What is fluency? What does it mean to be fluent in a language?
Believe it or not, this may be the most important question you ask yourself, if your goal is to speak another language.
Why is this?
Because the way you understand fluency could set you up for failure, and mean you never reach your language goals.
Or it could mean you become fluent in multiple languages in just a few years.
Let’s take a look at why that is…
What Does it Mean to be Fluent in Another Language?
I consider myself fluent in 7 different languages, but I have experimented with many others over the years. Some I learnt in order to make the most of my travels – others were for a challenge or simply, fun!
To me, fluency is being able to function in social situations in my target language, as I would with my native language.
That’s why I aim for around a 90-95% level of perfection. In simple terms, this means being confident in using around 2,000 words, together with a broader base of vocabulary that I’m less confident in using, but that I can understand in context. I have gone way beyond this stage in some of my languages, but I wanted to be clear on what I count as fluency.
Even when I’ve reached fluency as I understand it, I know I’m going to make mistakes. I am human, after all! As long as I have reached the level where I am able to get my point across, so that whoever I am conversing with understands what I am trying to communicate, I know I am almost, if not completely fluent in that language.
So if fluency is a relatively simple goal, why do so many people fail to reach even this level in a language?
Partly it’s due to study methods. Many language learners seem to expect that if they spend enough time studying textbooks or watching foreign films, they’ll somehow magically become fluent in their target language. I’m sorry, but this is not how it works.
How to Make Sure You Never Reach Fluency
Fluency is a “chicken and egg” scenario. If you wait until you’re fluent before you speak a language, you’ll never be fluent.
That’s why I advocate speaking from day one.
I struggle to understand why so many people wait until the ‘perfect moment’ to start speaking a language. So many language learners seem to believe they can clock hours and hours of textbook study, then one day open their mouths and be able to have complex conversations about life, the universe and everything.
Being an engineer, I always fancied myself as a mathematician, rather than as a writer. When I first started Fluent in 3 Months (Fi3M), I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I was doing. I’d publish long blog posts – about my travels as well as my language-learning missions. Some of my posts had grammatical errors or mistakes, as I was the only one proofreading them. These days, there are guides all over the Internet on how to write blog posts, or draw in an audience. Well, I didn’t use many photographs and I was very fond of emoticons (and I still am! :P).
I wasn’t perfect (I’m still not), and I didn’t let this bother me.
Perfection was never the goal for me. With multiple languages already under my belt, I wanted to share what I had learned, how I learned it, and, most of all, I wanted to tell stories.
I kept publishing far from perfect blog posts, and over the years, I built up a community and a business around Fi3M. I wrote language guides, language learning courses and even became a published author!
Life isn’t perfect. If you’re going to sit around, waiting for an opportune moment to start doing all the things you want to do in life, you’ll find you have very little chance of achieving, well – anything!
Imagine if I’d waited for that “perfect” moment to start up a blog. If I’d thought my articles weren’t “good” enough to post online. If I’d effectively, been paralysed by a quest for perfectionism.
I think my life would have turned out very differently.
There are people who walk through life, waiting for the right time to do whatever it is they wish to achieve. This isn’t limited to learning a language. Maybe they want to write a book, do a woodworking course or backpack around the world. They convince themselves that they don’t have the time, means or money to do whatever it is they wish to do. And they leave it at that.
This is crazy, if you ask me! Our lives on this planet are so inconceivably short and people so often prioritise the wrong things. If you’re incredibly lucky, your life will stretch to a length of 70+ years – imagine all the things you can learn in that time, if you put your mind to it.
Yet, this is a topic for a whole other post.
The point is that the road to fluency is one that will always be riddled with mistakes. Mistakes are the only way to become a better learner and more confident speaker.
Why It’s GOOD to Make Mistakes
Yes, you read right. Mistakes are necessary, if you want to became fluent in your target language. Here’s why:
Mistakes Work Wonders for Your Self Confidence
Many people are terrified to speak their target language. My partner Lauren was so nervous before her first Esperanto conversation that she hoped for a power outage so it would be cancelled.
Feeling fear is normal.
When you first start speaking a new language, you’re going to be at a very basic level. Your vocabulary knowledge will be limited. You’ll probably speak slowly. You’ll hesitate. And you’ll feel a bit silly.
That’s totally okay.
Yes, none of us want others to think of us as stupid. But speaking another language is a smart decision, not a stupid one.
In any case, how exactly will people think you’re stupid? Many folk (at least in the English speaking world) consider those who can speak multiple languages to be vastly intelligent (though this isn’t true). I imagine in most cases, if you’re trying to learn a new language and make a mistake, people won’t mock you or call you names. In fact, I’ve found people to be largely helpful – correcting your mistakes for you with kindness and even complimenting you.
The more mistakes you make, the more confident you’ll become in your abilities.
In fact, it’s only by making mistakes that your fear of mistakes will begin to melt away.
Embrace your mistakes, starting today. You’ll never look back.
Mistakes Help You Learn Faster
I knew of someone who was learning German and was in conversation with a native speaker. In this conversation, she accidentally used the work lecken. What she meant to say was lächeln, which translates to “smile”, but she’d accidentally said: “lick”. The native speaker burst out laughing and was quick to correct her mistake for her, causing her too much merriment in the process.
Yes, people might laugh at your mistakes. But that doesn’t have to be painful.
Needless to say – she won’t be forgetting the German word for “smile” anytime soon!
Mistakes Help You Connect With People
When you’re at school, mistakes can directly affect you, usually by lowering your mark on an assessment or exam.
But what about in life?
Messing up when you’re speaking a new language isn’t going to have all that much impact on your life. At the worst, you might feel a little bit silly or have some difficulty getting your point across to whoever you’re talking to. The key factor is – you’re communicating. This is what you should be focusing on.
How to Stop Being a Perfectionist Start Speaking From Day One
We’ve established that you can’t just sit at a desk, or on your couch, somehow magically absorbing information and expect that to get you anywhere. The best way to learn a language is by taking action. Open up your mouth and start speaking!
Remember this: communication in any language is riddled with mistakes. Even your native language. English is my native tongue – yet it is not my favourite language to converse in, by any means! I sometimes stumble over pronunciations and use ‘ums’ and ‘ahs’ as I find the correct way to phrase my thoughts. This is coming from someone who speaks publicly for a living!
You might be thinking this is all very well and good Benny, but how exactly can I start speaking right now?
Set Yourself Mini-Missions
Mini-missions have been the key factor in my language learning. As a traveller, I often only had a few months in each city I lived in to learn the language, which helped put the pressure on. As my skills progressed, I started learning languages before I visited certain countries. I found this method helped me greatly when it came to culturally immersing myself in wherever I was in the world at that time.
My advice would be to do the same. Give yourself a tangible timeframe for achieving fluency, then set mini-missions from there.
- Spend a day talking entirely in your target language.
- Cook a new recipe from scratch, using a recipe in your target language.
- Plan a trip to a place where your target language is the native language
Set yourself a mini-mission now. What will you achieve in the next three months?
Sign Up for italki
One of my favourite resources for language learning is italki, a website that connects language learners with language teachers.
Once you’ve found a teacher, you hook up with them on Skype. That means you can get practice with a native speaker no matter where you are in the world.
It’s worth trying out several different teachers, until you find one who is a good match for your personality and language goals.
Meet Up With Other Language Learners in Your Area
Get out of the house and mingle! If you’re not living in the country where your target language is spoken, look for a language group in your area on Meetup.
Make a Bet
If you really want to put the heat on, wager a bet with yourself. Publicly announce that you’ll donate a hundred dollars/euro/pounds to a political party or cause that you despise, if you fail to start speaking immediately. That should light a fire under your belly!
Alternatively, give some cash to someone you trust, such as a family member, spouse or close friend. Tell them if you have failed to have a conversation in your target language by the end of the day, they can keep the money. There’s no end to the ways you can motivate or torture yourself.
Start Speaking Today – It’s Up to You
I hope you understand now why the pursuit of “perfect” fluency is a meaningless goal that really does more harm than good. Figure out what fluency means to you, contrive a method of achieving your goal and above all, don’t let fear overpower you.
Get out there and start communicating. You’ll never look back, I can assure you of that.
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.