Progress rarely follows a straight line — no matter what you’re attempting. If you’ve been plugging away at a new language for long enough, chances are you’ve already gotten distracted by something else, hit a plateau, or did a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of dance. What’s even less straightforward is determining when you’ve actually reached language mastery. Even native speakers make mistakes, so perfection is clearly not the goal. What does it look like when you’ve finally arrived?
The academic answer is that language proficiency is achieved once you transition from controlled to automatic processing. What this basically means is that you’ll eventually require less brainpower to speak in your new language — sort of like how you can eventually zone out while using a computer program that you’ve become sufficiently familiar with.
What would this look like in practice? Here are a few signs that you’ve arrived at language mastery.
1. You can multitask while you’re speaking, reading or writing.
When your brain is learning something it’s unfamiliar with, it generally requires a lot more of your undivided attention. One obvious sign that you’ve moved toward automatic processing — or toward speaking on autopilot — is that you can work on your computer, listen to a song, and have a conversation in your new language, all without missing a beat. And actually, it works the other way around too. Being bilingual means you’re constantly engaging the executive function system in your brain, which is what makes all forms of multitasking possible. Hence why bilingual people are generally better at multitasking overall.
2. You can self-correct.
The goal of fluency isn’t to never make mistakes. The goal is to get to a point where you can easily make yourself understood to other people, and to a point where you can more or less become your own editor. When you’re a beginner language student, you often won’t know you’ve made a flub unless someone points it out to you. As you reach mastery, you can usually catch your own mistakes and become a bit of a self-cleaning oven.
3. You can turn off the subtitles.
You can’t always control the clarity and speed with which people around you are speaking. But when you’re watching foreign-language movies as a beginner student, you’re at a bit of an advantage, because you can use subtitles to help guide your comprehension. The moment you feel comfortable turning them off is essentially the moment you can comfortably understand what people are saying to you in person.
4. You can crack jokes and express your personality in your new language.
It’s one thing to introduce yourself or ask for the check in another language. Just about everyone learns to do this in the same way. It’s another thing entirely to actually have a personality in another language, because that requires you to take what you know and add your own personal spin to it. When you feel comfortable using slang, filler words, sarcasm and humor in a way that’s roughly analogous to how you’d use them in your native language, that’s a good sign you’re coming into your own.
5. You don’t notice native speakers slowing down or simplifying their speech for you.
Learning a second or third language often involves a long period of paying your dues, which means having native speakers constantly remind you that you don’t quite have a handle on the language yet. Whether you’re met with people answering you in English, slowing down their speech or speaking in very simple terms to you, your progress toward language mastery can often be gauged by how native speakers respond to you.
6. You frequently find yourself code-switching.
Code-switching is the phenomenon in which bilingual people effortlessly commingle two or more languages when they’re speaking, and often in the same sentence. This is not something that comes naturally to you unless you’re fairly comfortable speaking both. Usually, people code-switch because words pack a different emotional resonance in another language (particularly if it’s their native tongue), but also because they might know a word in another language that communicates what they want to say more succinctly. Essentially, you have more linguistic material to draw from, and you’re adept at mixing and matching at will. This goes hand in hand with being able to translate between two languages with relative ease.
7. You can pass a test.
If you really want to quantify your progress, you can take a language proficiency test to see what level you’re at. Americans and Europeans use different scales to rate language mastery, but a comprehensive and common language exam people take in the United States is the ACTFL Assessment of Performance toward Proficiency in Languages.
8. You dream in your new language.
One way to tell that a language has really gotten under your skin is that it visits you in your dreams. That’s not to say it’s a marker of fluency all on its own. Many times, people report dreams of being effortlessly fluent in Spanish, even though they’ve barely moved on to intermediate subject matter. However, dreaming in another language is a sign that your internal voice (or your “thinking voice”) is beginning to embrace your new tongue.