When people learn I can speak Spanish, their first question is, “Are you fluent?”
And for a long time, my answer was no. I speak Spanish well, I reasoned, but I was hardly fluent. If I have to tell a story about my hopes, dreams, fears in the past, I get tangled in the verb tenses. My vocabulary has huge holes. Slang is a constant trap. And if I meet someone from a new region, I struggle to understand them.
I wasn’t nearly competent enough to feel fluent.
Then a few weeks ago, a new acquaintance complimented my Spanish. “You can speak without thinking about it,” she said. “I wish my English were that fluent.”
I opened her mouth to complain again about the imperfections of my Spanish, and then I shut it. And said “Thank you.”
Because the real meaning of “fluent” had just popped into my brain.
Fluid. Flowing. Pouring out.
I have a long way to go before I feel really expert in Spanish. But fluent? I’m already there. I make grammatical mistakes with every sentence, I am lacking key vocabulary, I miss meanings all the time, but I can mostly talk without consulting my inner verb conjugator.
That is fluent.
I am fluent.
I think often I think of achievements as being over there. Across a high wall that is, like the proverbial rainbow, always a little bit farther away. I am waiting to be better at writing poetry, fiction, essays. Better at finding freelancing markets. Better at marketing myself. Better at supporting my children’s’ learning, or practicing spiritual discipline. Better at parenting gently, accepting my family for who it is, serving others, learning how to be a true friend. I think that someday, I will feel I’ve arrived. I feel that I have not nearly gone far enough to call myself “fluent” at any of those things.
But I think there’s a trap in looking for some elusive expertise that few people can achieve. It makes getting started too hard. It undermines the achievements we make. It makes us reluctant to start something new, because the bar for competence is set so high.
Thinking about fluency today, I remembered something. For a while, when I arrived in Argentina, I envied those foreigners who had less grammar than I did but just talked, a kind of pidgen Spanish, that nonetheless made people laugh, opened doors, and expressed personality. While I was parsing verbs, they were communicating. I had book knowledge–they had more fluency.
That’s not to knock book knowledge–my base in grammar made me progress more rapidly once I was using Spanish. But fluency does not necessarily mean expertise. It means practice. It means the daily plodding that rarely looks glamorous or lovely.
Over and over, I’m seeing that the real way you gain fluency is not through competence or perfection, but through sold-out bravery. You get better at something not by magically getting it all right ahead of time, but by being willing to try.
I sometimes long for that a Platonic ideal of expertise, that occurs without failure, without grammatical mistakes, and without sticking my foot in my mouth. But that kind of fluency doesn’t exist. The only kind of fluency available starts in a labyrinth of mistakes and incompetence before it starts climbing the mountain of real understanding and skill.
It takes bravery to start walking through that maze, bewildered and confused. It takes humility and perseverance. But in the end, when you emerge out the other side, you find your perspective has changed, your very character has changed, and that the world you’re walking in is bigger, brighter, and holier than you’d ever thought possible.
Photo courtesy Mikko Saari