Bilingual status is a tough feat to conquer, and most don’t realize that it exists along a spectrum. When you start to notice that you’ve mastered some of the following skills, it’s safe to say that you’re probably on your way to fluency.
You repeat conversation cues comfortably and naturally.
Something that many of us take for granted is the ease with which we can demonstrate to another person that we are paying attention and following what they are saying. In English, we say things like “right,” “yeah,” “exactly,” and so on, to passively participate in a conversation.
Timing is probably the most important factor here, as the line between interrupting and encouraging someone to continue is a risky one to flirt with. But knowing which words are the most appropriate for which moments proves that you’ve got an advanced hold on the language. Bonus points for non-verbal hand gestures.
You understand humor and can even manage a joke here and there.
Our senses of humor are more often characterized by the way we deliver conversation than by the content of what we say. But when you try to pick up a second language or if you’re put in a position where learning a new language is necessary, you’ll notice how easy it is to feel like you’re not quite yourself while speaking it.
Being able to differentiate between literalness and sarcasm is one sign of a good level. But so much of humor comprises shifting between voices or accents to reflect different characters, or connecting with others by making cultural references—a difficult enough feat in your own language. So if you find yourself able to make native speakers laugh, or if you’re no longer pretending to follow jokes within a group of native speakers, you’re probably on your way to achieving bilingual status.
You think and even dream in your second language.
This might be an obvious one, but let’s not skip it. When in conversation in a foreign language, by the time you’ve listened to your partner, translated what they’ve said into your own language and understood the content, thought about how you’d like to respond, translated it back into the spoken language, and finally, spoken your response, you can imagine how quickly and easily the moment for natural response can pass.
If you no longer have to internally translate, i.e. understand what’s said only in relation to your own language, and are able to more freely participate in a conversation by following your thoughts in that language, you’re certainly nearing a bilingual status.
You break the language’s rules, because everybody’s doing it.
When you notice that you’ve started casually breaking your second language’s rules, it’s a sign you’ve been exposed to native speakers for a while. In English, so much of our slang comes from hyperbole and improperly using vocabulary words: think “literally,” “awesome,” or “unbelievable.” But you can also demonstrate that you’ve got a relaxed management of English when you know when to appropriately bend or break grammar rules.
Depending on which words you’re using and how you’re breaking the grammar, you can reveal a regional understanding of the language. This is important because it means you’re truly immersing yourself in the language—the ultimate sign you’re on your way to fluency.
This is the first article in our new biweekly column, The Language Corner with our resident linguist, Rachelle Toarmino. Rachelle is a Buffalo native, and has recently moved back to the city after spending three years living abroad in Spain as an ESL teacher. Her writing has previously been featured by local publications as well as by small poetry presses. She works at Talking Leaves…Books.