When Are You Fluent?

An important question for anyone attempting to become fluent in a foreign language is, how do you know when you’ve crossed the finish line?  Is it when you can order food in the language? Have a long conversation? Read the newspaper? Watch a movie without getting lost or needing subtitles? 

It’s when you begin dreaming in the language…!

About 25 years ago, I was a college freshman majoring in German (I’d visited Germany a couple years prior and was smitten). I asked my professor how I would know when I’d become fluent and his answer, while not utterly convincing, was quite enchanting. –>

As the years passed my German major became electrical engineering. And my electrical engineering career morphed into securities analysis. Now, I find myself in the same place I was 25 years ago, only this time it’s French. And I ask the universe, isn’t there some way to prove to myself and others that I’ve reached fluency?! 

It turns out that NOW there is a definitive answer – the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. These exams are generally accepted to certify your level of reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

A1: Beginner                    A2: Elementary

B1: Intermediate             B2: Upper Intermediate

C1: Advanced                   C2: Master

Achtung, ya’ll

There are a variety of ways to describe these levels. But simply, the A levels are probably about where my German is – at a survival level. If you kidnapped me and parachuted me alone into central Germany, (and ignore the fact that all Germans speak English), I could communicate enough to make my needs known, get directions, beg for food, and generally survive – albeit with imperfect grammar. When I ask a question, speak back to me like I’m 4 years old… I’ll probably understand.  

At the B levels, you can do more than simple survival Q&A. You can maintain conversation, elaborate on your opinions, and handle most things that come up in daily life. Some students draw their finish line for fluency at B2, which makes sense because some French universities will apparently let you in if you have one, without having to take a language test first. 

For whatever proof-of-language-proficiency doors B2 doesn’t open, C1 apparently kicks them down. This is where you’re spontaneously fluent, speaking with nuance and without hesitation. I’ve read slightly different takes on it, but it’s at either C1 or C2 where you qualify to teach French (perhaps C2 to be teaching French in France). 

You know, if I only read about the levels as described above, I’d probably say I’ll call it a day when I pass B2. And maybe I actually will. But I can’t ignore that more than once google has landed me on a forum or blog of some language autodidact who has made it to C1 (but not C2, which is apparently so very hard and so rarely required that it’s only for people who have a screw loose). 

So, no final decision necessary today. The important thing is that websites exist that will allow me to make the appropriate vanity oval sticker for whatever levels I do pass. (Kidding! Those stickers are driving me crazy!)