I was actually wondering the other day how one decides when one has become “fluent” in a second or third language. Because the more we learn, the more we discover that there’s yet more to learn. The average British English speaker has an active vocabulary of around 4,000 words and a passive vocabulary around three times that size; my active vocabulary in English is around 15,000 words and my passive vocabulary exceeds (the last laborious time we bothered to check) 37,000 words. I feel modestly confident that I’m fluent in Standard British English, having mastered the intricacies of arcane elements of grammar. But there are literally thousands of dialect words and constructions that leave me puzzled, so am I really “fluent?”

Likewise, I presently live in Lausanne and my daily activities are all in French (with the exception of writing for Medium and talking on Skype to English-speaking collaborators and friends). I dream in French, I watch French language entertainments, and I read French novels and online journals. I rarely have to search for a word and I’ve mastered enough grammar to avoid the usual slips like failing to reverse subject-verb order after peut-etre. But I feel very far from fluent when I listen to slang from Marseilles or Lille, and there are occasional words thrown into conversation that leave me stumped even while I can grasp the general meaning. I feel I may never reach “fluent” in French.

And as for Russian… I can listen to the dialog on Russian news & TV series without much difficulty and I can read pretty easily. But again, the more I learn the further from fluency I feel myself to be. Especially when trying to talk with Russian teenagers from the provinces, or with a Russian speaker from one of the ‘stans, where the language has diverged into distinct regional dialects while retaining a standard core.

Perhaps in the end fluency remains always a goal, like a mirage floating just above the horizon, drawing us ever onward but never entirely yielding to our efforts.

Anyone who enjoys my articles here on Medium may be interested in my books Why Democracy Failed and The Praying Ape, both available from Amazon.

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