I’ve spent more than half my life labouring over gendered nouns, weird and wonderful tenses (pluperfect subjunctive, I’m looking at you here) and obscure grammatical anomalies, but one piece of the language-learning jigsaw still (pun intended) puzzles me: fluency.
Like many others, I’ve aspired to it, but it’s a slippery concept – one which cannot be quantified – and for that reason it’s been both a source of inspiration and dejection over the years.
I love the feeling that comes with finishing un livre français, having understood the whole plot. I love singing along to French songs around the house. (Who doesn’t love a bit of Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy or Zaz?) I love being able to watch French films and series without the subtitles. Heck, I’ve even been known to watch English series dubbed into French, just because I can. I love catching snippets of French on the train, on the streets of Cambridge. I love being able to make use of my French at work, albeit only occasionally. I love being able to interact with others in another language. I love discovering new words.
But for all the triumphs, there are a multitude of niggling doubts, of difficulties. There are gaps in my vocabulary, but I know that these gaps exist in English too: discipline-specific vocabulary that simply doesn’t overlap with my interests, studies or career. Sometimes I catch punchlines a beat too late. It takes me longer to write emails in French, simply because typing accented characters with an English keyboard is a faff. I find it harder to convey my personality; it sometimes feels as though I have two personas, one for each language.
So, are you fluent yet? Well, isn’t that the million-dollar question.
For a long time, I struggled with the concept of fluency; my perfectionist streak was a hindrance, not a helping hand. I felt as though I had to know the language inside out to qualify as fluent: a black-and-white way of viewing fluency. I was afraid of overstating my language abilities. I learnt the hard way that if there’s one thing you shouldn’t do, it’s understate them.
I see now that there are many shades of grey, that fluency is fluid, that everyone – and by extension, every dictionary – has their own definition of fluency.
The Macmillan Dictionary defines fluent (rather vaguely) as “able to speak a foreign language very well”, while The Collins Dictionary defines fluent as “[being able to] speak the language easily and correctly”; I’m sure linguists would have a field day dissecting exactly what is meant by speaking a language correctly. Oxford Dictionaries, meanwhile, define fluent as “able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately”; for me, this definition is closer to the mark, as accurately accommodates contextual nuances, in a way that correctly does not (in my opinion, at least).
Being fluent doesn’t mean you can recite the dictionary verbatim, nor that you can speak legalese effortlessly in a foreign tongue. Being fluent doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of the road; languages evolve, and there’s always something new to learn. Being fluent means, to me at least, that you’re at ease using the language; that you can manipulate it for your own purposes; and that you’re familiar with the culture within which it is spoken.
Maybe next time someone asks, I’ll answer in the affirmative; I suppose that for all intents and purposes I am. Just don’t ask me what a bobbit is in French, because even WordReference doesn’t know. (I hope you’ve all been enjoying Blue Planet II as much as I have.)