Some Thoughts on Language “Fluency”

Un camino lindo en Mindo (Ecuador)

“So how many languages do you speak?”

It’s a question I get quite often, and it’s one that deserves a lot more nuance than a one-word response.

Having grown up as a monolingual in a household of multiple languages, I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of multilingualism, to speak two, three, or even an outrageous twenty like those charismatic YouTube hyperpolyglots.

I have to confess though— after twelve foreign languages attempted and five years of English teaching experience— I’m still learning new things about my native language each day. Anyone who’s had a real conversation with me knows my default mode of verbal expression: the stream-of-consciousness word vomit method.  I fumble over my words in disorganized ways, relying on others to connect the dots for whatever point I think I’m trying to make. And whenever I have to listen to recordings of my own public speeches, I cringe when I’m the one who has to transcribe it later on.

So when I speak in other languages, I sometimes wonder why people don’t understand me: is it because of my lack of oral proficiency, or because I’m just being awkward? Or is there something more to fluency than just having good social skills in a different language?

I’ve realized that “fluency” is often widely defined and somewhat arbitrary. I’m sure we can think of someone who marks themselves as fluent on their LinkedIn after four years of high school Spanish. And on the other end of the spectrum, we might also know those people who constantly apologize for their “bad English”, yet can hold conversations on everything from pop culture to international politics.

Even seasoned interpreters are / quick to recognize their limitations in their foreign language(s). This is a relief to someone like myself who dreams of one day becoming a professional conference interpreter. Even at the UN— which is arguably the most prestigious workplace for language professionals in the world— there are very few staff members who would consider themselves “double A,” or who have a truly equal, native-level command of two distinct languages.

So whenever people ask me if I’m fluent in X language, or how many languages I speak, I often hesitate to respond. Would you like me to give you my certified test score? Recite a poem? Translate a legal document? Even if I provided all these things, I still couldn’t tell the whole story.

The Disney World Sign que está faltando um “B”, Orlando

“Where does your Spanish come from?”

There are times when I’m having a conversation with a native speaker, and the other person realizes, usually rather quickly, that Spanish isn’t my first language. Given they don’t first assume I’m a heritage speaker based on my surname and ethnically ambiguous features, they’ll often ask me where I learned how to speak. And the truth is, I don’t have a good answer to this either. My Spanish comes from many people and places— from university classrooms to WhatsApp groups to family-owned farms in the Andes.

But over the years, I’ve suspected that maybe this isn’t really about determining proficiency. Of course, my anxious self interprets the question to mean: “Can I talk trash in front of you without being understood?” But most of the time, I feel it has more to do with wanting to be understood: “Can I fully express my feelings and humor and personality to you in my mother tongue, knowing that you’ll actually get me?” Humans are always trying to find connections and commonalities, whether it ties us to a location or a cultural identity.

I remember once when I was volunteering as an interpreter for a community program, and after seeing me interpret for a client, the supervisor asked me where I learned Spanish. When I told him I learned it in school, he did this quizzical half-nod with his head and replied with “Oh, so you learned in school?”

Looking back, I can totally understand this skepticism. Especially in our little town in South Florida, bilingual skills are held to the highest of standards because people can tell whether or not you are “fluent” or not.  Asking where somebody learned how to exist in your language is just part of that process. Knowing that you have actually lived the life of a Spanish speaker, whether by heritage or by living abroad, is integral in achieving what I believe constitutes a building block of “native-like fluency.” 

When you visit many other parts of the US, however, language is seen more as a code to be learned rather than a life to be lived. I’ve found that people from largely monolingual populations are beyond impressed when I can rattle some things off about myself in Chinese, Italian, or Russian with a better-than-average-non-native-speaker pronunciation. But I would never apply for a job that demanded these languages. Surface-level polyglottery is a cool party trick, but it isn’t worth as much in the long run as I thought it did.

Redefining Fluency

São Paulo is a great place to improve your Portuguese fluency.
Beco do Batman, Vila Madalena, São Paulo

Before visiting Brazil for the first time in 2017, I did a quick crash course in Portuguese using podcasts and Duolingo. I was eager to start practicing my conversation skills, and after a while, I started to notice a pattern. Locals would often tell me “Você fala português muito bem!” even if I had barely spoken a complete sentence. I’ve come to interpret this as encouragement for my efforts, but never in a million years would I take this as a serious evaluation of my skills. There’s a joke on my favorite Brazilian Portuguese podcast that all you have to do is nod your head and say “tá… tá…” like you understand, and people will shower you with compliments. I’m not sure if this is an accurate account for all of Brazil, but honestly— who doesn’t want to be told by a native speaker how good their language skills are?

Yet the further up you climb in a language, the more tempting it becomes to stay at a comfortable level. Throughout the rest of my trip across South America, I was often called upon by other travelers or friends I made to play interpreter. It felt good to be seen as “multicultural” or “talented”, but in reality, I only needed small amounts of daily language to get around, be helpful, and win coolness points.

In more complex situations, however, I would often resort to strategies to “dumb down” the situation, or I would say I couldn’t understand because of “the regional dialect” (or worse, pretend I understood and relay wrong information). Looking back, I refused to target those areas I needed to grow in, simply because I enjoyed the feeling of being praised for having “fluent” language skills. 

I think that if there’s one common way we can all define fluency, it’s that fluency is a process. It took me many years, but I finally came to the point where I admitted to myself that my Spanish actually isn’t as good as I used to tell myself it was. It could certainly get there one day— but I first need to be honest about where it is right now.

That realization, in and of itself, is probably the most valuable lesson I’ve learned from over a decade of study. 

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