Fluency is a state of mind. There’s no way to measure when you can start calling yourself fluent, or what you need to do to be able to put a language down on your CV. Ultimately, feeling fluent is really just that – do you feel like you’re fluent, or not?
Everything in learning a language is about confidence. It is a mindset. Tell yourself you can do something, and you will. Imagine yourself in a few months time, seamlessly chatting away in a language that you can barely read right now. You’ve just brought yourself closer to that reality.
Why are there some people who’ve been studying a language for decades, but would rather die than suggest they’re fluent? Why do others add a new language to their LinkedIn every other week?
Learning a language isn’t a level playing field. There’s no objective scoreboard. There are many different paths to the top. Ultimately, your success will come down to bearing these three principles in mind:
Be ambitious about your goals and how you set out to achieve them.
Be generous about your achievements and don’t give yourself (or others) a hard time.
When you’ve got a good thing going, keep it up!
But also, time is of the essence. Here are a couple of top secret shortcuts to sounding more fluent.
NB. Be careful with these. They really do work!
1. Look fierce and say as little as possible
Trust me, this works. People always think I’m a native English speaker…
2. Pick your role model native speaker and copy everything they say and do
Don’t fall in the trap of sounding inconsistent in your pronunciation, your register, or anything else. The way you speak speaks volumes about your identity. Pick one that you’d be happy to have!
3. Own your mistakes – make native speakers think they’re the ones who are wrong
In life, people make mistakes. Native speakers will just have to deal with it. As long as they can still understand what you’re saying, you have nothing to worry about.
4. Gesture, gesture and gesture again
Apparently over half of communication is non-verbal. That means you can get away with not knowing words or grammar as long as you can express it with your hands. In some languages (looking at you, Italian and Greek), gesturing is compulsory.
5. Occasionally say very profound things
“Qui vivra verra” (whoever lives will see). Learn some awesome idioms and expressions and deploy them whenever you need a boost. You’ll be sure to impress whoever you’re speaking to, in whose minds you will instantly go from ‘annoying foreigner’ to ‘some kind of genius’. “Chacun voit midi à sa porte”.
6. Adopt one of those personas where it’s OK to drift off mid-sentence…
This is a real life saver. Don’t know a word? Just drift off. If you’ve got the personality for it, you can pull it off. “Oui, c’est vrai mais…………….. Tu sais ?”
7. Learn some jokes
Jokes are great at the best of times. But if someone who’s a non-native speaker tells you a joke, you’re often so surprised that even the worst joke seems hilarious.
8. Learn lots of synonyms
Sounding super fluent is just a question of knowing lots of different words for the same thing. Expand your vocabulary outwards by learning different synonyms. That way, you’ll sound like you know what you’re talking about.
9. Go native – invent a backstory and stick to it
If you’re in the game of not wanting people to think you’re a foreigner, create some kind of backstory and stick to it come what may. What do you mean you’ve never heard of the word “quoinquissible”? In my village in the south-east of France we say that all the time! (Be warned, this has been known to go wrong though)
10. Be a listener, not a talker
The best way to sound fluent is to be the kind of person who listens to others. That way you’re not being asked to speak and show your shortcomings. Just listen, nod, and laugh at all the right moments.
Alex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.
In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.
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