I have been studying Spanish for over 10 years, including a year that I spent living in Chile (a Spanish speaking country). It is fair to say that I get asked the above question a lot by others who know my background. I am also constantly asking myself this question because of the different connotations of the word fluent in our society.
For a long time, I assumed that people who are fluent in other languages knew how to say absolutely every word in that given language; that you could ask them how to say something obscure such as Arachibutyrophobia and they would instantly be able to tell you how to say it in Spanish. Throughout high school I was envious of these vocabulary fluent people (whoever and wherever they were) and wondered how great it would be to be able to reel off words on demand.
I have spent the past 10 days reading a Spanish novel and on every single page I have underlined at least two words that are new to me. That’s a lie. It’s at least three new words per page that I’ve underlined. The book is 350 pages long, so at this rate I will have encountered over 1000 new words by the time I finish. It is safe to say that vocabulary fluent I am definitely not. Not even in my native language English do I know what the above word means, so to proclaim that I am vocabulary fluent in Spanish would be utterly ridiculous considering the amount of words I don’t know in my own language and the amount of words that are underlined in the Allende book I am reading.
Fluent in Writing
For me, people who are fluent in writing have a given knack for writing in languages (including their own). They can write articles, presentations, messages etc whilst thinking in the target language, which gives them that edge that others lack. When you write in the language you are thinking in, the texts flows which of course is a word that goes alongside “fluent”.
I think I am almost fluent in writing Spanish (please note that I am definitely not fluent in any way when it comes to Mandarin!) because when I write in Spanish I definitely think in Spanish. I write what I want to express and then check for grammatical errors and typos after, just as I do when writing in English.
Fluent in Speaking
Fluent speakers of other languages are brilliant. They can talk easily to other people, without embarrassment or pausing to think through the structures of their sentences. Words and expressions just flow (there’s that word again) from their mouth and even if they make some mistakes, they are understood by others. They speak what they think and they think in the language they are talking in.
I think when I lived in Chile, by the end of my year I was fluent in speaking, as it was my main form of communication with people and I was speaking Spanish all the time. My initial shyness and fear of making mistakes had to be overcome, talking in Spanish was the best (and only) way of communicating day to day. When I returned to England, some Spanish phrases (buenos días, ven aquí) were still stuck in my mind and it took time to readjust to speaking English again.
However now I am not fluent in speaking Spanish. I remember my Mexican friend helping me prepare for my Spanish oral exam after the Easter holidays and he told me my Spanish had gotten worse, that I couldn’t pronounce my rrrrrrrr’s and that he could see that I was thinking in English and translating. I’m not sure what happened over the Easter holiday, but my spoken Spanish definitely took a turn for the worse. From my first oral exam in December to my second one in May, my oral grade dropped by over 20 points, despite practising several times a week with various native Spanish speakers. Now I am living in Spain and my spoken fluency is improving as I think in English less and find ways to express myself in a Spanish way, but I still have a long way to go to become fluent in speaking Spanish.
Dictionary definition fluent
The Collins Dictionary (my favourite one) describes the adjective fluent as
able to speak or write a specified foreign language with facility
spoken or written with facility
amongst two other definitions that aren’t applicable to this post. So, in regards to this dictionary definition, my answer is yes, I am fluent in Spanish. The myths that people who are fluent in other languages need to know every word and speak and write without thinking are simply myths.
Knowing every word in a language makes you a dictionary and if I am honest, I don’t use dictionaries as much as you would think – they are boring, even if they are colour coded with pretty pictures. Not knowing a word doesn’t mean that I quickly whip out my phone and search for the exact meaning of it. Given the context, I take an educated guess which most of the time works perfectly.
It’s important to realise the differences in culture too when it comes to learning languages. I confuse calabaza (pumpkin) and calabacín (courgette) in Spanish, as they are very similar words and at home I rarely eat pumpkin or courgettes. Similarly, I couldn’t explain very well the differences between apricots and peaches, as for me they are both orange fleshy fruits that are sold in tins. When talking Spanish, somebody may assume that I am not “fluent” as I do not know what apricots and peaches are. But it is just that for me in England, these two fruits are more accessible in chopped, tinned form and I simply don’t recognise them in fresh form.
When it comes to talking with a Spanish speaker, whether written or spoken, yes… I can communicate with facility. So by the definition of my favourite dictionary, I consider myself to be fluent in Spanish. I know that I am not perfect, that I make mistakes every day and that rrrrrolling my R’s is still a challenge. Even in English I say words like whatsamacallit and thingymajigiddy when I forget words. But compared to GCSE Spanish when I memorised sentences and churned them out in the exam, now I am able to think in Spanish and express with fluency my thoughts and feelings.