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How much of a language do you have to know to be able to say you speak it?

To be able to say it's your second, third, fourth, etc. language.

March 31, 2017



That question is very subjective. I have seen many examples of a person X that says or thinks he/she speaks English fluently, and a person Y that says or thinks he/she does not speak English fluently yet, whereas in fact person Y speaks infinitely better than person X.

Some people are not very good at assessing their own level in a language.

On the other hand, taking into account some "objective" facts, I recently read a scientific paper saying that, at least in most european languages, if you know the 5.000 most common word families (not words, but word families), then you can read comfortably almost any text in that language.

But that is just reading comprehension, that is, your ability (accuracy and speed) to recognize written words, written sentences and paragraphs.

I mean, I am at that stage (or very close to that stage) in French, Italian, Portuguese and Catalan (I read comfortably adult books in those languages), but I am not fluent in French (for example) by any means. My speaking and listening abilities in French are NOT good enough yet.

There is another curious thing here. Some people are quite "fluent" in a foreign language as long as they talk about the same usual things, but as soon as the conversation turns to a less common subject, they completely lose the plot.

So at what point you consider yourself that you speak a language, is an entirely subjective thing.


Your hypothetical "person X" is likely displaying the Dunning-Kruger effect, in which people who possess limited competence in any given skill tend to both inflate their perceived abilities, and dismiss the rigor required for true mastery. However, I still think fluency assessment is subject to personal as well as objective criteria.

I can read newspapers comfortably (albeit slowly) in Spanish and French, but I would miss many subtleties reading literature, so I don't consider myself fluent in either language. Despite investing considerable effort into learning Russian, I struggle with reading simple texts, find it very challenging to understand Russian movies, and doubt I will ever achieve more than basic skills..

[deactivated user]

    Agreed, some people say they are fluent as soon as they can introduce themselves.

    There is another curious thing here. Some people are quite "fluent" in a foreign language as long as they talk about the same usual things, but as soon as the conversation turns to a less common subject, they completely lose the plot.

    To be fair, this happens to native speakers as well. When my doctor starts using medical terminology it can be a bit difficult to keep up.


    Some people are not very good at assessing their own level in a language.

    It's also a bit about what standards people set for themselves. Some people are happy with a B1 level and will consider that good. While others are only happy with C2 or even ~native level.

    Some people are quite 'fluent' in a foreign language as long as they talk about the same usual things, but as soon as the conversation turns to a less common subject, they completely lose the plot.

    Yes, it's insane how some people are able to speak fluently in a certain language woth a small vocabulary. Therefore I like to splice language learners into 2 groups.

    A: those who first acquire the skill to speak fluently and then expand their vocabulary while expanding the range of subjects they can speak fluently about. They're able to explain a wide variety of things with a limited vocabulary, being able to quickly find a way to say something with the words they do know. These are generally the people who can become great interpreters.

    B: those who first "must" learn a loooot of vocabulary before being able to speak a language fluently. They often feel insecure when they have a limited voc, aren't good at describing things indirectly and thus will fail when they don't know the translation of a certain word. These people will generally be poor interpreters but will have a richer speech and writing.

    [deactivated user]

      The average English speaker uses around 2000 words in everyday life, so if you know the 2000 most common words and you've mastered the bare minimum of grammar, i.e. you can build sentences that aren't necessarily very complex, you could theoretically live in a country where a language is spoken and get by. This is not enough if you want to read novels or study in that language.

      To put these numbers in perspective, a native speaker's active vocabulary is around 20,000 words, with a passive vocabulary sometimes greater than 50,000 words. The actual numbers depend on the language and the speaker's level of education.


      when you can make easy conversation with someone who only speaks that language.


      This is indeed the correct answer ;-) . I am a certified translator English but writing is still more difficult than speaking. I can read and understand German very well, I even write reviews of German books, but speaking is another matter. I can recognize the general subjects when reading/listenng to French. I'm trying to learn Russian now. Vocabulary is fun and not so difficult, and I can read a lot of words already. Speaking however... and grammar... is another thing ;-)


      The CEFR has 6 levels, B2 is fluency, C1 and C2 is just more words, more sophistication, less mistakes. B2 is like the level of middle or high school, C1 is more of a college level. Some people called the other levels "L level" and these are for native speakers.

      There is no definition of fluency, however some people confuse fluency with native level and they are two different levels. You can reach fluency with effort, but native level takes years of living the language. In native level you may have an accent, even a strong accent but you can understand almost everything (technical terms are difficult even for native speakers), you can understand jokes, songs, poetry, etc. and you can communicate without any problem, there is little or no difference between your native language and the other language.


      It really depends per person. The standard which I have always held myself to is quite simple. If I can speak to someone in a foreign language and they can understand me and I can understand them, I can say that I speak that language. Nowadays I also include reading as a benchmark. If I can comfortably read a book aimed at natives, I know I have a decent level.

      Summary: I define 'knowing a language' as being able to read, listen and speak without encountering misunderstanding.


      This won't necessarily make you fluent.

      But I think if you knew 100 important phrases you could get around as a beginner. It depends on where the conversation falls: are you actually going to use the words you learned. Or will these survival phrases be the key.


      What if you know the survival phrases but the person you tell a survival phrase answers with something you don't know?


      As I see it, the survival phrases should include "I'm sorry, I don't understand, could you explain" and "Do you speak <your language>, please". Certainly I can say "Do you speak English" in more languages than I would claim to actually speak any significant amount of.


      What IanGordon12 said: :p


      That reminds me of when I was learning Russian in college (university). One of the first sentences we learned was "Gde metro?"--Where is the metro (subway). A couple of years later I got the opportunity to travel to St. Petersburg and wanted to use the metro system. "Gde metro?" I asked the first woman I saw. Then I realized I'd never learned left, right, straight ahead, two blocks.... Very nice woman, though. She led me to the metro and paid for my fare.

      On the flip side, I learned my first Spanish from taxi drivers, so left, right, and straight ahead (izquierda, derecha, y directo) were my second through fourth words--right after "Taxi!"


      I consider myself to know some Spanish and Esperanto but I don't consider myself fluent in any of these languages yet.


      I am a native Hebrew speaker and while I can definitely say I am able to speak it fluently, there are some songs which neither I nor my other native friends can understand, as if it almost sounds like a foreign language...

      For example the song חנן יובל - ליל חניה


      most likely you would would have to be fluent or maybe been learning it for a certain amount of years.

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