Foreign langauge fluency

When do you Become ‘Fluent’ in a Foreign Language?

Those who speak a foreign language are often asked to gauge their proficiency on a scale that ranges from an absolute beginner, still at the speaking slowly and pointing stage, all the way up to foreign language fluency. But what does it mean to be fluent? Well, that’s actually a surprisingly difficult question to answer.

Is the definition of a fluent foreign language speaker someone who could easily pass for a mother tongue speaker? Or does it mean you can take part in any conversion despite your vocabulary and accent being a little less than perfect?

One organisation that has tried to answer the question of fluency is the Council of Europe. They developed the Common European Framework of Reference for Language to define different levels of language ability.

The highest level of language ability on their scale is a ‘proficient user’, who is defined as someone who can ‘take part in any conversation effortlessly, conveying finer shades of meaning precisely with a good familiarity of idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms’.

However, there’s also a lower level of proficiency, ‘advanced user’, which most people would also consider to be fluent. An advanced user is one who can ‘spontaneously formulate ideas and opinions for social and professional purposes with precision and without much obvious search for expressions’.

In the above example, although the advanced user would not be mistaken for a mother tongue speaker, they would be able to navigate around any gaps in their knowledge to make themselves understood, regardless of the topic of conversation. Does that make them fluent? Well, it must mean they’re pretty close.

The size of your vocabulary

One of the most important factors in assessing a foreign language speaker’s proficiency is the size of their vocabulary. Generally speaking, a native speaker of will have an active vocabulary of about 20,000 words they use regularly. This is comprised of words the native speaker could use confidently and their meaning is clearly understood, such as ‘t-shirt’ or ‘house’.

Most native speakers will also have a passive vocabulary of 15,000 words or more, which will include words they recognise but tend to use imprecisely. These words, such as ‘nonplussed’ or ‘cognitive’ might be familiar to the native speaker, but not always precisely understood.

So, by that logic, even native speakers aren’t completely fluent in their own language. Sometimes we’re all guilty of using words we don’t fully understand, and even confident native speakers are out of their depths discussing unfamiliar technical topics.

The range of language areas covered

Another important measure of linguistic fluency is the range of language areas people are comfortable with. A fluent linguist should have mastered both the written and spoken language, and be comfortable in a formal and informal setting. It goes without saying that the ability to switch between tenses correctly plays an essential part in language proficiency, but this should also be bolstered by a vocabulary that fits a diverse range of situations.

The ability to deviate away from the conversations we see in textbooks is a key part of language learning. Although it makes sense for language students to start with the common phrases, true fluency is measured by an individual’s ability to operate outside of these stock interactions.

The taxi driver test

The taxi driver test is one method of gauging an individual’s ability to speak freely and improvise in situations, rather than simply regurgitating their phrase book.

Asking whether a friendly local taxi driver ‘can take you to the Sunshine Hotel’ is one thing, but what happens when you have a dispute about the fare. In this case, a whole new level of language ability and understanding is required.

Being able to transfer between tenses, into the conditional ‘I would have paid you the full fare if…’ in French, or correctly assessing the formality of the exchange in German or Hungarian, is central to an individual’s ability to negotiate the situation successfully. It is this cultural knowledge, or lack of it, that dictates how the speaker can perform in unfamiliar situations. This is the true test of foreign language fluency.

The difference between native and fluent speakers

At Linguistic International, all of our translators and telephone interpreters are native speakers who always translate into their mother tongue. So, not only are they fluent language speakers, but they are also familiar with the cultural and linguistic nuances that exist. Get in touch today to see how we can help your brand compete on the global stage.


Bilingual speakers

Further Proof of the Perks of Being Bilingual

Translation, transcreation and telephone interpreting services have never been in more demand than they are right now. Globalisation and the internet have made it possible for even small businesses to expand into foreign markets thousands of miles away. The ability to communicate with foreign customers, clients and suppliers is the only barrier that prevents businesses from expanding into almost any market. As a result, the job prospects of bilinguals have never been better.

The last 15 years has seen a considerable amount of research into the benefits of a bilingual mind. Last week’s Linguistica Recruitment blog looked more closely at research which revealed the increased earning potential and improvements in the quality of life bilinguals could expect. There’s also evidence to support the fact that bilingualism makes our brains more efficient at relaying information.

As if the odds weren’t stacked high enough in the polyglots’ favour, the latest research published in Psychological Science shows bilinguals also benefit from being able to view the world differently depending on the language they are communicating in.

A study of English and German language speakers

The research published by Psychological Science centred on a comprehensive study of German-English bilinguals and monolinguals to see how different language patterns changed the way the participants reacted to a number of different tests.

In one test, German-English bilinguals were shown video clips of events that involved a motion, such as a man cycling to a supermarket, or a woman walking towards her car. The participants were then asked to describe what they saw.

Interestingly, a monolingual German speaker would typically describe the action and the goal of the action i.e. “a man is cycling towards the supermarket” or “the woman is walking to her car”, while English monolinguals would simply describe the action i.e. “the man is cycling”, or “the woman is walking.

The researchers believe the reason for this difference is rooted in the way the grammar of the two languages places actions in time. English requires its speakers to grammatically explain the events are ongoing by adding –ing, whereas the German language does not require this grammatical mark.

Different language, different perspective

When it came to testing the bilingual speakers, they were able to switch between the goal orientated German language and the action focused English in accordance with the language they were speaking at the time. In fact, they were just as goal orientated and action focused as any of the German or English speakers, but they also had the ability to switch between the two

These findings support previous research which has showed distinct behaviour depending on the language bilinguals are speaking. For example, in another study, Israeli Arabs were more likely to associate Arab names like Ahmed and Samir with positive words when speaking an Arabic language rather than Hebrew.

Emotional and economic language biases

People often self-report that they feel like a different person when using a language other than their mother tongue, and that the expression of certain emotions carries a different resonance depending on the language they are using.

The same can be said for economic decisions. Bilinguals tend to judge risk differently in a second language, which leads them to make more rational economic decisions. Why? Well, in contrast to their native language, they have not formed the innate, often misleading biases that influence how risks and benefits are perceived. The result is a change not only in the way bilinguals think, but also the decisions they make.

How can we help?

If you need some assistance understanding the cultural and linguistic biases of your clients, suppliers and customers, our mother tongue translators, transcreators and interpreters can help. Get your business communications word perfect by contacting Linguistica International today.