So you have decided to learn a new language. You bought and read through a grammar. You started one of those free language apps that promises you will be fluent in three weeks. You’ve lined up a conversation partner to practice with. Things are going great! After a few weeks, you have a fairly expanded vocabulary. A couple of months in, you can put more complicated sentences together and have started venturing out into the world with your new language, starting conversations with native speakers and holding your own. But does all of this mean that you are fluent in a foreign language. Suddenly, you may start to wonder, Am I fluent in this language? Is comfort the same as fluency? How will I know?
Anyone who studies languages wonders this, and there are many theories surrounding language fluency. Most language fluency tests in school rely on rote memorization; but of course, we all know that not everyone who memorizes a paradigm or 500 phrases feels comfortable in their language of study. So what are some indicators that you are becoming fluent in a learned language?
You Begin To Dream In Your Second Language
Chances are, we’ve all heard someone jokingly ask, “Are you dreaming in ‘x language’ yet?” of a foreign language learner. This is usually viewed as the pinnacle of language acquisition: once you have dreamed in it, you are proficient. Sadly, however, this is probably more anecdotal than scientific. Since many dreams are focused on recently learned information, and the brain transfers short-term memory into long-term during REM sleep, it is only natural that your brain would use this time to review and lock in memories of learned language.
Why Dreams Show You Are Becoming Fluent In A Foreign Language
In fact, dreaming in this new language is one way to know you are becoming more fluent in a foreign language. Whenever I am studying a new language, it will usually infiltrate my dreams early on, as my brain sorts through what it’s learning. In fact, I’m usually speaking the language much better in my dreams than I ever could in my waking hours, since my brain is not muddled with other things like it is during the day. While dreaming in a foreign language may not indicate any particular skill level, it does show that your brain is successfully retaining language while you sleep, so make sure to get plenty of rest between language sessions!
You Can Rephrase While Talking With Others
The ability to rephrase is another way to tell if you are becoming fluent in a foreign language. One easy way to check your proficiency in your new language is by testing your ability to express one idea in many different ways. Have you ever forgotten a word or phrase in your native language and had to find another way to express yourself? This is bound to happen even more often in a foreign language! A friend of mine was once telling a story in Russian, and could not remember the word for rooster. Instead, she had to figure out how to describe a rooster, while not completely derailing the story. In the end, she settled on “a chicken’s husband,” which made the story a bit more comical, but still understandable.
Becoming Fluent In A Foreign Language Reflects Comfort With Rephrasing
While it can sometimes turn out funny, using different ways to explain the same idea is actually more complex than you may realize. You may need to switch from a simple noun to a noun phrase, like my friend’s solution. Or perhaps you pepper your sentence with more adjectives. At times, you might have to change from one speech act to another (perhaps from a question to an exclamation). This requires more than just a healthy vocabulary. It takes an understanding of grammatical structure, a fair amount of intuition, and relative comfort in the target language. If you are able to explain yourself in several different ways in your new language, you are well on your way to fluency!
You Share Humor And Enjoy Its Nuances
Understanding comedy in another language is one of the most sought-after milestones in language acquisition. In fact, if you can enjoy and share humor, you have likely become fluent in a foreign language. I had been living in Russia for about seven years and speaking Russian rather well for five of those years before I finally watched a Russian comedian on TV and realized I was understanding his humor! It was even a few months longer before I could replicate the style and make my friends laugh at decidedly Russian-sounding humor. Humor is such a subjective thing that it may take longer to gauge than other marks of fluency, but when it happens, you can’t miss it.
Becoming Fluent In A Second Language Shows Greater Cultural Understanding
In order to understand humor and create comedy in another language, you have to know enough of the rules to be able to break them, or understand the irony of a broken rule. This takes a strong understanding of vocabulary and complex sentence structure. Even more importantly, you need an intuition to feel the pulse of the language. If you can use another language to make someone laugh, you have learned enough of the culture behind the language to know what will produce the best response.
Language and culture are intrinsically linked. As a result, you cannot become fluent in any one language without also becoming fluent in the corresponding culture. If you want to test this third level of proficiency, try telling a joke in your learned language. If it goes over well, be proud! You have achieved a unique ability to speak in and to another culture. You have arrived!