When do you know you are fluent in a language?
¨You know you are actually good at speaking another language when you stop getting compliments¨
This is what a Russian woman once told me. She lived in our neighbourhood and I had never really talked to her and had honestly always assumed she was Dutch, because her Dutch was normal, but normal in the sence of that it was perfect. I asked her how she did it and she laughed. ¨Honestly, I don´t know¨ she said ¨.. but I don`t really like getting compliments¨. I was sort of confused – how could one not like getting compliments about that?. ¨When someone gives you a compliment on your accent, your second language, it`s because they assume you don´t speak it at all. I on the other hand have been living here for 20 years. I have to speak Dutch every day. You can not compare me to an average Russian¨.
What she said really got me thinking. Was she right? Should I not be aiming for compliments after all? And after having thought about it for a long long time, my answer is yes. She was absolutely right. Of course there are exceptions, but in general compliments are more a confirmation of ´being on the right way` learning a language, than of you actually speaking it well. Of course, when you are in that process of learning a language compliments are great. They make you feel good, they keep you going. Yet when you really want to achieve fluency in another language, the ultimate goal is for natives to stop giving you compliments.
¨Why is this?¨ you might ask. And the answer is quite simple. When you speak another language so fluently you sound like a native speaker, people either assume you are native OR they think you already know how good you are. You would´t compliment a French person on his perfect pronunciation, or his extended vocabulary. So why would they compliment you, if you speak just as good as all the other french people?
I had an experience where me and another woman had to translate for a group of people from Ecuador. This woman had followed a course once and had spent some summers in Spain. When I introduced myself to the group I mentioned that I had lived in Panama, not specifying for how long. During this week I constantly heard these people compliment the other woman on her Spanish, and it was extremely frustrating as she was constantly making mistakes, mispronouncing things and often had no clue what they were talking about, while I had lived in a Latin-American country and felt like I was speaking quite well. On the 5th day I overheard three guys talking about us. One of the guys said he was impressed by the way the other woman spoke spanish, to which the other replied that he thought I was the one that spoke better. ¨Obviously¨ the third guy said ¨.. but she lived in Panama¨.
That`s when I realized that it was true. They didn`t give me a compliment because they considered me a native speaker, someone who obviously speaks well. The standard to which they measured me was completely different than the standard they used for the other woman.
And now that you know this, you will notice it all the time: people who are really struggling will often get the ¨You are doing great! I am so impressed!¨ while those who can speak a language without thinking about it will get no comment at all, and maybe even a correction in the tiniest mistake they do make. And there is nothing wrong with getting corrected every once in a while, it only means that you have done everything else perfectly!
Of course if you do get a compliment this doesn´t necesarily mean you are bad at the language. Not at all! But you will see the better you speak the language, the fewer compliments you will get from the natives, so when nobody comments on your language skills, take it as a compliment!