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https://www.duolingo.com/MobsterDolphin

What is it like to be fluent and how long does it take?

Can anyone tell me how long it has taken for them to become fluent in their language, and what is it like to be fluent?

Do you have thoughts in both languages? Do you have dreams in each language, and are some languages more frequent? Did you have to actively use the language (like talking to your dog in spanish, or trying to reword your thoughts in another language) or did it just happen?

Thanks for the help!

4 years ago

22 Comments


https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
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Hello AnyaParks,

I find your question very hard to answer as the whole concept of fluency is quite hard to define. Every one has his/her own definition, so I'll give you mine before I try to answer you.

Being fluent in a language: being able to communicate smoothly in a language that isn't your mother tongue. Namely, understand 90 to 99% of any written text, understand most of an oral conversation (provided you are used to that specific accent), be able to write a text that can be understood by its readers without too many difficulties (not too many mistakes and a style that sounds "natural enough" to natives), and speak with ease, which means have a broad enough vocabulary to hold a conversation on many different subjects, using circumvolutions if you don't know the right words, and speak fast enough - which implies forming sentences fast enough, not "thinking about what you're going to say" for a long time.

Again, that is my definition; some people consider fluency as being the same as bilingual, so don't take it as an official definition.

That being said, I definitely cannot tell you how long it takes to become fluent in a language. That depends only on you. If you speak Portuguese and are learning Spanish, it will come very fast. If you're learning Chinese, you may never achieve fluency (according to my definition.) You may also naturally form sentences in your new language as soon as you start learning, or translate everything in your head, which is a habit you may need a long time to get rid of.

As to the whole concept of fluency, it just happens. You cannot put a timeline on it. Some day, you realize you are fluent. I guess a good indicator is when you hear something, you understand it, and you realize you don't know in which language that was. (for instance: you're walking down the street with a friend, some people in front of you are having a very interesting argument about ice cream, you ask your friend what's his opinion, and he tells you he has no idea, he didn't understand, that was in Spanish. Or you come up to the cashier, you hear him speaking Spanish to the customer in front of you, so you speak to him in Spanish, without really thinking about it.)

What it is like? Well, when someone speaks to you in a language, you just naturally answer in the same language, without really thinking about it (see my cashier example). You watch a movie and you just understand without really thinking about it. If I spend my whole day speaking a given language, then I'll probably be thinking in that language for the rest of the day, and maybe even dream in that language. But you have to realize it's natural, I never do it intentionally, I may just realize it later on. The only "weird" part is speaking with people who assume you don't speak their language and you're making a huge effort. That happens to me quite often, especially when I travel, and it's quite irritating because you understand everything just fine but people talk to you veeeery slowly and it feels like they think you're dumb (which they probably don't, they're trying to be nice, but it's still irritating.)

Last but not least, language is a skill, like anything else. So yes, if you don't speak it, you'll get weaker. You won't forget it totally (unless you don't speak it for 10 years and never hear anyone speaking it) and you won't stop understanding it, but you'll eventually have trouble making sentences. The more time you spend speaking any language, the easier it will be. I know people who immigrated and got "weaker" at their mother tongue. So yes, definitely, you have to practice, not only to get there, but to stay there, and that's forever.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Lrtward
Lrtward
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Excellent answer. I completely agree with you about "fluency". Everyone has their own definition. Mine is pretty much in line with yours. I'm close, but not quite there yet. Some days I struggle, some days are easier. I think it depends on how tired I am and how much time I've spent in Spanish recently. Do you find the same to be true? Does your self perceived ability vary depending on circumstances?

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
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Absolutely! When I'm tired, I sometimes cannot form proper sentences, it's a complete mess.

And every time I speak Spanish - which I don't do on a daily basis - the first few minutes are weird. I have to "re-activate" my Spanish, I look for words in my head, I think about it. After a few minutes, I'm just fine, I'm "back to normal" :-)

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Lrtward
Lrtward
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Your experience is the same as mine. At first it's a lot of mental groping for the right word, the right "feel". Then after a while, if I'm not too tired, things click and everything feels comfortable and right. Thanks for the response!

Oh, you are right about forgetting a language through disuse, also. After gaining so much proficiency in college I took more than a couple of decades off and while I remembered some, I didn't remember much. I started with the beginner Spanish courses. I progressed quickly, but I definitely needed to start at the beginning.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Rozzie
Rozzie
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I am so like when I get tired too.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/dzyana
dzyana
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This is very true on the "re-activating". For example, one of my native languages is Armenian. When I was in Armenia the first week was especially hard for me. I am absolutely fluent in every way possible, yet I found myself translating a lot of things in my head from English to Armenian. After about a week, that English part of my brain finally turned off and I was able to speak Armenian without any translation distractions. I'd imagine it's going to be much much harder in Spanish for me.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/MobsterDolphin

That was really helpful and insightful! I'm super impressed by your language ability. That makes me feel a lot better.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
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Thanks, I'm glad it helped you.

But just to be clear, when I say "it just happens", it doesn't mean I didn't put a lot of work into it, like lrtward said :-)

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/GregHullender
GregHullender
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Fluency has the same root as "fluid"; it means that the language flows. You can speak and read without having to stop and think about the grammar. It means that during reading and conversation you are focused on the subject and can largely forget about the language. It corresponds roughly to levels C1 and C2 in the CEFR, although a bold B2 could qualify as a fluent speaker but probably not a fluent reader.

Fluency is about speed, not accuracy. We've all met people who spoke bad English fluently. Accuracy is much of the practical difference between levels C1 and C2.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
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I like your comment, but I would just like to tell you that I did pass a C1 exam and they do focus on accuracy as well. Granted, it doesn't have to be perfect, but they still request a good level. From what I've heard, C2 requires a "perfect" level, equivalent to that of an educated native. So I would say B2 is fluent, C2 is bilingual and C1 is somewhere in between.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Lrtward
Lrtward
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This question is often asked by language students. Problem is, not everyone defines "fluent" in the same way. To some, it is the ability to hold a conversation and if you don't know the precise word you want, you can at least describe what you're talking about so that you make yourself understood. For example, I was talking to someone about beehives recently and I don't know the Spanish word for "frame" so I said the square thing made of wood that goes inside the hive and holds the honey". Some would call this fluent, because I could make myself understood.

To some, being fluent means sounding like a native. I personally don't choose to spend the amount of time it would require to attain this level of proficiency, and I'm not sure I ever could. I want my pronunciation and word use to be pleasing to the ear, and not grating or tiring, but I don't care to sound like a native.

To me, "fluent" means I can listen to the radio, watch an unfamiliar movie, or read an unfamiliar book, and understand it almost as well as I can in English. That is, there may be a few words I miss but I can pick them up from context without the use of a dictionary. I'm not there yet, but this is my goal for myself in Spanish.

I have thoughts in English and in Spanish. I dream in both languages. English is by far the more frequent language of my thoughts and dreams, because I work in English and my home life and social life are in English.

I have to actively seek out opportunities to use Spanish. I read books, watch movies, listen to the radio, etc. in Spanish. I talk to myself and my dog in Spanish. I do something in Spanish every single day. It definitely did not "just happen". It takes a lot of work, and it only happens when I have spent a lot of brain time in Spanish, like if I watch a full length movie and then go hang out on Verbling and talk for a while in Spanish. After that, I will probably dream in Spanish and think in Spanish.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to do a study abroad program one summer in Mexico City. I lived with a family, which was great. Lots of programs put the students in a dorm where they don't get to see what daily family life is like and they end up speaking English to each other. I got to eat the food, live the schedule, hear the radio, conversations, TV, see the food labels on the table...everything in Spanish. I took two classes a day and my teacher spoke no English. We did field trips on the weekends to places of cultural significance. At first I had a massive headache and my ears got tired, just like your eyes do when you read too much. You might have had a similar experience on a smaller scale after straining to listen intently to classical music or a Spanish program. But then eventually things started to fall into place and ALL my thinking and dreaming was in Spanish. It was phenomenal.

If you can spend some time in a Spanish speaking country, I highly recommend it. Two weeks would be okay, two months would be indescribable as far as how much it will help your proficiency. If you cannot spend time in a Spanish speaking country, it will probably take you a few months to a few years to think and dream in Spanish, depending on how much time you have to spend on Spanish studies every day.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
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"To some, being fluent means sounding like a native." I've heard that quite a few times, and I don't like that definition either, as I don't think it's achievable. That would be "being born bilingual", not even "bilingual", as even teenagers who immigrate often keep an accent albeit being fully bilingual. (But that's a debate about the concept of bilingualism, which is a different issue.)

As to circumvolutions, I tend to consider a reasonable amount is acceptable in a fluent speech, provided it's not for too simple concepts and it doesn't happen too often. (For instance, "shelf" is a word you should know, but it's ok if you don't know how to say "procrastination" :-) )

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/THEMONOGLOT

I agree I don't think sounding like a native equals fluency. Some people have an exceptional vocabulary and excellent grammar and retain a strong accent. The reverse is possible as well. However, I wouldn't go so far as to say that it is IMpossible to achieve a native accent. S. Amer. always assume I'm Panamanian and Spaniards think I've grown up in Spain. I don't say that to brag. On a bad day my grammar is worse than a newborns. But I say it to say that it is possible. I have met many English speakers who I have mistaken as native English speakers especially Germans/Austrians. And in Nicaragua I met a ton of Nicaraguans who sounded more American than Americans (and I'm american). I was AMAZED. And these weren't people who started learning at 5. It involves a lot of parroting, watching t.v., paying attention to people's oral movements as they talk, listening to music and even studying phonetics and where your tongue should be as you make different sounds.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/0liwia
0liwia
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I have ever only met one guy who could parrot a French accent... But he went to middle school and high school in France :-)

And I have met once a Frenchman who had an almost perfect Polish accent, but he had undergone a massive phonetics course to re-learn where your tongue should be, as you said.

I'd be interested to meet people who achieved that by themselves, not having learned the language very young. I myself learned English as a teenager, and I've been told quite a few times I sound like someone who would have emigrated to the US as a teen - albeit never having lived there - but I still have a slight accent.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/MobsterDolphin

I know a high school girl who has never been apart of an immersion program, but has picked up a rather authentic french accent. She takes regular classes at school, and accomplished it by imitating the French teacher (a native parisian).

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/THEMONOGLOT

I do have to admit though that the Nicaraguans I met who speak perfect English had a few things in common: Even if they didn't study English until middle or high school, their whole lives they were accustomed to watching English t.v. and listening to music in English on the radio. Plus there were tons of Americans in the area of Nicaragua I was in. So I think that has something to do with it: having constant exposure to the language at a young age. Even if you are not learning the language traditionally (at school, taking classes), your ears are being trained to hear the sounds of the language.

And you're right. Phonetics classes do help. I took one as well in university. They are super interesting and it helped me tremendously. You record yourself mimicking native speakers, you listen to natives and have to decide which country they are from, and literally study where your teeth, lips and tongue should be as you make each letter of the alphabet. It sounds tedious but it totally helps you to make sense of the language and its sounds. You can even focus on a particular countrys accent. I think its worth it if you it you have chance to take one!

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/Resonance2001

I wasn't in a hurry but it took me about 3 years to be fluent in Spanish. I don't know whether that quick or slow. You must think it out first before saying something in another language. I still have to do that but there are some things that just come out as easily as English. Something just pops out of my mouth before my brain gets to check whether it is correct. Most of the time I take about 3 words at a time in English and my brain is just used to translating them depending on the type of word. You just need a feel for the type. I can just look at a word and tell whether it is a noun, adjective or verb etc. which is helpful when you are translating. By the way, I say that I am fluent but I wouldn't in real life. My friends tell me I'm fluent as I can hold full conversations with people. I have also decided to do a Spanish verb pattern course if you're interested: http://youtu.be/BeqQuJsFJhk

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/speightman

so other than DL. How is this done? I can read and write fairly well in Spanish but speaking in Spanish is the goal. So I understand more than enough but to get to another level where im not "translating" seems so far away. When i want to speak it i watch tv (in english) and think of how id say that in Spanish but that again is just translating rather than talking How do you build up to a level where i could just watch spanish tv and understand (i try and watch spanish news online but dont get much of it..only the written parts) Any advice welcome on improvement of listening and speaking. Thanks

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/GregHullender
GregHullender
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This is where immersion makes such a huge difference. The B1 or B2-level student who spends six weeks abroad immersed with a family who cannot speak English will get several hundred hours of practice in one big dose.

And will return home fluent.

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/THEMONOGLOT

Fluency can mean a lot of different things to different people (somedays I think I'm fluent, somedays Spanish sounds like Russian to me) but I would recommend READING. Reading has helped me to learn idioms, broaden my vocabulary and retain new vocab in my memory. I especially like reading young adult novels in Spanish because you can learn jokes, humor, etc. To answer your questions, I have dreamed in Spanish like once. I do think and talk to myself in Spanish sometimes. Sometimes randomly in a conversation I'll go I need to go to the store pero I dont feel like it. It's quite awkward. Sometimes I can think of a word in Spanish but not in English but maybe it's because I live in a Spanish speaking country so its different. I do think living abroad is very helpful to get to fluency. It pushes you. A real test of fluency is renewing residency/filling out legal documents in a foreign language especially when said documents are impossible to understand in your own language. Just read as much as you can, write down in a little notebook you always keep with you new vocuabulary/idioms/slang and review 4/5 times a day, ask people to correct you, work hard. You'll get there! I would say it has taken me a year and a half of studying Spanish in college 3/4 classes of immersion per semester and almost 2 years of living abroad (to get to what I consider fluent). Would I pass the C2 exam, who knows! Hope that helps!

4 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/gatiano8888

Short answer. When you are spoken to, by native speakers and understand nearly everything they are saying, including when they are using regional slang. Speaking to natives of that language and being understood. When you get most jokes in a foreign language, you are part of the fluent club. How long? 6 months to never

3 years ago

https://www.duolingo.com/jollyjohn

I've been learning portuguese for about 7 months (3 months on duolingo), and i started having a few dreams in that language about 4 months into the study. Then i started learning Spanish and German early this August and i just had a dream that i spoke the both of them at different times. I really don't understand that

4 years ago