I can read your mind.
You’re studying Spanish, or you’re planning to start soon.
One of your goals is to speak fluently.
That would be a fantastic goal, except it doesn’t mean much.
What does “speaking fluently” even mean?
The dictionary defines fluency as “the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately.”
But let me tell you - it takes A LOT of work before speaking a foreign language is “easy.”
I can say that speaking Spanish is “easy” for me, but only until…
I have to explain about the exact location of mold in my window pane to the insurance person on the phone…
or when some people at my place of work start blaming me for something I didn’t do, and I have to defend myself while trying to hold in my anger…
or when a Cuban starts speaking to me with their accent and street slang and my head starts spinning to try to keep up and respond…
In short, fluency flows.
These are all real stories of my life speaking Spanish by the way.
At one moment you may be “fluent” in Spanish and the next you’re under emotional stress or something completely unexpected gets thrown your way and your fluency tanks.
You can be fluent one minute and blabbering the next.
It’s totally normal.
What is fluency?
So when someone tells me that their goal is to speak “fluent” Spanish, I always want to ask them what they even define as “fluency.”
Some people think that fluency is being able to speak your second language just as you speak your first (I tend to agree with this definition the most, but you’ll see more about this soon).
Others think that fluency is speaking Spanish without pause, hesitation or mistakes (entirely unrealistic and doesn’t even happen in your first language).
If you are a believer in this definition of fluency, I would like you to do an activity: Record yourself answering this question - What happened the first time that you drove a car on your own.
Think about it a bit, but don’t write any notes or anything. Record yourself responding to the question (it can be just audio). Then, leave it for a while and write down how many filler words you use (um, uh, like, so), how many times you hesitate or re-state what you want to say mid-sentence.
I’ll bet you it happens quite a bit in your native speech, yet you’re still considered “fluent”! So, don’t have higher standards for yourself in your second language than you have for your first.
All in all, everyone has to find what level of fluency is appropriate for them for how they’re going to use Spanish and how they want to define fluency themselves.
The Fluency Formula
Based on my own experience achieving “fluency” in Spanish and studying other languages in which I do not consider myself fluent, I’ve come up with a short formula.
It’s simply this:
Proficiency + Comfort = Fluency Level
It’s simpler to break fluency up into these two pieces for you to develop and self-evaluate your “fluency” level.
Proficiency in Spanish is how much grammar you know and can use correctly, how robust your vocabulary is, how well you can use idiomatic expressions and natural filler words, etc.
This is where study and practice comes in.
How well prepared are you to place together a coherent, natural-sounding, grammatically correct sentence?
This is the “Proficiency” aspect of the formula.
To gain proficiency, you need to study grammar, expand your vocabulary, learn idiomatic expressions, use natural filler words and overall improve your Spanish “form and fitness.”
The second aspect of the Fluency Formula is Comfort.
This includes building your confidence level, exposing yourself to new situations in which you need to use Spanish to expand your “comfort zone” and use Spanish on a daily basis to make it a normal, comfortable part of your life.
How to achieve fluency
In order to achieve fluency, you can’t just focus on one part of the formula or the other.
Sometimes students focus only on the “proficiency” portion of the formula, thinking that as long as they become an expert on grammar, they can speak fluent Spanish.
Language is much more than grammar. There’s only a finite amount of grammar for you to learn.
If you only focus on proficiency, you’ll be able to ace any Spanish written test, but struggle with real-life communication.
On the flip side, I’ve had students who are super comfortable speaking Spanish. They talk, talk, talk away, but it’s hard to understand them, or they continue to make the same mistakes in grammar or pronunciation because they don’t have the discipline to improve upon and polish their Spanish proficiency.
You need to work on both aspects of the formula to achieve a high fluency level.
Tips on how to improve your proficiency:
- Make yourself a personalized study plan to structure your learning (get our Guide here)
- Choose a few quality learning courses or resources and follow through with them - finish them and do all the exercises!
- Review and repeat exercises and lessons or use another program to re-learn and re-practice some of the tougher grammar points
Tips on how to improve your comfort:
- Take every opportunity possible to speak with others in Spanish
- Expose yourself to new situations in Spanish to expand your comfort zone (you can do this through tutoring or travel)