How to reach native-like fluency In a foreign language

Speaking a foreign language like a native speaker is the dream for many language learners. Unfortunately, not many learners have been able to achieve this goal. We know it’s possible to reach such a level of fluency because there are learners out there who have.

The two questions I’ll explore in today’s article are the following:

(1) What is native-like fluency?

(2) How do we achieve native-like fluency in a foreign language ?

What is native like fluency?

Before answering that question we have to ask another: how do we measure language competence?  We don’t have to think about it for too long to realize it’s complicated.

Nevertheless systems have been put together to help us measure language competence.  There are many different types which vary based on the language you’re learning, which part of the world you live in, and the reason you need to take a test. I’ll use theCommon European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) as my point of reference because it’s the framework I’m familiar with. I’ve tested for and passed the C2 exam (Mastery) in 4 languages, which are English, Spanish, German and French.

Language learners who dream of reaching native like fluency in a language often point to C2 as their goal.  There’s a common belief that reaching a level C2 is equivalent to reaching native-like fluency. However, I’ve discovered on my journey as a language learner that this way of thinking is flawed. 

To explain why I’ve come to this conclusion, I first need to point to a description of what a level C2 actually entails:

  • Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read.
  • Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation.
  • Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

(Taken from the Wikipedia page:Common European Framework of Reference for Languages)

Think about it, a lot of native speakers don’t reach this level of competence in their native language… therefore, comparing a level C2 to native-like fluency is misleading.

I mentioned earlier that I’ve managed to pass the C2 exam for 4 languages, HOWEVER, despite reaching this level of competence I can say that I feel a lot closer to native-like fluency in some languages than others. I’ll explain why that is shortly, but first I want to introduce “the language core”, which is at the centre of my philosophy for language learning:

When I start learning a new language my goal is to first develop a solid language core, which is a combination of essential vocabulary and phrases and the ability to assemble  the different pieces of the language together.

In my up-coming book  I explain in great detail how one can develop a solid language core. But what I want you to pay attention to today is where native-like fluency is placed in the diagram above. Native like fluency comes before literacy (C2).

I’m under the impression that most language learners have a warped perception of what it means to be “native-like” because of the way language competence is measured.

Generally It doesn’t make much sense to compare a foreign language learner to a native speaker, however to communicate my thoughts clearly I think it’s necessary:

The take away from the diagram above should be this: It’s not necessary to reach a level C2 in order to reach native like fluency.  Native-like fluency as a language learner in fact is a lot closer to the level of competence an average native speaker of a language, meaning the level a native reaches after completing compulsory education.

Native like fluency

The competence we develop in a language is a result of a number of different factors. However, what all natives have in common is the fact that they are exposed to their native languages as they grow up in a micro and macro environment. This is a way to describe how they interact with languages.

The micro environment is personal and different for each person. This consists of conversations with friends and family, the books that we read and the media we consume. It’s often said that getting a boyfriend or girlfriend who’s a native of the language you’re learning is the best way to learn. This is an effective approach because it puts the foreign language in your micro environment, and you’ll be required to use it regularly in your personal life. However, there are many things that you won’t learn unless you interact with the language in a macro environment, which is how we interact with a language in shared environments, such as parks, public transport, shops, banks, etc. There are many things we learn indirectly from being in these environments that we  can't learn from only speaking to a boyfriend or girlfriend.

Many natives speak live under these conditions without the necessity to develop literacy (C2) in the way it’s defined in the European framework for language competence.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this article I’ve achieved a level C2 in 4 languages, however I don’t feel like I’ve reached native like fluency in all of them.

I’ll use my French and German as examples:

Despite having both German and French at a level C2, my French is A LOT closer to native like fluency. And yet, I’ve read many, many more books and magazines in German than I have in French, and I’ve written many more essays and letters in German than I have in French.

What makes my French a lot closer to native-like fluency is the fact that I’ve LIVED the language and spent more time INTERACTING with French natives than I have with  Germans. I’ve lived with and used French in both micro and macro environments, and this combination makes all the difference.

You might jump to the conclusion that living in France is what lead me to achieve native-like fluency in French, but that conclusion would be incorrect.

Native like fluency is achieved by LIVING THROUGH A LANGUAGE as much as possible.

For example, I’ve never lived IN an English speaking country however I’ve lived a big chunk of my life THROUGH English with friends.

Ultimately, developing native like fluency is about about how you decide to live your life: how often you use the target language and how many different situations you create for its use.

I work as a language coach and I’ve trained hundreds of students all over the world, and I can share that the level of success my students attain is always in direct correlation to the way they live their lives through the languages they learn.

Written by Luca Lampariello

  • JoAnn says:

    Wow! What an interesting and helpful presentation. Grazie mille, Luca.

  • sara says:

    i totaly agree with you.

  • Elliot says:

    awesome Luca , I always love your scientific-like logical attitude and your passion. Your posts always inspire me a lot and help me in my attitude to languages and my career. Thanks Luca

  • Jake says:

    Hi! I’m italian just like you, but I’ll write this comment in english since it’s the language which the post was written in. It’s really impressive, I’m 16 and I only speak English besides Italian, even though I’ve been studying Spanish for the last four years and German for the last one. I don’t like Spanish, but I have to learn it at school, if it had been up to me I would have chosen French and German. As for German, I’m really starting to get into it, I would like to speak it better, but it’s too difficult and I can’t find a good way to learn it. Do you have any advice for me?

  • njoikiki mapunda says:

    Hello,
    wow! you help me so much because i was thinking that to be native like fluency in the foreign language it needs me to go and live in that country, instead it needs me living through language, thanks, i will work on it

  • Elfin says:

    You made some important distinctions and I will use this explanation for future conversations. There are so many misconceptions on the subject. It is interesting to see how this applies to bilingual people, there are simply so many shades and aspects to knowing a language but we can’t expect the CEFR levels to include them.

  • Gary says:

    Interesting article, as always. The micro and macro distinction makes a lot of sense. I’ve felt like I knew a language pretty well from self-study, TV and films, and language exchanges and conversation groups… only to then visit the country (go into the macro environment, in your terms) and suddenly become painfully aware all the gaps in my knowledge! It’s strange being able to chat about diverse subjects for hours yet then go into a shop and have no idea what to say and how to interact, but it’s just because you haven’t used the language in that context before. You pick up a certain amount of these things from consuming media, but in my experience there’s no substitute for experiencing the real thing.

  • Annett says:

    Luca,
    Thank you so much for your article. I do have a question though: How do you define the relationship between fluency and proficiency in a language. It seems that everywhere I go, the definition comes out a little different. For example: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_proficiency and http://www.alsintl.com/blog/language-proficiency/
    Maybe you could shed some light on this topic?

  • Harry Newman says:

    Very interesting blog, foreign language is a must to learn ! Some interesting points made here !

  • Radek says:

    Hello Luca when are you going to publish your book;-)??

  • Juan says:

    Very nice article. I totally share your opinion.

  • Lisa says:

    Nice article, Luca. It is really great that you are able to use your languages in real life, regularly. I am a big fan of immersion with a family. Unfortunately, as you get older, those opportunities seem to decrease. I teach English online and I just want to invite all my students to live with me and my kids, because I just know how much they’d learn. 🙂

    • admin says:

      Hi Lisa.

      Yes, I agree, immersion with a family is by far one of the best ways to learn a language fast and “for real”.

      Thanks for your frequent and nice comments by the way! 🙂

      L

  • Oliver says:

    Thanks Luca, your presentation made me discover many things that I already do, and don’t do. Great inspiration for my language learning. Keep up the good work! I look forward to more “lectures” from you.

    For future recordings, can I request that you also upload 720p and 1080p? It would made possible to read the slides in your presentation.

    • admin says:

      Hi Oliver,

      thanks for the comment and the suggestion.

      Unfortunately that video was made by somebody at the conference and the quality is not top-notch, there is not much I can do about it.

      The next videos by me will be in HD quality though 😉

      L

  • IVAN says:

    wouldnt you say your french was better because it is way closer to your native language than German?
    point number 2: maybe you like it more
    i’ll use myself as an example
    i read books in German, i have an opportunity to practice it very often, here in Moscow. But iDONT like speaking it. Reading is fine, i can hold my own in a conversation, but if i can choose – to speak or not to speak- i choose not to.
    My italian is better, although i started upon it after i took up Deutsch. i have no opportunity to speak it in Moscow.
    when i was in germany or Austria i almost never attempted to speak. Whenever i am in Italy, i have a blast. I talk with evryone everywhere. Ive been to italy 3 times this year, and i’m planning on going again. so i guess it all comes down to this personal pschycological attachment that we have to a specific language.

  • Jose Luis says:

    Ciao Luca!
    Quello che hai raccontato è stato interessante e applicabile come al solito. Grazie di tutto!!
    José Luis

  • Mitchel says:

    Excellent presentation. I like iTalki to connect and then Skype to learn new languages.

  • Very interesting! Fluency will allow you to use a language like it’s your very own. I admire language translators who work really hard to master a language and help their clients overcome barriers in communication.

  • Lou says:

    Love all your insights! I don’t often fancy the idea of having native-like fluency in another language – but then, when I think about it, what exactly would I be trying to achieve if not native-like fluency? Also – “Native like fluency is achieved by LIVING THROUGH A LANGUAGE as much as possible” – well-put!

  • Nc says:

    hi,love your thought and notion.in terms of living with language and learning that im totally at your side based upon my experience,although somehow im freaked out how can i come over to speak in French or spanish as i have started to learn it by myself.
    i would be very delightful to receive your idea regarding my worry:)
    have a productive day
    Nc

  • John Wilson says:

    Brilliant article, it is common for people to think you have to live in a foreign country to become fluent in the language, not the case!

  • Bill says:

    Fluency is tricky. For example, in the article you use the term “up-and-coming” when in fact you want to use the term “up-coming”. The “and” changes the meaning completely.

    • justin says:

      Bill, what exactly is your point? Have you never been to an English class, ya know, in school, for natives? Kids, IN COLLEGE, age 20+ still turn in papers riddled with errors. Are you going to claim they don’t “speak fluently”? It isn’t even the same domain of thing. Most Americans actually will write sentences like “I should of gone” when the error should stick out like a sore thumb, given that “of” doesn’t even fit LOGICALLY since it does not express the meaning of “have” in any possible context.

      • Itamar navY says:

        They all are natives and they still speak native-fluently despite all they terrible mistakes’ just because they are natives. If a native makes a mistake, that doesn’t lessen his/her fluency at all, but if a non-native do so, that does.

    • southtrini1 says:

      I am a native speaker of English and I disagree with you completely over this example. Luca is correctly using “up-coming”, meaning about to be published, implying that it hasn’t been published yet. “Up-and-coming” would imply that the book has already been published and has been steadily gaining in popularity, but it cannot at present be considered a success.

      • Michal Lodziana says:

        “Haters gonna hate”. I’ve noticed that Luca occasionally has strange word choices in his videos However, although he sounds “un-native” at times, it is extremely easy to understand what he is saying. And what he says is still “grammatically correct”. Therefore I would never question Luca’s fluency… after all, your bound to make mistakes when you talk about more complicated topics.

        Language elitism is toxic. Work on improving yourself but don’t crucify people for making the same mistakes millions of “native” speakers make as well

        And Itamar what are you talking about? I have met so many fellow “native speakers” who struggle to form proper/correct sentences.

        Ex. Heyyo mani, we see dat thang later???

        Ja homie, i be there. Letta do that!

  • Allan says:

    Thank you Luca for this amazing article! The information that you have shared is impressive interesting!

  • Max says:

    Hi Luca! I1m anxious about your book!! 😀

  • Annett says:

    Thank you so much for this post, Luca.
    It’s sometimes confusing to grade fluency since there various systems that people use to grade language fluency. I also totally agree that fluency doesn’t come automatically through spending time in the target language country but one needs to immerse him-/herself in the language.
    I am native German and moved to the USA in 2001. I prepared myself by listening to US radio all day long, while I still lived in Germany. I set my goals for learning certain topics.
    I was fluent enough when I arrived here to get a job in outside sales within 8 weeks of my arrival to the US. Working in sales and being required to talk to people all day long helped me then to reach full fluency within 6 months of being here.

  • Duder says:

    I see….it’s more about using the language reflexively/speedily as opposed to knowing a lot of proper vocabulary and phrases..

  • Great post this will help me with my Chinese learning!

  • Jan says:

    what a nice lecture! i’m trying to prepare to my C2 English exam and looks like impossible 😉 thank you for all the hints and encouragement. and a super big box of praising for taking up Polish. drop me a line if you needed some help from a Polish guy 🙂

  • Felice says:

    This is a misleading post. How can someone achieve a near-native fluency without even have the vocaboulary at C2 level? What’s more the latter is not inteded as the same capacity as a native-speaker or even a level which is near (you should read the original report of the Cefr). Simply, the C2 level is the maximum one for a foreign learner who study the X language! At maximum, a learner at C2 level can be better than a mother tongue on writing (if we take a not well-educated mother tongue), but as fluency, a native speaker is better than a foreign at C2 level! The latter doesn’t know the sum of words that a mother tongue knows, even a not well-educated, for example a fourteen years old.
    You have better interpret the three point of the Cefr, which are referred to a not native speaker, namely in his/her capacity as a foreign learner…

    • Giovanni di Rosario says:

      English C2 converts to an IELTS band of nine(SAT reading 750-800). 95% of the native English speaking population cannot reach that level.

    • Lucas Lourenco says:

      I think you did not understand his point. He is saying that C2 and “native-like” fluency are two different concepts. He said he was able to reach C2 in German but he does not feel like a native speaker. So, although he has a C2 and it is probably more than a lot of germans could reach, he does not feel native.

      Therefore, one can have C2 and not be “native like” speaker while a native speaker can struggle to get C2, even though being utterly fluent.

      I am brazilian and I know that a lot of brazilians who speak portuguese fluently wouldnt be able to get even C1, because they don`t know gramma, they use the wrong conjugations and they have trouble understanding what they read, if it is complex.

      Did I make myself clear? (english is not my native language and I am not a C2 either lol).

  • Fan Chow says:

    I totally agree. There are French people who cannot even reach C2 as well.
    And as a Native Chinese, I cannot really tell the differences between many expressions put in the HSK 6 (C2) exams.

  • […] it struck me – and this is something I wrote about on my blog and spoke about in Berlin in 2014 – that while one can reach native-like […]

  • […] Let’s suppose that you want to reach advanced fluency in a language in 2 years. This is your long term goal. In order to do it, you first have to reach what I call basic fluency, and then (simply) fluency. (Note: If you need more clarification on the different types of fluency, click here) […]

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  • Yeseul Shin says:

    Thank you for great article! I’m writing an essay about the difference between a native language and a foreign language. While I was looking for others’ opinion about this subject I found your article. I totally agree with you. And by the way, what a talent you have on speaking different languages! Anyways, I was wondering if I can quote a part of your article. I will certainly cite the source.

    Best, Y

  • Egwuekwe Chima says:

    Nice article Luca. I think we all tend to confuse fluency with literacy. You can be fluent without being literate but not possible to be literate and not be fluent. The fact that you passed the C2 exams for spanish, english, Germán and french (a really applaudable feat i must say) shows that you are highly literate and fluent in those languages. However, you have the literacy of a native but the fluency of a non-native. In informal situations, I highly doubt a non-native, with a C2 or hell even a C3, will outfluentise the native….Natives speak instinctively while you speak learnedly… However, at an advanced learned level, the difference is very subtle. Besides, passing these exams requires hardwork even for Natives..so i can imagine the amount of effort you put in as a non-native. Fluency should be divided into native fluency and non-native fluency although there are some non-natives that eventually achieve the real native fluency. I think Luca has that in english… But is highly non-natively fluent in the rest. Saludos desde nigeria.

  • Eloy Chávez says:

    I learned Spanish directly in Mexico , I think is the easiest way to learn a difficult language, visit the country and go to school for it , I attended http://www.airesspanish.com/

  • […] Let’s suppose that you want to reach advanced fluency in a language in 2 years. This is your long term goal. In order to do it, you first have to reach what I call basic fluency, and then (simply) fluency. (Note: If you need more clarification on the different types of fluency, click here) […]

  • […] A lot of people confuse proficiency with fluency. Fluency is, of course, a controversial word. For some people it means being mistaken for a native speaker. For others it means being able to understand and discuss a wide variety of topics. […]

  • […] of the language you’re learning. The thing is, any language user masters their mother tongue in micro and macro environment. The micro environment varies from individual to individual: it’s how you use language in the […]

  • […] following the aforesaid ways, it’s for sure that you can attain native like fluency in the language. You can also attend classes to master the skill. If you are an office goer or a […]

  • […] Let’s suppose that you want to reach advanced fluency in a language in 2 years. This is your long term goal. In order to do it, you first have to reach what I call basic fluency, and then (simply) fluency. (Note: If you need more clarification on the different types of fluency, click here) […]

  • […] have attempted to pinpoint exactly where native fluency falls in relation to the CEFR framework. Some consider C2 to be above the level of an uneducated native speaker, while others consider it to be […]

  • Great post I went twice through the post. Really nicely written. Thank you so much for sharing valuable information.

  • AnyaTheDerp says:

    This is the first time i ever saw one of your posts and the ending really surprised me… i thought you were a native english speaker!

  • Knowledge X says:

    I am a 19y old student and I speak 4 languages fluently. How ?

    http://www.knowledgex.eu

  • Victor Hansson says:

    How much time is usually needed to reach C2 from C1 or B2?

  • Yurii says:

    Very interesting experience and assessment of C2 grade. Useful to know it is posiible to be at C2 without being native-like fluent in the same language. Thank you for such an amuzing review Mr. Luca.

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