Are you fluent in Korean? This is a question that I hear quite often and my usual answer is yes. But to be honest, the correct answer is maybe. Because, really, the answer depends on the definition of fluency. Being able to speak a language, being fluent in that language, and mastering the language at the level of a native speaker are three very different things. I’m sure all language learners out there will agree with me that these are very different stages, and also that the boundaries between them may sometimes become rather blurry. As for me, I do speak Korean, I’m even able to use Korean in pretty much any situation (meaning that I have a strong technical vocabulary within a variety of fields and I feel confident enough to debate with someone or possibly scold them in Korean – since I also know a significant amount of vocabulary not found in your standard dictionary), but I do not consider myself at the level of a native speaker. I do, however, increasingly enjoy when I’m not complimented on my Korean after a lengthy conversation, as it makes me feel more accepted as a Korean speaker and less of an outlandish foreigner who miraculously is able to make herself understood in the local language.
Yesterday I had a 15 minute long debate with a taxi driver about how to construct the optimal society in terms of tax level, welfare schemes and trust in local authorities. He started the discussion after inquiring as to where I hail from, and upon learning that I was from Denmark, he wanted to hear about my views on the two quite different societal structures. The cool part was that not once did he comment on my Korean skills – he simply accepted me as an equal conversation partner. It felt like a true victory, and in such situations I view myself as truly fluent.
Nonetheless, there will always be some contextual elements of Korean that will be next to impossible for non-Koreans to grasp unless you spend the better part of your life dedicated to acquiring the language and possibly living in Korea for several years, completely immersing yourself into the language and culture. Since this takes more effort than even the most dedicated and passionate Korean learner is willing and able to deliver, very few people reach the native level. But that’s okay too. I’m willing to accept that I’ll probably never reach the level of a native speaker and just be happy if I can come close.
In my mind, fluency never equalled native level. Fluency is, in my opinion, the ability to speak effortlessly and freely about almost any topic without feeling hindered by lack of vocabulary or grammar. It’s not the same as speaking flawlessly, which no native speakers of any language do anyway. Yes, Korean people who constantly mix up 가르치다 and 가리키다, I’m talking to you!
Aside from my native Danish, I’d say I’m almost at the truly native level of English. I don’t have a strong European accent (my accent is a neutral, hard-to-place, international version of American), I use English for the majority of my work day, and constantly think and dream in English. I even write my grocery shopping lists in English most of the time out of sheer habit. That being said, there are some odd holes in my English vocabulary that arise from the fact that I did not grow up in an English speaking country. Words that you may use once every 5 years like “plow furrow”, “watercress”, or “cattail” (the plant growing around lakes) often escape my mind in English, simply because I have not learned them in the natural context of growing up with them. And that, in my opionion, is what gives me away as not being a native speaker of English, as I always recall these words in my native Danish even if it may take a second or two (actually had to look up cattail in the dictionary, haha).
So, I guess the takeaway from my musings on fluency is this. Accept that it’s pretty hard to reach native level in your target language without spending as much time on your target language as on your native language. Then, having accepted this, stop beating yourself up, and celebrate your progress toward fluency. Too many people are monolingual, or proudly declare that they speak French when in fact they know only merci and bonjour. You as a language learner, no matter what your level is, are better than that. Focus on progress over perfection, stay motivated, and you’ll be sure to reach your language learning goals.
Here’s one of my favorite Itchy Feet comics: