What does it mean to be fluent in English? And how do you know when you are fluent? Fluency is a process; it’s a journey. And I’m here to help you with it. To begin, getting fluent in English doesn’t happen overnight. The process can be so slow you don’t even realize you are making progress. It’s only when you look back a few years that you can see just how far you’ve come. I recently experienced this with my Spanish. I looked back at a video I made seven years ago, and it sounded nothing like the way I speak Spanish today. So the points I’m going to share with you about being fluent in English are applicable to other languages, as well. Let’s start by addressing some common misconceptions.
What doesn’t make you fluent:
- Listening to English every day.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s very helpful. But listening to English every day (and even understanding native speakers) doesn’t automatically mean you are fluent.
- Studying at institutions for years.
There are certainly benefits to studying English at university or private academies, but that won’t, alone, make you fluent.
- Having a private teacher.
The personalized touch is not a magic touch. A private teacher can be helpful, but it won’t guarantee your fluency.
- Using English at work.
At work, you will use a limited vocabulary and will talk about a limited number of topics. If you use English at work, that’s great. But it doesn’t guarantee fluency in other environments or casual conversations.
- Having a degree or certificate.
This means that you have completed a course or finished a degree program. That’s an accomplishment to be proud of. But it’s not the same as being fluent. Here is the checklist I’ve developed to identify fluency. You can also use it to celebrate your accomplishments and to identify what you still need to work on.
Fluency Test: How many of these are true for YOU?
You know you’re fluent when…
You understand at least one dialect of English perfectly.
There are many different dialects of English. Understanding them all just isn’t realistic. I went to Ireland, and I could barely understand some of the people there. Being fluent in English doesn’t mean you can understand every dialect. But it does mean that you can understand at least one perfectly. Granted, you may not understand a word or phrase now and then, but that’s normal. Generally speaking, you don’t have problems understanding the overall dialect.
You can speak automatically.
You don’t have to think about what you’re going to say or how you’re going to say it. Those thoughts don’t even occur to you. You just open your mouth and you speak.
You make very few errors.
When you do make errors—since even native speakers make errors—you can catch most of them. If you want to see if you’re able to catch your errors, write a page in English or record a 2-minute video. Read what you wrote or watch the video and see if you can catch your own mistakes.
You can use a wide range of vocabulary and expressions.
If you’re fluent, you shouldn’t feel like you are constantly repeating yourself. I remember when I was still learning Spanish, I would always say, ‘Que interesante.’ (How interesting). I would say that for every context: you would tell me something cool – ‘Que interesante.’ You would tell me something normal – ‘Que interesante.’ I literally didn’t know other ways to react. I wasn’t fluent yet.
You can explain and talk about a variety of subjects that are both conversational and technical.
I know a lot of English learners who can describe their job perfectly, but when they have to speak casually about their day, they freeze. When you’re fluent, you can talk about the technical parts of your job just as easily as you talk about day-to-day things.
You use grammar tenses naturally and easily.
There is really no such thing as a difficult tense. If a tense is difficult, that’s because you’re a beginner or at an intermediate or upper immediate stage. Grammar is something we internalize. When you’re fluent, you don’t have to conjugate verbs in your head before you speak or try to remember certain grammar rules before writing a sentence.
You know something is right because it sounds right.
Eventually, you’ll get to a point where you know sentences and phrases are correct because they simply sound right. You might not be able to explain the grammar rules, but you know when and how to use them (just like a native speaker).
You make the same mistakes native speakers make.
My spelling in Spanish used to be flawless. That was when I was at a more intermediate level. Eventually, I got so comfortable with the language that I started to make the same spelling mistakes native speakers make. I would confuse the V and the B, for example, which is quite common among Spanish speakers.
There are things you struggle to express in your native language because there isn’t a clear translation.
You learned it in English and you internalized it in English. It just doesn’t make sense to you when you try to express it in your native language.
English structures and grammar start to affect your native language.
This is a funny thing that happens to people who are fluent in two or more languages. I’ve caught myself saying, for example, ‘I shut it off, the water’ instead of ‘I shut the water off’ because I accidentally used a sentence structure that is common in Spanish.
Native and non-native speakers are impressed with your English.
They’re shocked by your pronunciation. They’re shocked by how natural you sound and how well you express yourself.
You understand jokes.
Understanding humor in a foreign language is one of the most difficult things to do. You have to understand the language, grammar, and culture. You have to read between the lines. Some jokes might still go over your head. But when you’re fluent, you are able to listen to a comedian, understand what they’re saying, and even laugh—assuming the jokes are good.
You don’t get stuck when speaking.
When you do get stuck—it happens to all of us—you can quickly find another way to say what you want to say.
You can speak coherently for any length of time.
I’ve found that often intermediate learners tend to talk in circles. It’s like the more you talk the less sense you make. If this happens to you, here’s a tip: make shorter sentences; take pauses; don’t try to talk for too long, take a break.
You are not afraid to speak to native speakers.
I know that some people are shy by nature or they are naturally introverts. But when you’re fluent, you don’t have negative thoughts like: ‘Are they going to understand me?’ ‘Are they going to make fun of the way I talk?’ When you’re fluent, if you’re uncomfortable around native speakers, it’s out of shyness and not from a lack of language skills.
You can comfortably maintain a conversation.
This means sharing a conversation, interacting with the other person or people, exchanging ideas and anecdotes, and transitioning to new topics. When you can comfortably maintain a conversation, you pause appropriately and share jokes or opinions, and there aren’t any awkward silences—at least none that are due to a lack of fluency.
You feel like yourself.
I remember when I first went to Argentina, I was so frustrated. Normally, I have no problem talking to strangers, no problem presenting or telling jokes. But for the first few years I was in Argentina, I lacked fluency and confidence. It was like I was a completely different person. I was constantly stuck in my own head, afraid to talk to people. Finally, with fluency, all that went away, and I could return to being Stefanie.
You understand subtle differences in similar sentences.
This means that you can pick up on people’s attitudes behind what they say. They might say one thing, but you know they really mean something else.
You avoid using direct translations.
When you’re fluent, you speak like a native speaker. You don’t translate directly from your native language into English because you know that native speakers don’t speak that way. You can take an idea from your native language and communicate it in English the way a native English speaker would.
Your pronunciation and accent don’t interfere with your communication.
Everyone has an accent, even native speakers. You should not be embarrassed by your accent. But when you’re fluent, your accent or pronunciation don’t keep people from understanding you or having to work hard to understand you.
It takes time and persistence to become fluent in English. So no matter where you are at on this journey, don’t give up! Use the checklist above to figure out what you need to work on, and keep moving forward. And, if you want help from me and my team, check out our 30-day Fluency Breakthrough Challenge. This challenge will unlock your fluency in less than a month with simple, daily tasks that you can do from home! It has already transformed the lives of thousands of students around the world, and it might be exactly what you need to take your English (and your confidence!) to the next level.