Sunday, May 17, 2015

Well...Are you fluent yet?

Without a doubt the top question people from home ask me has always been “are you fluent in German now?" They pretty much started asking me that from my first few weeks living here!

When I think of the word “fluent” I imagine understanding absolutely everything and since I'm not quite there yet then I feel bad about why not and tend to answer "no". However, a better definition of fluency is actually the the ability to get by in most situations, to make oneself understood and to be able to go about daily tasks such as working, going to the doctor, post office and so on without language problems or barriers.You might still have your accent and not sound like a native speaker but that's ok!

Often I'll be sitting in a meeting at work and have no problems keeping up with the conversation and tricky technical speak and I'll feel confident and fluent at that moment but then at another time I might be on a night out with a group of Germans in a noisy pub and I find it hard to follow the conversation with the background noise and then I feel a little lost. I used to ask people who had lived here a long time at what stage they felt really fluent and I was often told it took them three years living in the county but others said it took them at least five years.

Recently, I came across an article that helps explain how to tell whether you are fluent. One of the ways is that people don't modify their language for you anymore. When I first moved here I noticed that a lot of Germans would try to speak Hochdeutsch (high German - without using dialect or slang) and speak clearly to make it easier for me to understand. Now they talk quickly and normally using local dialects, which I'm now able to keep up with. Also I can watch TV shows and read articles in German and understand without having to stop to think about the translations in my head or acknowledge that it's not English, which is great.

My first month or so living here I found myself exhausted each night from the effort of having to constantly translate everything in my head, formulate an answer in English and translate that before speaking. Now something like 90% of the time I understand what's being said without having to try to think of the English equivalent. So I guess I would say I am fluent now!

If you speak other languages, at what stage did you feel truly fluent? Or do you think you will never reach that stage as a non-native speaker?

Expat Life with a Double Buggy


  1. Interesting post and question! Normally I say that I am "fluent enough". I just looked at that article you linked to, and I can say yes to all those points. I still do not feel fluent, though, because there are times when I cannot say what I want to say when the conversation is deep. I have made huge advances in listening and reading comprehension, but I still lack confidence in speaking or writing formally.

    "Fluent enough" works for me, but I'm always working to improve my German and hope one day to feel fluent. I doubt I'll ever meet my own standards for fluency, though.

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I had the same experience as you - people started asking me if I was fluent in German basically as soon as I moved to Germany. I always see a bit of disappointment when I tell them, "Not yet". I've also been told, "But German is pretty easy, right?"

    I also agree with Ami Schwabenland, though - I wonder if we can ever reach our own standards of fluency because maybe we'll never feel like we can express ourselves as well in German as in our native language.

  3. Great post. Too true that people expect fluency to come pretty quickly. I can understand pretty much everything that is said but when I speak French back, I probably sound like a preschooler!

  4. Nice blog. I am an exchange student from the Philippines to US. And when I came here people didn't even know that I am an exchange student, until I told them. English is not my first language but they said that I don't have an accent. I think that I've been fluent in English. Grammar is easy for me. When I came here, I became more confident with my English. And I can pretty much deal with situation here.

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  5. no where near fluent yet, although I stopped spracheschule since moving to Berlin due to cost...hope to pick it up again in the near future...

  6. I had this conundrum the other day - I sometimes consider myself to be fluent in Dutch by now, and others feel like a fraud. I always associate the word fluent with the word 'perfect' which is wrong but that's how it feels sometimes to be able to consider myself fluent! Interesting post!

    Thanks for linking up #ExpatLifeLinky


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