People are motivated to learn other languages for diverse reasons, but most share the common goal of being able to communicate effectively, of reaching a certain level of fluency. As a language learner, you might be wondering how you will know that you are achieving your goal. Here are some signs and symptoms that you are on your way to becoming fluent in another language.
With the exception of individuals who are exposed to multiple languages at a very early age, most people are initially struck by just how foreign the foreign language seems. Features of the new language are contrasted with what is familiar, from the perspective of difference. English-speaking students learning Spanish, for example, often comment on the usual placement of adjectives after nouns as “backwards” because this word order is the reverse of what is familiar. A sign that you are becoming fluent in another language is the ability to experience the uniqueness of that language without considering it so strange. You accept the language more readily, taking in new words and structures without constantly referencing your native language. You might even find yourself wondering why something is done the way it is in your own language, now that you’ve seen another way of doing it.
Comprehending another language, a key component of fluency, is progressive. A beginner may only be able to pick out a few words and phrases. With more learning and practice, the individual will be able to make sense of most of what he or she hears. Regardless of how much is understood, the process of making meaning may still involve a lot of mental translation. Another sign that you are becoming fluent in another language is that you find yourself listening and understanding without any conscious effort on your part to translate the input. What’s coming in comes in and you understand most of it, no further action required.
As you become fluent in another language, you are increasingly adept and comfortable with the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of that language. It should come as no surprise, then, that these linguistic elements may influence your own language. You might start to question your spelling, for example, if there are similar words in both languages and you are growing accustomed to seeing the word in the target language. There will be times that you are speaking your native language and yet a word will come to you first in the language you are presently acquiring. Or perhaps you think of the perfect word to express what you are trying to say and find that your own language does not have a word that captures your idea quite so well. Other times the syntax of your speech or writing might strike you as awkward and you realize that you have inadvertently applied the structures of your new language to your old one. These are all symptoms that you are becoming fluent.
Finally, you will know you are becoming fluent when your subconscious can also speak the language in question. Sometimes your “self talk,” the narrative stream that goes on in your mind, will incorporate the language. Sometimes you will speak or hear the language in your dreams.
If you have already experienced some or all of these signs and symptoms, congratulations! If not, keep striving for your goal of becoming fluent in another language. When you experience the signs and symptoms described above, you will recognize them as evidence of your progress toward fluency.