When Can I Say I’m Fluent in Spanish?

In one of our Notes in Spanish Gold Q and A sessions, we were asked the following common question:

When can I say that I am “fluent” in Spanish?

Our listener went on to clarify: When people hear that I travel to Spain or Mexico to study Spanish, they often say “so, are you fluent in Spanish?” My eyes glaze over as I contemplate the question and try to formulate an honest answer.

Here’s the problem: While I can converse with almost anyone, anywhere, I still make tons of mistakes. And while I can understand most of what I hear on the news, I understand very little of the morning radio show (mostly comedy) on my way to work. Even if I follow a joke, I often miss the punch line! So it seems misleading to say I am “fluent” when I have so many gaps, even though I can communicate in Spanish all day long.

Interestingly enough, I’ve heard many people at levels much lower than mine declare confidently that they are “fluent.” Obviously, they have different criteria than I do. When did the two of you start answering “yes!” to that question? What should be my criteria for knowing I’ve crossed the line into “fluency?”

The Answer…

First of all, it is common to make mistakes when it’s not your mother tongue, no matter what your level. We (Ben and Marina) make mistakes, but can communicate fine and consider ourselves fluent in each other’s languages. When you hear someone with a difficult accent, or if you still find it difficult to listen to the radio, don’t worry! You just have to keep working at it.

And if you communicate in Spanish all day long, you’re definitely fluent! With reference to the jokes on the radio, Ben and Marina have the same problem. The phone and radio are two of the trickiest places for comprehension.

So, what can you do to increase your chances of getting fluent fast?

Make sure you have a copy of our free PDF report:

Zero to Fluent in 9 Months (PDF) (Just click on the link to automatically start the download of the pdf document.)

And make sure you keep filling your life with real Spanish! Listen to our real Spanish audio conversations, and if you need help with getting every bit of language-goodness from them, pick up the worksheets in our store to follow along with the transcripts and drive it all home with the vocab analysis and exercises included.

- Ben y Marina

16 thoughts on “When Can I Say I’m Fluent in Spanish?

  1. Sabi

    Hola Ben y Marina

    I’d like to say that I have some fluency in Spanish and that I have a good understanding of the culture/language but there’s much room for improvement. Whilst I can have a good old gossip and express myself generally, I would struggle in a full on technical situation like discussing a heavy legal or serious business discussion for example. As a non native speaker, there is always going to be some new word or phrase that I will have to learn and my accent will probably never be perfect. Also, my written Spanish needs attention! The most important thing is just to keep going, enjoy and communicate and not to let embarassment hold you back.

    Keep up the good work you two!
    Saludos desde Bristol.
    Sabi

  2. Marvin Wright

    My answer to this question is…
    To an English person, I am fluent
    To a Spanish person, I speak very well
    To me, I still have a lot to learn.

    The simple answer is if everytime you speak to a Spanish person you speak in Spanish as it is better than their English, you are fluent.

  3. LC

    I fit the description of the person who posted regarding fluency and I’ve pondered the same question for many years. What I finally concluded is that fluency is in the eye of the beholder. My native language is English. I’m fluent in English. My level of Spanish isn’t even close to my facility with Spanish, yet I can speak Spanish to anyone about any topic, politics, world events, science, history, sports, whatever I want at a fairly rapid rate for any length of time but with many errors and with much effort. Although I can express any idea on any topic and know and use my fair share of idiomatic expressions (from Spain) I have to THINK about what I’m saying in a way that I don’t have to do in English and I commit errors that I’d NEVER commit in English. To some people, I’m already fluent but I know that I’m not and perhaps never will be. I’m proficient, not fluent. I speak Spanish at an advanced level but this isn’t fluency, at least not according to my own definition of fluency and therein lies the key. Fluency depends wholly upon one’s definition of fluency. My goal and my dream is to speak Spanish fluently with the same facility that I speak English, effortlessly (the mouth is engaged and the speaker–me–is only minimally aware that the brain is also engaged) and largely error-free. I don’t know if I’ll ever attain that level of Spanish but that’s my fervent hope. Also key for me was to finally stop agonizing over my lack of fluency, shrug my shoulders and just keep going. As I’ve struggled to learn Spanish, I’ve also been a detached observer of my own process, finding the acquisition of a second language to be a truly fascinating thing. It’s raised many questions in my mind and as a result, I’ve given the topic a lot of thought. But I digress. Fluency, and whether one has or has not attained it, is, in my opinion, dependent upon one’s own personal definition of what fluency means.

  4. wendy

    I think we all have that typical disdain for tooting our own horns, so, we might not say, yes I’m fluent, unless we’re feeling excessively confident. But, doesn’t fluency just mean speaking fluidly… without all those long pauses you have when you start speaking a foreign language while you grasp for the right translation? if you can talk socially, and be understood, in a variety of areas, I’d say you were fluent – but that’s not the same as speaking like it’s your native tongue. I like to use the phrase ‘puedo chuparar’ (I can get by/speak a little) but, it also means “I suck” (which perhaps more accurately describes my confidence level!!!).

  5. Ann

    Just read the pdf, it was great! I would like to know what is/are the best ways to go about finding intercambios?

  6. Andrew

    This is an extremely murky area, keep in mind that the dictionary definition of “fluency” is to be able to communicate in a language “fluidly”, that is without having to stop and start repeatedly, that’s it, that’s basically the whole definition there. There’s tons of stuff out there on this and if you’re interested, if you don’t mind, I’d actually like to direct you to a post I wrote about this on my blog about a month ago: http://howlearnspanish.com/2010/11/what-does-it-mean-to-be-fluent-in-a-language/

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  7. Graeme

    There is no need to have your own definition. Fluent simply means that you don’t have to pause unnecessarily and that the conversation flows. Chambers Dictionary calls it “ready in the use of words – smooth, easy, graceful”

    Is a four year old fluent in English? By that definition, yes – sometimes too much!! So, what is your Spanish like compared to a four-year-old, then? And maybe their fluency comes in part from not having to think about preterites and imperfects, subjunctives and indicatives, por and para. Yep, you may find that you are more ‘fluent’ than you first thought…

    OK, there are levels of fluency, too :) Sorry to throw a spanner in the works there!!

    But when you learned English, or whatever your mother tongue is, your thinking brain had not even started to develop. Thinking gets in the way of language learning.

    My point? When you can hold a conversation “without too much thought” you can call yourself fluent. And for me, I’d rather say something wrong but quickly than think about the rules for ten minutes and end up not saying it at all. Now that’s fluent!

  8. joseph

    If the definition of ” fluency” is that you can speak without pausing to think then I know many native English people whos conversations are littered with long pauses,such as errrm-ummm.etc.and the same goes for Spanish speakers,in most languages in every day conversations the same pauses occur,so does that mean that they aren´t fluent in their own language?of course not.
    I personally don´t believe that “fluency” has a definition..it´s subjective and up to the listener or the learner to decide if they is fluent or not.
    In any case why does your ability in a language need a definition.If you can communicate with anyone in their language and hold every day conversations albeit littered with mistakes,then your only concern should be self improvement without the concerns about what level your spanish is.

  9. Graeme

    “Fluent simply means that you don’t have to pause unnecessarily”

    I didn’t say that you couldn’t pause! That would turn you into my SISTER! lol

  10. Kelsey

    Thanks for asking the question. I definitely feel the same way. I can generally speak and write very well, but when people speak, sometimes I understand every single word, and other times, maybe 50%. It’s frustrating!

    Perhaps someone has already mentioned this, but I have heard various times that a person can consider themselves fluent if they can speak without having to think of what they want to say in their native tongue first–avoiding any awkward translations that might impede the conversation. In other words, if your second language comes out of the mouth freely and effortlessly without much thought, you can probably consider yourself fluent.

  11. Ben

    Thanks for all the great comments, it really is a tricky area obviously to say when one is ‘fluent’, and very subjective. The important thing is that we are all on our way to fluency if we aren’t there already! Happy Christmas to everyone, I think it’s going to be a very fluent Spanish 2011!

  12. elchicojack

    I don’t think I am fluent in Spanish. Here at home in England, I really struggle sometimes to make sense of Spanish radio and TV. On the other hand, the last time I had an oral test at the beginning of a course in Spain, I was told I spoke Spanish con fluidez. Perhaps the problem is that fluent suggests something absolute, whereas con fluidez could just mean there is some fluency. However, there are two things I am sure of. Firstly, translating one language into another is only ever an approximation (so I’ll stick with con fluidez in preference to fluent) and it is so damned cold here in December 2010 that, Espero que estar en Espana en este momento, hablando con fluidez.

  13. Young Gardner

    Thanks for asking the question. I definitely feel the same way. I can generally speak and write very well, but when people speak, sometimes I understand every single word, and other times, maybe 50%. It’s frustrating! Perhaps someone has already mentioned this, but I have heard various times that a person can consider themselves fluent if they can speak without having to think of what they want to say in their native tongue first–avoiding any awkward translations that might impede the conversation. In other words, if your second language comes out of the mouth freely and effortlessly without much thought, you can probably consider yourself fluent.

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