Can You Speak a Language Fluently? Here's How to Tell! (2023)

You’ve been hard at work learning your second language (or your third, or fourth!). It can feel like it’s taking forever to speak a language fluently. The learning process is so gradual that sometimes you don’t feel you’re progressing at all.

Then, in a moment of discouragement, a friend or colleague asks you: are you fluent yet? Their timing couldn’t be worse! But how do you answer? When do you know if you can speak a language fluently? Is there some kind of threshold you cross?

There short answer is, there really isn’t. Language acquisition is a learning continuum. The word ‘fluent’ is etymologically related to ‘fluid.’

In fact, it’s the exact same Latin word, just in its present participle form. Being fluid, there’s no real boundary you cross to speak a language fluently. It’s an amorphic process. As such, there’s no real metric to accurately define whether you can speak a language fluently or not.

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You speak a language fluently when you can converse or read in a fluid way, uninterrupted by the thought process of translation. It doesn’t mean you have a perfect vocabulary. You’ll never have a perfect vocabulary, especially if you’re learning a language like Mandarin, which has somewhere around 50,000 characters (a literate native Mandarin speaker knows between 2,000 and 3,000).

We’re always learning new vocabulary, even in our mother tongues. Research shows that we learn, on average, a new word every day until middle age. During the later stages of the language acquisition process, you might speak a language fluently some days, and other days not.

That said, here are a few telltale signs that you’re starting to speak a language fluently.

Photo byDavide CantellionUnsplash

1. You Speak a Language Fluently When You Think in It

François Grosjean, Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, found that 70 percent of multilinguals report thinking in “both” or “all” languages. This is because thoughts, at their root, begin in a prelinguistic state. We only turn them into language when we are getting ready to speak or write them.

So to be precise, we don’t think in any language. But when your brain maneuvers to turn those thoughts into word forms, you might find yourself articulating them in your target language instead of your mother tongue. That’s a strong sign of fluency.

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2. You Have Object Recognition without Translating

When you’re making a grocery list and you write Apfelsaft and Pfefferkuchen instead of ‘apple juice’ and ‘ginger snaps,’ you might be starting to speak German fluently.

You’ll see an object, and the word that leaps to mind is the target language’s name for that thing, instead of the native language name.

3. You Forget Your Native Word for an Object

Has this ever happened to you before?

You: We’re going to need to go get that… what is it called… carretilla?

Friend: Wheelbarrow?

You: Yes, that wheelbarrow. Thanks. How did I forget that word?

You’ve internalized your target language to the point where it holds just as much validity in your mind as your native language. Hopefully, of course, you won’t forget your native language entirely! Believe it or not, that’s a possibility. It’s called ‘language attrition.’

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4. You Speak a Language Fluently When You Dream in It

Dreaming in a language means that the words and speech patterns are deeply embedded in your subconscious mind. Because you have automatic associations between objects and their target language names, your brain can dream in that language without relying on your cognitive skills to translate.

If you find this happening, rejoice! You’re approaching the level where you can speak a language fluently.

5. You Can Use it Creatively

Creative language use means you can come up with multiple ways to express a thought or feeling. It means you can articulate opinions and engage in debates. It means you no longer rely on memorized phrases, but can come up with word and phrase combinations you’ve never read or heard before.

Photo by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash

6. If You’re Getting Jokes You Can Speak a Language Fluently

You know the old truism that humor is the first thing lost in translation? Well, it’s also among the last things you pick up when you learn to speak a language fluently. Even a semi-fluent speaker might find themselves missing out on jokes and trying to piece together punchlines that bellyflop.

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If you can keep step with puns and tell funny stories, then congratulations! You are reaching the advanced stages of fluency. Language acquisition does come in stages. It takes a lot of time and patience to get through them all and speak a language fluently.

Here’s a closer look at those stages, and how we move through them:

The Five Stages of Language Acquisition

  • Preproduction
      • Also called the ‘silent period.’
      • Listening and absorbing is very important at this stage.
      • You have little or no comprehension.
      • Instead of verbalizing, you often use gestures like pointing and nodding.
      • You start to mimic what others are saying, which builds the foundation for speaking but isn’t original language production.
      • Some learners gain up to 500 words of vocabulary through silent absorption.
      • This stage can last from a few hours to six months.
      • You cannot speak a language fluently.
  • Early Production
      • Here you go into active mode, using the language for practice.
      • You’re forming simple sentences, mostly made of memorized phrases.
      • You’re speaking primarily in the present tense, and working with yes/no and either/or combinations.
      • You can ask and answer questions about “What, who, how many,” etc.
      • Grammatical and pronunciation mistakes are frequent.
      • You reach 1,000 words of vocabulary.
      • This stage lasts for about six months.
      • You’re on the road to being able to speak a language fluently.
  • Speech Emergence
      • Speech is more frequent, and you can speak in complete sentences.
      • Comprehension escalates, but still with heavy reliance on context clues.
      • You start reading and writing in your new language.
      • If you’re brave, you start initiating conversations.
      • Grammar mistakes are still common, but native speakers can understand you.
      • Your vocabulary reaches 3,000 words.
      • Humor is still difficult to understand.
      • Plan to be here for a couple of years.
      • Because you can navigate common situations, it’s easy to plateau at this stage. Power through and keep going!
      • With a little more practice, you can speak a language fluently.
  • Intermediate Fluency
      • After you power through Speech Emergence, this stage can last a year or more.
      • You’ll reach a vocabulary of about 6,000 active words.
      • You can form complex sentences, express opinions, and use creative word combinations to represent thoughts.
      • You begin thinking in your new language.
      • Newspapers and magazines are easy to read. You can start reading more complex books.
      • Few speaking errors, especially in social situations.
      • Some gaps in vocabulary remain, as well as in expressions and idioms.
      • You’ll often still rely on translation of and strategies from your native language for writing, but writing is improved.
      • This will last from about year three to year five.
      • You can comfortably say that you speak a language fluently!
  • Advanced Fluency
      • Also called ‘cognitive academic language proficiency.’
      • After five to ten years of active practice, you sound almost native.
      • You can study complex subjects in your new language.
      • It’s almost as easy as your native language to speak, comprehend and write.
      • Learning and development never stop. You need to keep conversing in your new language, as well as pursue tutored lessons, to maintain and advance your ability to speak a language fluently.

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The ability to speak a language fluently emergesbetween stages three and four. Some measurements add an additional stage there called ‘Beginning Fluency.’ This is when it feels like the language starts taking on a life of its own. Momentum picks up. You’re over the hump of the learning curve.

At that point, you’re still acquiring new vocabulary (as always) and learning the finer points of grammatical structure. But you’re getting to the point that you can say whatever you need to say, if roughly.

Now You Can Speak a Language Fluently – What’s Next?

If you’re starting to hit the above landmarks, and you’re somewhere in the latter stages of language acquisition, you can start telling people with confidence that you speak a language fluently. It’s been a long, hard road to get there, but all that studying finally pays off.

The best way to keep challenging yourself, of course, is to live in a place where your new language is native. But that’s not the only way. The important thing is to keep actively conversing in your target language. This can be in person with friends, or even in online forums.

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Read materials that increasingly challenge your ability to speak a language fluently. Most newspapers are written for a middle school reading level, so try some novels instead.

From going abroad, to speaking with strangers, to simply diving into a foreign book, being able to speak a language fluently will open a lot of doors.

Can you speak a language fluently? What languages do you speak? What stage of fluency are you in if you’re still studying? Let us know in the comments below!

FAQs

How do you know if you speak a language fluently? ›

You know you're fluent in another language when…
  1. People don't modify their language for you anymore. ...
  2. You can eavesdrop on conversations. ...
  3. A world of humor has opened up. ...
  4. You sometimes read or listen without “registering” the language. ...
  5. Going to the bank (or doctor, accountant, etc) no longer fills you with fear.
12 Apr 2017

How can I speak a language fluently? ›

15 WAYS TO BECOME A FLUENT LANGUAGE SPEAKER (THAT ACTUALLY WORK!)
  1. Perfect Your Pronunciation. ...
  2. Select Words Carefully. ...
  3. Read. ...
  4. Write. ...
  5. Listen, Listen, Listen. ...
  6. Practice Long Speeches. ...
  7. Examine Unique Characteristics of the Language. ...
  8. Look for a Language Buddy.
24 Oct 2022

What does it mean to speak a language fluently? ›

Linguists rarely agree on a single definition of second language fluency. But at ICLS, we offer a common-sense definition: a speaker achieves language fluency once they can confidently, competently, and easily express themselves in a language other than their own.

Can you be fluent in a language but not speak it? ›

But, some people may end up getting the shorter end of the stick — they can sometimes only understand a language without actually being able to speak it — a phenomenon officially called receptive multilingualism.

How many words is considered fluent? ›

An advanced speaker of a language is also categorized as fluent. Fluency means you've reached 10,000+ words and have reached the highest level of mastering a language without being a native speaker.

What makes someone a fluent speaker? ›

Someone who is fluent in a particular language can speak the language easily and correctly. You can also say that someone speaks fluent French, Chinese, or some other language. [...]

How can we improve fluency in speaking? ›

Here are eight of our favorites:
  1. Speak, speak, speak. Let's start right off by saying that there isn't a magic pill for better speaking. ...
  2. Reflect on your conversations. ...
  3. Listen and read. ...
  4. Prepare cheat sheets. ...
  5. Pick up the phone. ...
  6. Record your voice. ...
  7. Learn phrases rather than single words. ...
  8. Have fun.
5 Jun 2020

How can I improve speaking skills? ›

But like any other skill, you can improve your spoken English if you practise regularly and follow these simple techniques.
  1. Listen. The first step in improving your speaking skills is actually working on your listening. ...
  2. Imitate. ...
  3. Read. ...
  4. Reflect. ...
  5. Prepare. ...
  6. Speak. ...
  7. Practise.
18 Oct 2021

Why is speaking fluently important? ›

Speaking fluency is also an important component of communication competence, because the ability of speaking fluently can help the speaker to produce continuous speech without comprehension difficulties for the listener and to maintain the communicative ideas more effectively.

Is being fluent in a language a skill? ›

Fluent. A fluent language skill means you can read, write, and speak a language fluidly and without hesitation.

What is the hardest language to become fluent? ›

The 9 Hardest Languages to Learn
  • Chinese – the most spoken language in the world and the hardest language to learn for English speakers. ...
  • 3. Japanese. ...
  • Korean. ...
  • Polish. ...
  • Finnish. ...
  • Hungarian. ...
  • Turkish. ...
  • Russian. Boasting more than 150 million speakers around the globe, Russian is certainly one of the most used languages in Europe.
27 Feb 2019

What is the hardest language to speak fluently? ›

Let's explore the 10 hardest languages for English speakers to learn, and the challenges they deliver:
  1. Mandarin. Mandarin is spoken by 70% of the Chinese population, and is the most spoken language in the world. ...
  2. Arabic. ...
  3. 3. Japanese. ...
  4. Hungarian. ...
  5. Korean. ...
  6. Finnish. ...
  7. Basque. ...
  8. Navajo.
16 Sept 2022

What is the hardest language to be fluent in? ›

Across multiple sources, Mandarin Chinese is the number one language listed as the most challenging to learn. The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center puts Mandarin in Category IV, which is the list of the most difficult languages to learn for English speakers.

How can you tell if someone is fluent? ›

An almost dictionary-like definition of being fluent might be that you are fluent when your speaking ability allows you to talk freely, that you don't have to stop and think and don't hesitate when constructing sentences and that your speech, well, flows.

How long does it take to speak fluent? ›

According to FSI research, it takes around 480 hours of practice to reach basic fluency in all Group 1 languages.

How long does it take to fluent? ›

You Need Patience to Become Fluent in a Language

True language fluency requires consistent effort and time, and while 500 – 1,000 hours may seem like a lot, a typical person could probably invest that level of time over 12 – 18 months, with the right study schedule.

What are 3 characteristics of a good speaker? ›

5 Qualities of an Effective Speaker
  • Confidence. Confidence is huge when it comes to public speaking. ...
  • Passion. Why would an audience want to hear about your story if you yourself don't seem passionate about it? ...
  • Ability to be succinct. ...
  • Ability to tell a story. ...
  • Audience awareness.
13 Feb 2016

What are the 10 qualities of good speaker? ›

Top 10 Characteristics of Effective Public Speakers
  • Confidence. Confidence tops the list of qualities that contribute to a successful presentation. ...
  • Storytelling skills. ...
  • Conciseness. ...
  • Varied delivery. ...
  • Knowledge of audience. ...
  • Authenticity. ...
  • Passionate delivery. ...
  • Self-Awareness and continuous self-improvement.
4 Feb 2022

What is a person who is good at speaking called? ›

orator Add to list Share. A person giving a speech is called an orator, like the gifted orator who raised excellent points, making everyone in the audience want to join his revolution.

What are 4 tips to effective speaking? ›

  • #1: Breathe. ...
  • #2: Admit Your Nervousness. ...
  • #3: Use (Minimal) Notes. ...
  • #4: Become Comfortable with "The Pause" ...
  • #5: Be Aware of Your Hand Gestures. ...
  • #6: Move Around Some, But Not Too Much. ...
  • #7: Incorporate Visual Prompts. ...
  • #8: Practice, Practice, Practice…Then Practice Some More.
28 May 2021

Why is speaking so powerful? ›

It allows us to form connections, influence decisions, and motivate change. Without communication skills, the ability to progress in the working world and in life, itself, would be nearly impossible. Public speaking is one of the most important and most dreaded forms of communication.

What is an example of fluency? ›

Example Sentences

She speaks with great fluency. Students must demonstrate fluency in a foreign language to earn a degree. a dancer known for her fluency and grace He plays the piano with speed and fluency.

What is the most important when speaking? ›

Knowing your audience and planning accordingly helps you to give a better speech and also to have more confidence – if you know who you're talking to and what they expect, you're on firmer ground.

Are languages soft or hard skills? ›

Hard skills are concrete abilities such as speaking a language and ability with certain software.

What is the mother tongue? ›

Definition. Mother tongue refers to the first language learned at home in childhood and still understood by the person at the time the data was collected. If the person no longer understands the first language learned, the mother tongue is the second language learned.

Are languages soft skills? ›

Soft skills are a cluster of productive personality traits that characterize one's relationships in a social environment. These skills can include social graces, communication abilities, language skills, personal habits, cognitive or emotional empathy, time management, teamwork and leadership traits.

What is the easiest language ever? ›

15 of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers - ranked
  • Frisian. Frisian is thought to be one of the languages most closely related to English, and therefore also the easiest for English-speakers to pick up. ...
  • Dutch. ...
  • Norwegian. ...
  • Spanish. ...
  • Portuguese. ...
  • Italian. ...
  • French. ...
  • Swedish.
24 Oct 2021

What is the easiest language ever to learn? ›

Easiest (about 600 hours of study)

Of these, Spanish and Italian are the easiest for native English speakers to learn, followed by Portuguese and finally French.

What is the 7 hardest language to learn? ›

At the same time, for some other speaker with different characteristics, that same languages will be a lot harder to learn.
...
7 Most Difficult Languages to Learn for Native English Speakers
  • 1 – Chinese (Mandarin)
  • 2 – Arabic.
  • 3 – Japanese.
  • 4 – Korean.
  • 5 – Hungarian.
  • 6 – Finnish.
  • 7 – Xhosa.
7 Feb 2020

What is the strongest language? ›

The Most Powerful Languages in the World
  • Chinese: 1.51 billion people (native speakers: 899 million; second language speakers: 178 million)
  • English 840 million people (native speakers: 330 million; second language speakers: 510 million)
27 Oct 2019

What is the slowest spoken language? ›

On average, native speakers use 150 syllables a minute. But Spanish people go along at an amazing 300 syllables a minute. Japanese is another fast language. Mandarin is probably the slowest.

Which is the most spoken language in the world 2022? ›

Online language tool Babbel reports that English is the most spoken language in the world, with a number of speakers totaling more than 1.4 billion in 2022, according to Statistic & Data.

What is the easiest language to learn top 10? ›

10 Easiest Languages for English Speakers to Learn
  1. Afrikaans. Like English, Afrikaans is in the West Germanic language family, once thought of as a Dutch dialect. ...
  2. French. Ah, the language of love. ...
  3. Spanish. ...
  4. Dutch. ...
  5. Norwegian. ...
  6. Portuguese. ...
  7. Swedish. ...
  8. Italian.
3 Nov 2022

What is the least hard language to learn? ›

And The Easiest Language To Learn Is…
  1. Norwegian. This may come as a surprise, but we have ranked Norwegian as the easiest language to learn for English speakers. ...
  2. Swedish. ...
  3. Spanish. ...
  4. Dutch. ...
  5. Portuguese. ...
  6. Indonesian. ...
  7. Italian. ...
  8. French.
9 Nov 2021

What are the top 3 hardest languages to speak? ›

8 Hardest Languages to Learn In The World For English Speakers
  • Mandarin. Number of native speakers: 1.2 billion. ...
  • Icelandic. Number of native speakers: 330,000. ...
  • 3. Japanese. Number of native speakers: 122 million. ...
  • Hungarian. Number of native speakers: 13 million. ...
  • Arabic. Number of native speakers: 221 million. ...
  • Polish.
22 Jan 2021

What is it called when you know a language but not fluent? ›

Intermediate. An intermediate language skill refers to being able to speak a language but with some difficulty. You can't speak with the speed of a native and your vocabulary is somewhat limited. However, you're able to hold conversations in the language and have adequate reading proficiency.

How long until you're fluent in a language? ›

According to FSI research, it takes around 480 hours of practice to reach basic fluency in all Group 1 languages.

What are the 5 levels of language proficiency? ›

0-5 Language Proficiency Levels
  • 0 – No Proficiency. At this lowest level, there is basically no knowledge of the language. ...
  • 1 – Elementary Proficiency. ...
  • 2 – Limited Working Proficiency. ...
  • 3 – Professional Working Proficiency. ...
  • 4 – Full Professional Proficiency. ...
  • 5 – Native / Bilingual Proficiency.
5 days ago

What's the difference between conversational and fluent? ›

Conversant: An intermediate level of language where you may be skilled in carrying through conversations, but there is greater formality and less familiarity compared to a native and fluent speaker; reading and writing skills may or may not be at the same level.

What languages are hardest to learn? ›

Generally, if you're an English speaker with no exposure to other languages, here are some of the most challenging and difficult languages to learn:
  • Mandarin Chinese.
  • Arabic.
  • Vietnamese.
  • Finnish.
  • Japanese.
  • Korean.

What language is easiest to learn? ›

15 of the easiest languages to learn for English speakers - ranked
  • Frisian. Frisian is thought to be one of the languages most closely related to English, and therefore also the easiest for English-speakers to pick up. ...
  • Dutch. ...
  • Norwegian. ...
  • Spanish. ...
  • Portuguese. ...
  • Italian. ...
  • French. ...
  • Swedish.
24 Oct 2021

Is 2 hours a day enough to learn a language? ›

The short answer is as much as possible.

Realistically, however, at least 20 minutes per day should be dedicated to learning a new language. The ideal amount of time to spend on daily study, if you can find the time, is an hour, but you don't need to cram it all in at once.

What does fluency feel like? ›

Fluency in a language = Freedom

You'll be free to express ALL your thoughts, in exactly the way you want to say them. You'll be free to make jokes, talk with new people, understand TV shows, and speak in important or stressful situations… WITHOUT being embarrassed or worrying about making mistakes.

What level is fluent? ›

Level five means you are entirely fluent in a language. You were raised speaking the language or have spoken it long enough to become proficient in it.

Is B2 considered fluent? ›

Reaching B2 is generally considered by most people as having basic fluency. You'll have a working vocabulary of around 4000 words. It's not always effortless and it's not always perfect, but neither you nor your native speaking partners are having a really hard time in most circumstances at this point.

What are the 4 languages skills? ›

When we say that someone 'speaks' a language fluently, we usually mean that they have a high level in all four skills – listening, speaking, reading and writing.

What does language level A1 A2 B1 B2 C1 & C2 mean? ›

Explanation of language levels A1 to C2. The three broad levels are A1/A2 ("Basic User"), B1/B2 ("Independent User"), and C1/C2 ("Proficient User"). Let's take a look at what you should be able to communicate at the various levels set out by CERF. Language learning levels explained from A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 to C2.

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