Fluent in Spanish?

I hear this question a lot. When I tell people that my group members can phone me for a quick translation in a pinch, they always ask, “Oh, so you’re fluent in Spanish?”

That’s a complicated question to answer. For one thing, fluency is a fuzzy concept. For another, a person’s fluency isn’t static; it can change over time. Last but not least, I’m a linguist… so this is the kind of thing I overthink.

Girl asking mande

“Mande” is especially popular in Mexico. It’s what you say if you didn’t understand someone and want them to repeat what they said. It has other meanings, too.

I’ve heard different takes on how to define fluency. But one thing it doesn’t mean is complete mastery. We don’t even have complete mastery of our native language. There are words in the English language I don’t know. Sometimes someone will speak to me and I misunderstand what they said. Or I misunderstand the lyrics of a song. So fluency definitely isn’t the same as perfection.

Here are my practical criteria for fluency. They’re all inspired by moments in my life when I caught myself doing well in a language and thought, “Hey! Look what I’m doing!” So all of these actually matter when you’re functioning in a foreign language.

  • Can I understand someone talking with their mouth full? How about in a bar with lots of background noise? On the phone?
  • If someone wakes me up speaking Spanish, how quickly can I get oriented and converse with them?
  • Can I explain something complicated without stopping to think about how to say it, and without my language distracting people from what I’m trying to say?

Like I said, fluency can come and go. If I spend a couple weeks exclusively in Spanish, I’m a lot better afterwards than I was before. So these are the kinds of criteria I use to gauge where I’m at.

Anyone got other ideas on how to measure fluency?

PS – The reason this topic came to mind today is, someone called and woke me up today in Spanish. It took me a minute to get functional before I could converse with him. He was calling from San Juan, which is two hours ahead of Texas… so maybe he thought that was a decent hour to call. It wasn’t!

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  1. The article opens a few questions, but it was the image what really got me thinking. After all the word “mande”, doesn’t mean much where I am from. Instead each region has its own set of words preferred to convey some ideas, some which turn later into slang. For example, this article ( shows some of the current expressions used in Panama. Several of them differ drastically from when I was a kid, which backs your idea of fluency not being a static notion.

  2. Detour Travel » You know you’re fluent when…
    November 18, 2012 - 9:44 am

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