in this 400 level class.  It’s really quite exciting.

    Thanks again!

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      An excellent thought! You don’t understand the same person in English all the time, so what’s to fear about not understanding everything he says in another language ;)

  • Hannah Pasternak


    I really enjoyed your post, and there’s a lot of food for thought here.

    If you have a chance, my question is as follows:  In my native language (English) I DO talk about philosophy and theology — all the time! My vocabulary is fairly wide-ranging, and I don’t shy away from “five dollar words” when I feel that they’re appropriate.  I wrote a thesis on philosophy, I have a fairly good grasp on American English grammar (although I don’t always take the time to speak correctly and although I do sometimes get tripped up when spelling), I can participate in “discussion[s] any native speaker could have”, I can read at a very high level. In other words: I DO speak English  fluently or nearly so, by your list. 

    It is precisely for that reason that I refuse to call myself fluent in any other language, including one that I speak pretty well.

    Is it unfair of me to refuse the ‘title’ of fluency in my second language because my English is so high? To insist that, because I cannot match my own standards yet, I am not fluent? Or is this arrogance?

    Thanks for taking the time to let me know your thoughts!

    • Katharina

       Hi Hannah,
      I hope Benny gets around to answering your questions, because you raise some interesting points, and I’d love to hear what he thinks about them.

      However, in the meantime, here are my two cents’ worth:
      I think that “fluency” really depends on what you plan to do in your target language. You wrote in your comment that you wrote a thesis on philosophy, so I presume you studied the subject at university level. When using your target language, will you want to discuss philosophy at the same level, or will you be content with an exchange of general ideas? For example, let’s say you’re studying Japanese and are planning to travel to Japan to visit cultural heritage sites, temples and museums. What level of Japanese would you need in this situation? When talking to a native, would you rather try to exchange some basic ideas of your respective religions and cultures, or do you want to plunge into a deep philosophical debate? Or would it be enough if you could effortlessly understand the tour guide in a museum and exchange small talk with a person you’ve met on a train?

      Another thing to consider when assessing your language skills might be to ask a native speaker of your target language what they think of your level. In a normal conversation, you wouldn’t go over the list of criteria for fluency that both you and Benny quoted – rather, you’d talk about a variety of subjects that may or may not be on the list, and the other person would judge your fluency based on the overall impression they got through the conversation. Someone who used difficult words but spoke in a stilted fashion might not be considered as fluent as someone who used simpler words but could express themselves more naturally.

      On the whole, I think your level of fluency should be judged by a combination of your own goals and how native speakers would rate your skills. (Depending on the situation, their criteria may be way below what you’re asking of yourself!)

      Some of my own criteria for fluency include:
      – Following a conversation despite background noise
      – Understanding humor (including puns and sarcasm)
      – Understanding books and movies in the target language
      – Sufficient vocabulary to talk about subjects that are important to me
      – The ability to guess unknown words through context and recognising the meanings of syllables

      I haven’t memorised the criteria for the A1, B2 etc scale of learning, so my own list may include a mixture of several of those levels. All I know is that if I achieved all the things on my list, I’m pretty satisfied with myself. :)

      Best wishes


      • Hannah Pasternak

        Thanks so much for your thoughts! You brought up something that I hadn’t ever considered before: it might be that my standards for “fluency” in one language could be  *different* than my standards for another language.

        In Language #2, I want to be able to talk philosophy and feelings and puns and everything! I want mother-language proficiency. But in Language #3…. I would be totally happy to just understand the tour guide, and ask him my questions about what I experienced.  I don’t feel the need to understand every joke, or even to read at a really high level. 

        And THAT’S OK.  I don’t know what the A,B, C etc scales of fluency mark out either, but I wanted to thank you for permission to use the word fluency differently. 

        You’ve given me much to think about….

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      If those are the standards you require for fluency, then you’ve got to work towards them! As I said at the end of the post, this isn’t an attack on “5 dollar words” and discussing philosophy per se, but applying other people’s standards to you when it’s not relevant.

      So for me to speak fluently, I have to be comfortable to talk about electronics and Star Trek episodes, but it would be arrogant of me to demand such a thing of other learners who can’t do that in their native tongue.

      In that sense I agree with you on not assigning yourself a fluent status yet, since such discussions are clearly an important aspect of your life! Keep at it! :) Try to have a philosophical discussion sooner rather than later though; even if you can’t officially call yourself fluent, that’s no reason to shy away from opportunities to improve in an area you clearly would find important!

      • Hannah Pasternak

        I definitely agree with you about the arrogance of applying my standards to other people… and in a weird way, I’m pleased that you agree that I’m not fluent. It only makes me want to work harder to become so.

        And I also completely agree about having “deeper” conversations now– how will I learn to do it, if I don’t just dive in and try?

        Thanks for you thoughts,

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    I find your comment represents this elitist and arrogant view I’m trying to fight, very well.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Oh good grief. Another “Chinese is hard” statement. Perish the thought a blog post would go by without one!

    • guillermok

      Hello, sorry for replying a message from 2 years ago, and for the extension.

      My native language is Spanish, and I teach at the university in Mandarin. That said, I might add that I am not really fluent in Mandarin. Sometimes I have to spend hours of preparation for every class or talk (unless I know the topic really well.) Then, I stand in front of my 96 students and commit all the possible mistakes that you can imagine, in grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation. I teach philosophy and humanities, and I love it. My favorite post of your blog is the one on perfectionist-paralysis, it helped me very much.

      It is true that the question “can you do what you do in your own language” is useful, and it is great to do what one likes (star trek, comics, or whatever) in the new language, instead of adding academic content into every phrase. But I think Jiamin has a point, and I feel your reply a little bit simplistic, or just a “reaction”:
      Chinese appreciate very much, a lot indeed, when they see that one cares about their culture, and not only about their language. I haven’t seen this happening with English speakers.
      If you add cultural or historical references from their culture, you are talking to their hearts, and you are already saying a lot. It is not about elitism, it is about them. It is not about “me” learning a language, it is about them.
      And, yes, being fluent in Chinese implies knowing about their wars and their books, their traditions and their stories, because their language lives out of these traditions.
      Being fluent in Mandarin means being able to describe Chinese characters ONLY with words, not drawing them in the air.
      Being fluent in Chinese requires to know that written language is different from spoken language, not just for the Philosophical Journals, but for the most basic signs in the streets and in the shops (not to say the tv news!)
      Being fluent in Chinese (and other languages) is using “their” way of being polite, not our own “[your country]” way of being polite. I have committed serious mistakes in this area offending people without the slightest intention.
      So, perhaps It is not only about “saying what you can say” in your own language, it is also about “treating others as you would treat them in your own place”. This is the meaning of being fluent, in Chinese or in other languages, and maybe this is part of what she (or he) calls “imperialism.”
      Besides this small detail, I think your post is very good.

      Regarding the “Chinese is hard” statement, Mandarin is not harder, it just takes a lot of time, much more time than other languages I have studied.

      Best regards and good luck with everything!

      • guillermok

        “Actionable information: Stop searching through English language websites and do something with your target language now ;)”
        It is for this kind of phrases that I love this website!

  • van le


    I must say that after reading your guess post in Zenhabits, I was coming to this site and start reading. I am really into your blog. I have found some really excellent articles here, and it helps me a lot. Not like other forums or guides,… what they say are just bullshit and make me sick! Yours are the most down-to-earth and comfortable.

    I have got a lot to ask you and the other readers here for advices. But I’ll do it later, now I am gonna just tell you about my dilemma.

    Sometimes thinking about being good at a foreign language is great, but no longer after listening to your friends who is living abroad. They have a lot of advantages when I have nothing. (well, not really “nothing”, must be “nothing to them”). I know this is not the time for cursing the education or my English teacher, but they are extremely damnable. I know, to be good at learning language, I can not depend on those disgusting methods. But it….still effects me, ruins my mood.

    I have had a conversation (through xat, if you do not know about it, xat is a site which includes a lot of chatrooms around the world, people can connect without even logging in, no need to have a nickname or registering). I ve found many ppl who can “speak” (chat~ writing) english in the most natural way that I can ever imagine. But….except some of my favorite members, they are either acting silly or waiting to insult or mock someone who can not speak as well as them. I am so discouraged…when I ve written something wrong. I know that let ppl correct your mistakes is a must. but I….hate it indeed!!! I know this sounds so ridiculous…but still stress…

    And whenever I am sitting with my laptop, imitate the singers or the actors’s conversation. (like karaoke with the movie which has subtitles). My favorite way of learning english in the past is listening to music and singing a long, try to sound exactly like that singer until my accent goes perfect.

    But I don’t know what do you english speaker would express a sentence. I feel like every line i wrote everything i said is just unnatural and weird., and “too foreign”, “too vietnamese”. I can not make things logic and understandable for me to remember. Like which tense to use at this case, that case. And I still write “in the past” maybe you english speaker never say such a thing. And so many more….
    And when an american born vietnamese told me about how terrible my grammar is….i was really broken. well, i can say that i dont care, what i need to do is keep practicing. and compare to him, a person who has never been somewhere that not my hometown – like me, just self-study (and combine the sucky education i receive at school) …i can be proud of what i did, etc.. But …still…frustrated…i can not say that to myself…

    any advices? :d Thank you for reading my post and giving my advices and encouraging me. :x

    vân lê

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    Best of luck with your students! Glad to see you taking inspiration from my articles to help them :)

  • Andreas Moser

    I am one of these intellectuals unfortunately. I am so proud to have mastered English as a second language to a degree that I can even take one (a degree, ha, notice the wordplay?) in English. I can quickly pick up a few words in another language, but I can’t talk about representative democracy or the usefulness of economic sanctions and that disappoints me. I am not satisfied talking about the weather or food or cats, not even in my native German. A dilemma.

  • http://strategyfocussuccess.com/ William Peregoy

    I’m reading the book Babel No More right now… where he tries to define stuff just like this in the book. Of course, the talks to lots of polyglots and what he calls “hyper-polyglots” (people who know 11 or more languages), and he points out early that hyper-polyglots definition for knowing a language differs a lot more than someone who is monolingual… and even those who are bilingual.

    So, basically…. the ones with the ridiculous fluency tests are almost always going to the monolinguals – who have never actually learned a language. And occasionally the bilinguals who are aiming for things like “native-like accent pronunciation” in their 2nd language. But, you just can’t focus, or dwell, on things like that if you want to be a polyglot. You’d drive yourself crazy. If you want to be a polyglot – you have think like Benny and learn what is important to you in the language.

  • http://www.facebook.com/stormtrooper36 John Elkhoury

    Hey Benny, if you’re going to quote my blog (reference removed; obvious plea for traffic) on your post, you might as well give me credit for it. My standards may be considered Elitist because you honestly lower the definition of fluency. I’ve spoken to many linguists in academia and fluency within 3 months is very laughable when considering the average person (and not the super polyglot with a blog). The reason is because the definition of “fluency” is so subjective. Your’s is clearly more lenient than mine (maybe that’s why you’re fluent in so many languages?)…

    If you can’t write something down, then that means you don’t really understand the material in every form. If you can’t understand it in reading, that also means the same exact thing. It helps your brain to take all of these inputs and put it together (Bonjour = hello. Oh! Look at how it’s spelt… that may help me pronounce the word Bon). Face to face interactions are extremely important, and that’s what most people want to actually achieve. Great. I never said the point of learning French is to have fancy mumbo jumbo vocabulary and be a pompous prick to impress people. I simply explained that you should know certain tenses and be able to speak it easily. SURE, everybody hesitates, and makes mistakes, that’s given. But the way you and I speak English, it’s effortlessly, you don’t have to spend 2 minutes looking up words to hold a simple conversation with me. Spell checking and proofreading is allowed…

    If you actually spent more time in France, you’d realize that people over there LOVE to debate. Debating is a sport for French people, something they do on their free time is discussing issues and proving why their point is better than yours. To not be able to participate in EVERYDAY interactions like these in French would mean you’re missing out on an aspect of French culture.

    Good Day.

    • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

      Sorry, who are you? I searched for your blog, found a post on fluency, and the date on the first comment was several months after I wrote this post. I think you are doing nothing but looking for people to search for your post to create fake controversy.

      Those “linguists in academia” you have talked to clearly have no experience in language learning if they make such a broad dismissal. Anyone with the most minimal experience in language acquisition would already agree that learning a very similar language to a very high level would be achievable no problem in 3 months, regardless of your definition. To dismiss the idea of fluency in 3 months so broadly also includes dismissing that obvious fact. The only controversial thing about my stance is that it’s also possible for a wider range of languages.

      Otherwise the rest of your comment is just the usual elitist rubbish that discourages language learners. I debate all the time in French, just not on topics I don’t find interesting, as I wouldn’t be able to debate them in my native language either.

      • http://www.facebook.com/stormtrooper36 John Elkhoury

        Wow, I applaud your quick response time!

        By telling language learners that their skills require time, you actually get them into the right mindset (years). By telling language learners they’ll be fluent in 3 months and then they aren’t… you do more harm. You discourage people because they thought they could do it so easily.. and they didn’t. Don’t try to tell me how important motivation is towards language learning, I’ve already done first hand research on the topic here in academia. Your blog is both inspiring and quite harmful Benny. Did you come out of the womb speaking English in 3 months? No, you took 5 to 7 years, and children get a lot more linguistic input than adults do.

        On the topic of “debates”… I mean everyday topics. Have you ever discussed why teachers aren’t paid more? Why there is so much war? Whether or not god exists in English? Even more stupid topics like what to eat for lunch are considered “debates”. These are the types of topics I was referring to as “debating”. It’s not the fancy “put on a tie” and read from a script ceremony. My cousin, his friends, and I actually would sit down for hours at a time and just talk about everything and anything..

        Fluency is subjective, there is no way around this. What you call “elitist”, I call “REALISTIC”. To ameliorate this problem is by using proficiency guidelines and steps to see how one person ranks against another. I appreciate that you’re inspiring language learners worldwide. I assure you, I’m not trying to increase any traffic to my blog. I just wanted to bring this to your attention.

        • http://www.facebook.com/stormtrooper36 John Elkhoury

          Oh BTW. My blog post was written on 8/24/11. You are incorrect, my post was created before this.

          • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

            OK, well then what exactly am I “quoting”. You just saw the sense of your post in mine, or the same phrase by pure coincidence. Whenever I quote someone I do cite them. I have honestly never ever seen your blog before. I was inspired to write this post by many discussions I’ve had with elitists from around the world.

            I don’t know why there is so much war, and I’m afraid I can’t offer any answer to why teachers should get paid more other than “they should”, as I don’t have enough information on these topics. Not everyone has these kinds of discussions. I could offer my philosophical reasons for being an atheist though, and I have had that discussion in many languages. I don’t care what your cousins discuss, I simply don’t discuss those particular topics and I doubt every French person who lives in the country does on a daily basis. They debate or discuss things important to them.

            As I said, my standard is very simple: Can I do it in my mother tongue?

            If you want to be “realistic” then be realistic and stop using strawman arguments that anything but your definition is “putting on a tie and reading a script from memory”. This is precisely the problem I have with such arrogant restrictive views.

            It didn’t take me 5-7 years to learn English. It took me that long to learn how to communicate in general. Taking on your second language you have so much work done, such as how to create the majority of sounds we have in common, read body language and facial expressions. With all your life in academia, making such a ridiculous comparison that first and second language acquisition are so similar that it would take as long to do one as the other, is sloppy and incredibly unscientific.

            Those poorly thought ideas, coming from linguists with credentials that people will listen to, are much more harmful to the public and their confidence than what some blogger (who actually has first hand experience) says.

            I can see you like debating, but I am not interested in talking in circles about this topic. I mainly replied to set the record straight about your false accusation that I’ve copied from your low traffic site.

          • http://www.facebook.com/stormtrooper36 John Elkhoury

            I agree with you, of course there are many factors to SLA. To say it’s the same as your first language is incorrect, it’s simply something to make you look at what a process it all was.
            Context is a huge factor as well as using the languages which you already know to give you hints and help you along the way. Limiting exposure to only the target language while quality of instruction, self-monitoring, motivation, environmental anxiety all play their roles.

            Thanks for setting the record straight, I can now sleep in peace. Have fun with your future endeavors.

        • http://twitter.com/JDWalkerWriter Jennifer Walker

          I’m sorry John, but I don’t agree with: “Did you come out of the womb speaking English in 3 months? No, you took 5
          to 7 years, and children get a lot more linguistic input than adults

          Don’t confuse learning to communicate as a whole rather than learning a language. I didn’t speak until I was 5, which was quite late, but when I moved to Hungary when I was 7 and put into a school where no one spoke English I was fluent in Hungarian in 3 months. Perhaps what counts as fluency for a child is different to what counts as an adult, but even so I don’t agree with your initial statement.

          The same thing happened when I moved to Spain at 21 in a matter of months. My supervisor told me my PhD would be in English, but I was living with Spaniards who couldn’t speak English and they made me do courses in experimental Nuclear Physics in Spanish. Within three months I could hold conversations and discuss scientific topics.

          I agree, traditional language learning will require years, but when you’re immersed with no choice but to communicate in that language, then I agree it’s possible to attain a level of fluency in months.

          • http://www.facebook.com/stormtrooper36 John Elkhoury

            Hey Jennifer,

            I’m not sure I know anyone who refutes the amazing powers of language immersion (living in the an area where the target language is spoken while not using your native tongue). I have even written about how helpful immersion is to students who study abroad (I studied abroad 2 months in France and avoided English as though it was the plague). So in an immersion context, YES somebody can become fluent in months.

            The problem is that immersion is not easily feasible for the average 30-year old smuck who has a job, family, house, and kids in the States. Benny probably has a post somewhere on how you can stop making excuses about immersing yourself in the language. Yes, “traditional language learning” (classroom environment, not in target language area), was what I was discussing in terms of “years”. It seems we have come to an agreement about that.

          • http://twitter.com/JDWalkerWriter Jennifer Walker

            I haven’t read every single post here, but I think Benny’s technique is precisely about immersion language learning, perhaps I’m mistaken though. Traditional language learning can take years, perhaps never (I learned German for 6 years at school and never really got beyond the basics, unlike coming to Spain with very little Spanish to fluency in months), but that’s not what he advocates. I do agree that it would be hard to do that from your home country though, but it is possible if you’re given the chance to do it.

  • http://twitter.com/Brookelorren Brooke Lorren

    Great post. I recall reading a post where someone was annoyed at how some people could say that they spoke a language when they couldn’t, and perhaps this has led to some overly high standards for myself. My goals with a language, I suppose, would be to understand others and be able to reply in ordinary situations, read about politics and world events in the target language, and maybe read a book or a magazine. I had been thinking that I can’t really say that I speak the language until I can pick up a book and read it and have excellent grammar. While I do want to be able to read newspapers and magazines in particular, if I can hold an ordinary conversation on everyday topics and read with a little help from Google, then perhaps that’s the point where I should say that I speak the language; it will be usable for the things that I want it for.

  • Jon Whitmer

    Languages change because of a lot more reasons than your class-driven steretoype. My interest in studying linguistics (and I do have an MA in it) was to be able to discover the workings of other languages. I studied French, Hebrew, and koiné Greek in college because the thrill of discovery motivated me and the practice of translation was just plain fun. The form of Greek I studied was the standard form used by the common man (your “uneducated”) at the time of Christ, and became the standard for New Testament manuscripts for centuries, manuscripts copied and studied by the most educated people of that era. As for ebonics, while it definitely is not a substitute for “standard American English”, it would be if that demographic was in the majority. And then it would be the norm and grammars would be written for it. Languages change because societies and their languages mix and separate and remix over time. That’s why modern English has lost much of its germanic morphology. Language is not static but adaptive.

  • Karl Reichenbach

    In response from the other blog post:

    This probably all comes down to semantics. I just don’t think you should qualify yourself so easily as fluent. You describe getting by okay as fluent.

    I’ve responsed point by point to the bullet points in your post. Most of them had you claiming that because you can’t do certain things in English as an excuse for being incapable to do them on a larger level in the foreign language. But the reason you were unable to do so in your native language is not due to lack of proficiency, it’s just due to your own mental capacities or lack of specified knowledge that is not different from many other native speakers. But these types of situations would be vastly most numerous if you tried to use a language you had only been learning for a few months, and all of these would be due to lack of language proficiency. Even relatively uncultured natives of the foreign language would far surpass you in their ease of communication, and this if you were an intellectually active person. For instance, go watch like Jean de Florette in French without subtitles or something. Those Provencal farmers aren’t sitting around discussing philospophy either, but after 3 months of French you would be lost in the rapidity of fluent native communication. Again, no French native would have trouble understanding the kind of language used in a film like this, but someone only learning for 3 months would be pretty lost in most of it.

    Point by point:

    – Of course, all native speakers hesitate. But those hesitations happen because we are not sure what we want to express, or at least the concepts we are trying to express are so nuanced that we have trouble even in our native language. But someone with only a few months worth of experience in a language will have major hesitations way more frequently and frequently won’t be able to fully recover and will just have to settle with expressing themselves in a less full manner.

    – Having a discussion of philosophy is something only someone with exposure to that subject can do, which is not a pre-requisite to being a typical fluent speaker.

    – Again, the complex level of English you are talking about here is not what I am talking about. The way you and I are writing right now is the level of complexity of a native speaker. Someone with 3 months experience would never be able to write like this without needing to frequently pause and either A consult a dictionary or B settle with something other than what they were originally going to write.

    – Of course there are cultural and linguistic misunderstandings even between native English speakers. They are way less frequent than those that will occur between a native and a foreigner.

    – Of course there are thousands of words a native speaker won’t know of their own language. However, there is a certain pool of a good few thousand (as in, around twenty) that just about every native will know and be able to use rapidly and understand rapidly. If you are a learner and you don’t know these words, you will be frequently left confused and you’ll have to ask them to re-explain themselves. Is there anything wrong with that if that’s what you’re happy with? No, of course not. Should you call that fluent? I don’t think so.

    – The difference between you’re and your are things that most people should know, but if you don’t know it only means you have a lousy conscious understanding of your native language. But that’s not what really matters, what really matters is your subconcious ability, because language is just the interface through which are thoughts are expressed. To speak fluently you should be able to use it as the framework of your thoughts themselves, rather than the thing you try to translate your thoughts into. You don’t need to consciously know the difference between its and it’s to do the former.

    – Again, that’s not an issue due to language proficiency, that’s an issue with your own intellectual faculties.

  • Sarah Warren

    A + post *nods*

  • David Waters

    Great article!

    Only comment would be, for a person who does like to have deep conversations or has vast interests (say, from sports, philosophy, music, science, etc.) learning a new language can occasionally be quite frustrating, because the vocabulary field one enjoys in the native tongue is not present in the other one. I’m not so sure this would be considered being ‘intellectual’ or even ‘elitist,’ but simply a difficulty for someone who likes to talk about a lot of things and be witty.

    • guillermok

      …for a person who does like to have deep conversations… or a person that has to preach and teach… can occasionally be quite frustrating.

  • Lulu05

    I *am* academic in my first language and I *would* love to have a complex discussion about philosophy in my first or second language. (I only have two… But I’m young…) On the other hand, I struggle to integrate with people using slang and dialect in both – where I come from there’s a really strong dialect for casual/informal conversations that was pretty much beaten out of me as a kid – so I never use it and don’t really remember how! And in French I just don’t speak to anyone who uses slang, really. I’m having to learn argot/slang in order to have a certain level of ability/flexibility, and I find it really difficult, because the context in which I’d use it are not ones I’d run across in normal life! I’m pretty jealous of the other language learners I speak to in France, who fit in with the locals and chat and joke – I always feel like I’m speaking from a book – even though most of my French is learned from talking to people.

    SO, I don’t know. I don’t think one way is *better* than the other, though it might be easier to fit in if you learn the argot. But everyone has different challenges. That’s one of mine and with enough time I know I’ll overcome it, and be able to understand slang and use appropriate language – even if I always sound a bit posh!

    Also, as for the comments that you sound B1 level when not using complex language… How is that possible? I was at B1 level in French not long ago, and I really couldn’t think in it. I knew the grammar and vocab, but I spent a lot of time translating, hesitating etc etc. There’s nothing wrong with that… But regardless of the level of language, at C2, you’ll certainly be using B1 level vocab in a much more fluent manner than if you were actually B1 level! It sounds like a silly criticism to me…

    (Oops, and I’ve been reading through old posts… Sorry, I see now that this one’s pretty ancient!)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny Lewis

    “I like to have in-depth conversations with people” – me too. Hopefully you don’t think that the point of the post is to say otherwise? But I like to have in-depth conversations about things that academics may not like. Philosophy and politics and the like are NOT the only deep conversations one can have of course ;)

    I think you’re exaggerating a bit too much when you say that “I’ve got Chinese conversation down” with those phrases and that it’s 90% of what people talk about. This is not a fair judgement to make, even if you HAVE lived here for a long time. I feel like I can relate to the kind of people that you may be criticising much more than I can to academics, and I can have some fantastic deep conversations with them BECAUSE of this. To be honest I think your problem is not being able to relate to them, more than it is that they use too simple language.

    Looking forward to chatting with you next week!