Beyond Words - Language Blog

What does it mean to be “Fluent” in a language?

Many people dream of becoming fluent in a foreign language. Whether you want to land a new job, travel abroad, or understand what your new in-laws are saying, becoming fluent in a foreign language has its benefits.

What are the steps?

Whatever your reasons for wanting to become fluent, you may want to know exactly what that means. According to Portland University –Concordia, before reaching fluency, you will have gone through these stages of language development:

● Silent/Receptive is a stage that lasts for hours or months, depending on the individual. Typically, you will begin to build your vocabulary and practice pronunciation.
● Early Production is the period of learning in which you can add about 1,000 words to your knowledge base. It can take months to reach this stage of development.
● Speech Emergence is the stage in which you will have accrued approximately 3,000 words in your vocabulary, and when you have become able to put together limited phrases.
● Intermediate Fluency can take a year or longer. By this point, you will have about 6,000 words under your belt. With this expansion in vocabulary, you will be able to communicate these words verbally, as well as read and write them using your intermediate level of fluency. Typically this stage of development lasts about one year. With practice, you will find that you begin to think in the second language. This crucial development enables you to continually expand your ability to use your second language with ever increasing accuracy.

How do you know when you have reached the “fluent” level?

After you’ve reached the above milestones in learning a foreign language, you may be asking yourself if you are finally fluent. The truth is there is no single answer to this question. The answer depends on what your goal is for using the language. “Fluent” is a catch-all word used as an almost yes/no proposition in language, but in reality, there are various levels of language proficiency with certain skills achieved at each level. For example, someone who is considered a level 3 on the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale would be considered to have professional working proficiency (i.e., they can fulfill all language needs related to their professional field, as well as conduct everyday language tasks), while someone considered a level 5 on the ILR scale would be considered to have native or bilingual proficiency.

With fluency, even before you begin to speak, words are forming in your brain in the target language. This is known as the prelinguistic state. The ability to do this is a significant hallmark of achieving some level of foreign language fluency.

Living a Fluent Life

Francois Grosjean Ph.D., an Emeritus Professor of psycholinguistics, revealed in Psychology Today that he conducted a survey of bilingual and trilingual people and discovered that 70 percent “think in both or all languages.” He points out that many bilingual people may find themselves in the predicament of having to be able to think on their feet depending on “domains” of life. For example, if you use different languages for different aspects of your life, Grosjean calls this the “complementarity principle.” The complementarity principle is the foundation of understanding to what extent a bilingual person is skilled by examining the changes in a person’s life over time and how their environment and need for one language over another is affected.

Grosjean simplified the meaning of the complementarity principle in an interview. The level of fluency obtained, he said, depends upon the need for that language. “It is precisely because the needs and uses of the languages are usually quite different that bilinguals rarely develop equal and total fluency in their languages,” he said. “The level of fluency attained in a language (more precisely, in a language skill) will depend on the need for that language and will be domain specific.”


Learning a foreign language is exciting, but it does take work. ALTA Language Services offers complete and practical training and language proficiency assessments to get you on your way!

Georgia native Ann Ward is a published author, ghostwriter and research consultant. Her studies include a Bachelor’s Degree in English and Psychology. She has a special interest on the importance of language skills and how it shapes society and mankind.

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