To the untrained tongue, fluency is the idea of speaking a language without error or miscomprehension. The mere sound of the question “Oh, so are you fluent?” strikes fear into my heart, because such a question would never be asked by person who fully understands the meaning, i.e. someone who has achieved fluency in a foreign language. Among linguists and language students “I speak [insert language here]” is met with an impressed and understanding nod, a mutual intrigue and probably a couple of questions about the language; however when in conversation with a person that speaks only their mother tongue the focus becomes almost entirely directed at the linguist’s ability to perform in the foreign language.
There’s absolutely zero logic in the idea that fluency is knowing and understanding every single word in a given language. By that logic, no one is fluent even in their mother tongue because nobody knows every single word in their own language. Think of all the times when you’ve wondered, in English, “what the hell are they on about?!” We know what we need to know in order to go about our day-to-day lives and for that reason everybody’s vocabulary is different. We all have and use a basic lexicon that allows us to communicate with one another and to buy food from the supermarket, but a doctor will have a different extra set of vocab to a lawyer and a lawyer will have a different set of vocab to an architect. Those of us that hold not a single one of those titles may never come into contact with such vocabulary, save for the occasional episode of Grey’s Anatomy, Suits or Grand Designs, because we don’t need to. Similarly, some people, for example people who are book lovers, writers and teachers, are likely to have a much wider and better used vocabulary than those who are not (yes, I am bigging myself up).
We know what we need to know when we need to know it. I’ve never had my haircut in Paris so I wouldn’t have a clue what to ask for in the chair, but I could walk into a Madrid salon and get my capitas largitas put in no problemo. I never learnt about sustainable energy sources in my university Spanish classes, but I could have a lengthy conversation with my French boss about éoliennes (wind turbines) and the effects of énergie nucléaire (figure it out yourself). When I was living in Spain I was fully aware that if I came into contact with a French person I’d end up speaking comme une vache espagnole. I have come to accept that, for the most part, my brain can only cope with two languages at one given moment, so if I was at work hearing Spanish all around me in the classroom but speaking to the class in English, French could never come into play. In the same way, when I’m babysitting in the park and speaking to one child in English and the other in French that’s totally cool, but my brain has a complete nervy b when the old Bolivian man comes over for a chit chat in Spanish. It’s a natural fact of life that if you are fluent in two foreign languages you will always be stronger in the one of the country where you have most recently lived, worked or visited, unless you are managing to use them simultaneously with native speakers on a daily basis.
So with this in mind fluency is, for the most part, understanding and being understood despite the errors we make. When non-native English speakers make mistakes we still understand them and yet we often forget this when we’re in their shoes. Fluency is not knowing 100% of the words in a sentence or phrase but still being able to deduce meaning from the context. It’s using the wrong word or tense but identifying that you’ve made a mistake. It’s accepting that you’re going to make mistakes and having the balls to dive in head first anyway. It’s when you come to understand cultural nuances that affect the way the language works. It’s when you stop questioning the irregularities and start accepting the crazy. It’s when you stop learning and start living.