What Does it Mean to be Fluent in Another Language?


One of my Dakar friends is Hungarian. She writes articles in Hungarian, speaks to her family in Hungarian, etc., but is married to an American guy and works in an English-speaking environment. We were driving home from work together last week and I asked her how long it took for her to be fluent in English.

Her answer: she doesn’t feel fluent. And trust me when I say this gal’s English is – to me, anyway – pretty perfect, just laced with a cute Hungarian accent.

So, my fluency with French? Er, middling by my standards. And by my friend’s, perhaps an Atlantic Ocean away.

When we first landed in Dakar last summer (!), the French I’d studied throughout high school and college seemed gone. I had many, many bang-my-head-on-a-wall moments when I just couldn’t understand what someone was saying. I was terrified to use French because it’d all seeped out of my brain during five post-college years of non-use.

But today, someone at work overheard me speaking French to a Senegalese person and asked me later if I’d grown up speaking two languages. HA! She must have heard a tiny snippet of something I was saying or pronouncing correctly, because my skills are NOT that high. I felt good, though, getting a little confirmation my French has come a long, long way in a year. Everything I studied has gradually resurfaced and I’m always learning new words and phrases.

Language is such a fascinating, funny thing. If I’m speaking to my best Senegalese friend, I’d say my fluency level is good. We have a genuine friendship full of great conversation and I can speak quickly and my brain stops translating everything from English to French before it comes out of my mouth. I just talk, and sometimes it takes a few minutes to fully switch back to English after we have lunch together.

If I’m talking to a stranger or with a work colleague, though, my fluency drops. Perhaps it’s a change in accent (French is not most Senegalese people’s first language; it could be Wolof, Pular, Mandinke, etc.) or just nerves, but I trip over my vocabulary and ask for certain things to be repeated, especially large numbers spoken very quickly.

My French-speaking struggles, challenges and goals in Senegal:

  • Better listening comprehension. It’s always easier for me to speak than to understand. I want these two things to be equal (even if it means they’re equally bad, heh).
  • Wider use of verb tenses. I overuse the simple past tense and avoid the conditional (i.e., “If I were you, I would go to Madrid”) entirely.
  • Improving my accent. Back-throat-rolling R’s? No. I don’t try. I’m so focused on getting my vocab and verbs correct that I’ve foregone an accent.
  • Using correct phrases. Sometimes I translate an English phrase too directly instead of doing as the French would do. For instance, today I made a hotel reservation. The French say, literally, “I would like to take a reservation,” instead of making a reservation. I got it wrong. Little mistakes like that raise my “not fluent!” flag.
Have you studied a foreign language? Share your thoughts.
Rachael Cullins
Rachael Cullins is a twentysomething American girl living in Dakar, Senegal, with her husband and two dogs. She blogs about her adventures in Senegal and travels elsewhere in West Africa. She will reside in Dakar until summer 2013, when she and her family will move to another foreign post as part of her husband's career with the U.S. government. In addition to West Africa, she has traveled to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Costa Rica and plans to continually add to that list.
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3 Responses to What Does it Mean to be Fluent in Another Language?

  1. Charlie June 26, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

    This is a really interesting and thoughtful post. I live in a non-English speaking country and my fluency in the local language is near zero, because I’m fairly fluent with what I need for daily transactions but not much else. I often wondered what it would be like trying to speak to another person in a common second language as opposed to in one of our native tongues, and I think that you’ve explained pretty well what that would be like. Thanks!

  2. Charlotte June 27, 2012 at 5:01 am #

    I’m British, but a Japanese speaker, living in Germany.

    I think to every person “fluent” has a different meaning. Someone just starting out in a language might think that having a conversation without stumbling over grammar is the answer, whereas someone who can do that might long to be fluent enough to understand when two native speakers are talking to each other.

    The interesting thing with learning a language is also that we learn words from out experiences. I may listen to another non-native Japanese speaker and not understand all of her words, but then again she might not understand all of mine even though we have the same level of fluency – because we have learnt in different environments.

    The topic is a really interesting one – I very much enjoyed reading your post! Thank you for sharing!

  3. Akos Fintor June 27, 2012 at 11:08 am #

    I can NOT believe this.
    I usually don’t visit travel blogs, I was just happened to see your tweet because the title caught my attention.
    I’m Hungarian married to an American gal :)

    Law of attraction at work? :)

    btw in my opinion English is one of the easiest languages out there; it’s everywhere you can’t really escape from it.

    great post!

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