When we learn a language, perhaps we'll try watching TV in that language or trying to read a newspaper article. Then we get downhearted because maybe we can’t understand it. We compare the level we’re at now with that of a native speaker. Although to speak as fluently as a native speaker is a noble goal to have, aiming so high so soon can actually be detrimental to your learning. So lets be very clear on this:
There’s a huge difference between being fluent in a language and speaking like a native.
What is fluent anyway? Depending on who you ask, you’ll get a different answer to that question. Some people think it’s being able to understand every word in that language. (If that’s the case then I’m certainly not fluent in English). The Oxford English dictionary defines it as being: Able to express oneself easily and articulately.
To express yourself easily you don’t have to have a storehouse of complex vocabulary under your belt. A child of 10 years old can express themselves perfectly well but you wouldnt expect them to have complex vocab. You could even express yourself by using simple word and pointing at stuff - which is what a lot of polyglots actually do in the first stages of learning a language. Then there’s the other part of that definition, articulately. Look up the word “articulate” in a Thesaurus and you’ll find that it’s just a fancy word for “understandable”. So, in reality, being able to speak “fluently”, according to those very clever fellows at Oxford, means Able to express oneself and be understood. That’s it. You don’t need to be able to understand every word to be fluent. Also, notice that it implies YOU are able to communicate easily, not that you understand everything thats being said back to you.
The Real World
In my day job, my manager is from Madrid. He’s lived in England for 25 years. He’s married to an English woman. He speaks fluent English. He does not, however, have "native level fluency" in English and anyone can tell straight away that he is, in fact, Spanish. His accent is still there, he pronounces English words that are the same in Spanish the Spanish way and he doesn’t understand some words that we only use here in Liverpool. But he is considered to be fluent in English.
Fluency does not mean that you understand every word that’s spoken to you, or that you can have a conversation about anything. For example, you native English speakers, if you came here to Liverpool and someone asked you “Do you have a chewie?” would you know what that means? Do you know what an “offy” is?
Now, you could study English courses online, at home, in books and audio courses but I’ll guarantee you’ll not find words like those above. Why? Each region has its own slang words and colloquialisms. The real-world spoken language that you can only learn by speaking to native speakers. You can still be fluent and not understand many words or idioms. There are many conversations taking place in London, Yorkshire and certainly in Glasgow that I wouldn’t understand a word of.
Being able to say just a few words in another language is a massive difference to the person you’re speaking to. Especially if that language is an obscure one.
When I first started learning languages, after about a week or so I’d give up because I couldn’t understand a newspaper or understand what the people on TV were saying. I therefore concluded that my language learning was a waste of time, that I’d learned nothing and so I just gave up. In the early stages of my language learning quest I’d dabbled in French, German, Spanish, Italian, Hindi, Arabic, Polish and Mandarin. I didn’t believe id attained any measurable success in those languages. Until I first visited Munich. I decided, I’d try to learn enough German to get by. So tried Teach Yourself Beginners German and I got through the first 2 CDs of Michel Thomas German. To my surprise, with this alone I was able to get by in Munich fine without resorting to English all the time. I’d say I was speaking German 50% of the time I was there. This is a lot more than most 23 year old British tourists at the time. I was able to find my way around on the U-Bahn, get a bus to my hotel, check in, ask for directions and order food/drink.
Now, like every major city, Munich has its share of immigrants. I found an Indian DVD store in the town and went in hoping to find any Bollywood films with the beautiful Aishwarya Rai in. The owner, an old Indian lady, didn’t seem to speak very much German or English for that matter. So I asked her in Hindi “do you speak Hindi?” Her face lit up with surprise. She said “Yes”. I then told her “I don’t speak very much Hindi, do you have... <pointing to the huge collection of movie posters> Aishwarya Rai?”
I didn’t understand a word of what she replied but she led me over to the posters and found about 10 posters of Aishwarya Rai and I picked one. Over to the cash desk I asked in German how much it was. I assumed she’d know how to conduct a simple transaction in German considering she owns a store in Germany. And that’s it. I “got by” speaking Hindi in Germany by using simple sentences and pointing. She understood me and that’s a MASSIVE achievement when you think about it - a 23 year old westerner buying a poster in Hindi in a German speaking country. And all because id dabbled with Hindi about a year earlier.
With this newfound self confidence I carried on learning only German from then on. Deciding to learn one language at a time. By the time I visited Munich again 2 years later I didn’t speak English at all when I was there.
Do I speak native level fluency? No. Do I consider myself a fluent speaker of the German language? By no means! I’ve been learning German seriously for years and I still make mistakes from time to time. I still get word endings and noun genders wrong sometimes and on one occasion I met a couple from Austria visiting Liverpool who asked me for directions and my mind went blank - as if id completely forgotten how to speak German. Yet, most English people consider me to be fluent. Although the word fluency means something different to me than it does to other people. I’m told by Germans that I have a German accent when I speak their language (thanks to Pimsleur), which I’m happy about. But they’d know I’m not a native German speaker because I my sentences are sometimes peppered with the wrong ending or I stop to think of a word or perhaps I get the word order wrong from time to time.
Native speakers think in that language, the voice in their head is in that language, their dreams are in that language and when they first learned to talk as babies everyone around them spoke that language. As a result their entire reality is shaped by that language and it’s the operating system their brain uses to process new information and to understand the world around them.
Which brings us to you. You went through the same process as above. As a baby your parent(s) spoke a certain language, the TV was in that language, the first words you spoke were in your parents language and any word or sound you made that didn’t elicit a response was rejected by your brain as being gibberish. Therefore you dreams are in that language, your thoughts are in that language and the voice in your head is in that language.
So in conclusion, don’t compare whatever level you’re at now with native speakers. Only try and be better than you were yesterday. Whether that be one more lesson in your course book or even just learning one more word, as long as you’re progressing you’re doing fine. What tends to happen is, as you watch videos of Polyglots on YouTube you assume they can converse about anything and everything. But in reality they cant. You’re not seeing the times where they didn’t understand a sentence or couldn’t get their word order right - you’re just seeing it when things went well. Polyglot Richard Simcott met with Tim Donner and mentioned that, although Tim is certainly a polyglot, he’s not good at all the languages he’s learning. Some are better than others. But I’ve never met a polyglot that claims they’re fluent in more than 5 languages, even if they’re known as “fluent” in up to 15 languages.
Leanring a language is indeed a lifelong quest and we're all at different places on the map... just enjoy the journey!
P.S. In Liverpool a "chewie" is chewing gum - and an "offy" is an off licence, where you buy alcohol.