Perhaps one of the more straightforward ways is “testing procedures”. But what if your target language doesn’t have that? What then?
Let’s say you’re learning a language from the developing world for which there is no test. When do you know that you can list (Fijian / Dzongkha / Tuvaluan / Tok Pisin) on the list of languages you speak?
There are a number of milestones you must pass on the way to conversational fluency (being able to have bar conversations in your target language) and then, should you so desire, to professional fluency (being able to perform your job[s] in your target language).
- Learning the most essential verbs (to want, to have, to be)
- Learning how verbs work (this is going to be harder to learn in some languages than others. Spanish verbs may take you a month, Lao verbs will take you five minutes at most.)
- Learning how gender works, if any.
- Learning how politeness tiers work, if any.
- Learning how adjectives work (do they go before or after the noun they modify?)
- Learning the “pronoun zoo” (This can be very straightforward in some languages. In some languages like Tok Pisin and Fijian, you’ll have to deal with ungodly large amounts of pronouns [the two of us but not you, me and you, the large group of us but not you, etc. In other languages, especially in East Asia, this is noted via pronouns you’d use with your partner but not with your boss. Sometimes as a foreigner in Asian countries you will be expected to use only a narrow set of pronouns. Still, recognizing many of them can be useful).
- How prepositions / postpositions work.
- The case system, if any (in Finno-Ugric languages, for example, this overlaps with the previous point).
- Any miscellaneous grammatical features that enhance understanding significantly (such as Finnish or English having “multiple infinitives”. To give an example in English “I want to eat dinner” vs. “I don’t feel like eating dinner”.)
Once you pass all of these “checkpoints”, your primary goal, then, is to fill in the vocabulary that is missing. It will mostly be nouns, adjectives and verbs, but sometimes more complicated prepositions can also be involved.
There is no singular way to acquire vocabulary but there are some very FUN ways I can recommend:
- Television and videos (subtitles can be used if you’re disciplined enough, otherwise many YouTube videos can explain words through “context”, not also to mention in the comments and description).
- Joke pages (remember that our friends at uTalk said that the best way to learn is to make things funny!)
- Writing exercises
- Apps (e.g. Memrise, Clozemaster, uTalk, Mango Languages, ‘n friends.)
Okay, now back to the question at hand, WHEN do you know you are good enough?
The same way that I described milestones above, you’ll have to pass a number of milestones that genuinely “prove” your worth. Think of these as “boss fights”, in a sense.
Some boss fights would include things like:
- Understanding a 15-minute video or audio in your target language and understanding anywhere from 90%-100%.
- Having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker in which you get genuinely complimented or EVEN if you get mistaken for a native speaker.
- Conducting your job entirely in your language for a substantial period of time (15+ minutes, again, is a good benchmark).
So when do I put a language on my list? If I can do tasks like these CONSISTENTLY. Usually if I have done any of these tasks ten or more times than I can put the language on my “fluent” list.
And the reverse is true: if I fail to accomplish doing that in a row several times, it is no longer on my fluent list.
You can also modify this list to include writing and reading as well.
- Having a chat conversation for 5+ minutes in the language. (You tend to do more quickly with writing so I modified the time from 15 minutes to 5.)
- Reading several articles in a row in which you don’t need to reference a dictionary (or barely need to).
A final note: there are those who will glorify testing procedures above all and say that fluency is binary (either that it exists or that it doesn’t exist). It is very possible to pass a fluency test and then forget absolutely EVERYTHING (I’ve met several people who have done so, actually). They are worth something and they are an accomplishment, but if you definitely show signs of fluency and belonging the likes of which I’ve shown above, and ESPECIALLY if you’ve been getting extremely positive signs from native speakers of your target language, don’t worry about having a test result or not having a test result.
Strictly speaking in terms of paper qualifications, I speak English, Hebrew, Yiddish, Danish and Swedish (to the exclusion of my other fluent languages). Sure, I know these well (although my contemporary Hebrew showed signs of decay at the tail end of 2018 but I’ll get it back in order soon), but that doesn’t show the whole picture of how I live my life. And neither should you be discouraged by narrow slips of paper. The world has been poisoned enough because of that.
Feel free to let me know what you think!