Quora asked this question recently: “How do you know when you are fluent in a language?”
I answered thus: My guess is usually you won’t really know. Native speakers are usually polite and will flatter you with a better assessment than is true. Maybe a better question to ask yourself is “When am I fluent enough?”
My guess? When you’re enjoying using it and not really thinking about it. I am fluent enough in Afrikaans and can happily hold any conversation with someone who only speaks that language. But even though I have spoken it since I was little, no native speaker would mistake me for a native Afrikaans speaker.
Confession: I laboured under the mistaken impression that I was completely fluent. No-one told me otherwise. Then at age fourteen I went to Namibia (South West Africa as it was) and visited third cousins I had never met before. Within two sentences one of them blurted out “Jis! Jy kan hoor jy’s ’n rooinek!” (Boy, You can hear you’re English-speaking!) and my bubble burst. I’m now amazed I was so deluded!
Another case in point: My 94-yr old Dad speaks “fluent Italian” which he learnt in Italy in WW2. I asked an Italian-born schoolfriend a few years ago “How well does the old man actually speak Eyetie?” and he said “Really well. Really”. Somehow I think that’s politeness. I mean, two years in Italy seventy years ago when he was already 22yrs-old – ?? How likely is that? But I have no way of telling, so I’m happy to go with Claudio’s assessment! Thanks, figlio!
Another: I often get complimented for speaking good Zulu. This is definitely not true and is just polite people’s way of saying “Thank you for trying to speak isiZulu to me”.
Love this post. Ask BRAUER about his fluent Italian after a week in Kruger with a half Italian. Hilarious. If you make it emotional enough it works.
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Loved your blog! Well written. Regarding Dad’s Italian – what helped a lot is that he took Latin at school and he also had the opportunity to speak it a lot in Harrismith when Theuns van Wyk got him to come down to the factory and help with newly arrived, non-English speaking Italian workers. I also asked an Italian friend who had spent the day with us on the farm, what Dad’s Italian was like – and he said “Very good – he just sometimes mixes up male and female pronouns. His accent is very good.” When Mum & Dad were in Namibia years ago, staying with one of the many third cousins up there, Mum said something to Dad in English (an unheard, unknown language up there) and one of the little cousins said “Tannie, hoekom praat Tannie so snaaks?” Mum, rather proud of her ability in Afrikaans, said “Wat bedoel jy ek praat snaaks?” Came back the reply “Tannie praat so ‘talking talking.” Now where had that kid even heard the word “talking”? – he just knew she was speaking funny! Lots of alcohol on the ski-slopes improved my German immeasurably back in the 1980s in Kitzbuhel.
Thanks Sheil! Yes, the difference between speaking really well and the almost impossibility of being mistaken for a native speaker I think sums it up. Of course, both you and Brauer had the unfair alcohol advantage in your fluency!