My New Year’s Language Resolution: Stop Using the Word “Fluent”

For the past 25 years or so, every one of my New Year’s resolutions has been the same: get ripped.

Since I look pretty much like the Michelin Man after a round of P90X–if the lighting is kind–it’s safe to say that I never keep my resolutions.

So I need to get a win under my belt. I need a resolution I can actually stick to.

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New Year celebrations in Pattaya, Thailand
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Here it is:

In 2014, I will stop using the word “fluent” to describe language abilities.

I think I can do this one. The word “fluent” is insanely common in language learning circles, and I’ve even used it pretty extensively on my site. But I resolve that from here on out, I’m done with it.

Why do I even care? A few reasons:

It’s a vague word.

“Fluency” is a vague quality. Just as with the word polyglot, it can vary in meaning from person to person.

Depending on whom you talk to, saying that someone is “fluent” in a language can mean:

  • Being able to speak at a natural pace and keeping up in a conversation
  • Having near-native global language skills (listening, speaking, reading, and writing)
  • Being able to hold a conversation (but not necessarily read or write the language)
  • Being able to pass a standardized language test or write college term papers
  • Being able to use the language in authentic social situations

…and on and on. I think vague language serves a purpose, but there are limits, man.

It’s a loaded word.

When people find out you speak another language, they’ll often ask you, “Are you fluent?”

It’s a tough question to answer, with language fluency being such a poorly defined quality and all. But when people ask you that, they’re basically testing you.

And it’s a pass-fail test at that. If you say yes, you’ve exceeded some imaginary line that lets you call yourself a speaker of the other language. If you say no, aww, that’s too bad.

You guys have overwhelmingly been supportive of my Spanish project and progress, and I really appreciate it. But I put some…misguided?…pressure on myself when I said I wanted to be fluent in a year. According to the way I’ve defined fluency, I didn’t meet that goal. At the same time, I’ve accomplished so much I’m happy about:

  • I established a daily study habit.
  • I went from being able to understand nothing to being able to understand most things I hear and read.
  • I can have full, half-hour long conversations with native Spanish speakers if they’re patient with me and don’t mind hearing all my mistakes.

I’m proud of all that. But since I didn’t get past that imaginary threshold of fluency, it makes me feel like I’ve failed a little. By throwing that word “fluency” in there, I ended up focusing on what I didn’t accomplish, instead of what I did.

It might even be a counterproductive goal.

So you know how I said people often ask you if you’re fluent when you’re learning a language? Something similar happened all the time when I used to be a gym rat, back in high school.

Guys would find out I lifted weights and would then ask me, “How much do you bench?”

That was how the world of bros judged whether you were strong and whether you were a serious weight lifter or not.

So naturally, I put special emphasis on bench pressing. By doing the same movement over and over again and piling on the weights, I suffered several partial tears over the years. I just kind of ignored them and let them heal, but the damage had been done. When I took part in a Tough Mudder race this year, I pushed myself over a wall (literally) and felt a tearing in my chest, followed by terrible pain. I had to finish the race one-armed.

The last year really flew by for man's best friend

The last year really flew by for man’s best friend

A visit to the orthopedist confirmed that my pec muscle had torn off the bone. I’m not getting the surgery, so the muscle is permanently damaged. It feels weird, it hurts, the muscle is deformed, and it’s going to waste away slowly over the next year.

I know that this all could’ve been avoided had I not concentrated on bench pressing for all those years and overdid it like I did.

Okay, language learning isn’t going to rip your chest or send you to the hospital. But I do think that putting a vague, high expectation on yourself can make you feel unnecessary pressure and anxiety, which in turn can lead you to:

  • Make bad studying choices.
  • Go too hard and burn out.
  • Get discouraged and give up.
  • Spend money you don’t need to spend on the wrong kinds of products and expensive classes.

At least if you’re studying for a proficiency exam, you have a concrete target to aim for. But when you’re aiming for fluency, you’re just sprinting forward. To me, it sometimes feels like you’re running full speed on a treadmill on a raft that’s drifting down the river. You’re getting where you need to be, but you’re killing yourself unnecessarily.

So what then?

So what am I going to do instead?

A few things.

I might follow the example of my German neighbors when I lived in Germany. If you asked someone if he spoke English, almost without exception he said, “A little”–regardless of whether that meant a little or a lot. It kept expectations low but didn’t hamper conversation.

If I’m filling out a resume or describing my skills more concretely for a professional reason, I might focus on my proficiency level. With Spanish, for example, I’m comfortable telling people that I’m at a high-intermediate/low-advanced level.

Finally, I might simply say that I speak a language. That’s it.

“Do you speak Spanish/German/Arabic?”


I never ask non-native English speakers if they’re fluent. I just talk to them.

If I can accomplish this resolution, then that gives me hope that I’ll be able to get ripped someday.

  • Natalie

    Interesting perspective, but I don’t think I personally could keep this resolution. My ego would get in the way too much :) I spent 4 years (and about $200,000!) learning Russian and dammit, I’ve worked hard and get to say I’m fluent now. :)

    “If I’m filling out a resume or describing my skills more concretely for a professional reason, I might focus on my proficiency level. With Spanish, for example, I’m comfortable telling people that I’m at a high-intermediate/low-advanced level.”

    I think this is a good idea regardless of whether one vows to use the word ‘fluent’ or not. As you rightly pointed out, fluent is a very vague term, and in my experience, jobs that require foreign language knowledge usually ask for a proficiency level on the application.

    • Ron G.

      I’m still picking up my jaw off the floor after reading “$200,000.” Um, at that amount of money, you can use whatever terminology you want. lol

      • Natalie

        That’s what happens when you attend a private university that refuses to give you scholarships… I could write an entire post on that issue alone (starting with my frustration with a friend’s half-tuition scholarship even though her family had around the same earnings as my family does!). :)