What Does Language Fluency Mean for an Interpreter?

totally fluentOver 20 years ago, with a couple years of college Spanish under my belt, I left to study for the summer in Spain. I remember actually saying these words: I can’t wait to just be fluent by the end of summer. As if it were a chore, something I had to gut through. As if it were possible! After that, I spent an academic year at the University of Costa Rica, graduated with a B.A. in Spanish, and worked a lot on improving my second language before I finally had the fluency to work as an interpreter. Even then, there was a steep learning curve for the first couple of years. That was in 2002.

Without much to push me forward, I felt like I’d sort of reached a plateau a few years ago with my Spanish language fluency. I’d been working for some years supervising a language services department, and while I was evaluating interpreters and generally involved in their work, I was not doing much interpreting work myself, which is really the only thing I’ve ever been interested in doing.

So like any normal person, I quit that stable job and went to graduate school to receive training in medical, court, and conference interpreting, and eventually a graduate degree in conference interpreting. Ever since, I’ve been having a very interesting experience in terms of how I think about fluency in my second language.

Before grad school, the problem with the not-interpreting job was not necessarily that it wasn’t offering me room for growth as an interpreter, but that it wasn’t offering me any chances to put myself in a position where–aside from some terminology here or there–I could really expose my weaknesses and even understand where I needed to grow, which is the first step.

Before the Big Grad School Adventure, I would have told you that speaking Spanish was effortless for me. And of course it was. I was not being put in any situation that required much effort.

I now bristle any time I hear someone say something like, “I’m totally fluent in X language” or “I’m fully bilingual.” Really? Because if that’s what you think, then you and I most likely understand something completely different by what is meant by “totally fluent”. And that is fair. I don’t think most people purposely overstate their language fluency. It’s that I use my languages in a totally different way than most people who speak a second language. And I’m still not sure I entirely understand what fluency means to me.

During grad school, a trainer recognized my what-have-I-done-with-my-life distress, and told me, “I bet you’re doing this because people have told you how good you are with languages.” I felt at once exposed (he’d hit the nail on the head), and silly. It was true–I’d left everything to gamble on my abilities as a conference interpreter, based on what other people had told me.

But what other people tell us about our language can feel crucial. Personal. It’s up to us to decide how we’ll interpret (so to speak) what others think of our language skills.

I took my husband to Mexico City for a vacation earlier this year, and after a very rich experience of interacting with people in the city as only someone with a good command of Spanish can have, I got a “Oh, you speak a little Spanish!” from a Mexican woman at the airport when we were leaving. A little Spanish. Sure. Sometimes it can feel a little personal when someone casually judges our second language skills at a level much lower than we know them to be. Like, I did not dedicate my entire life to learning this language so that someone at the airport could tell me I speak “a little Spanish”! And it’s true, checking my ego; I did not learn another language so that someone at the airport could tell me anything.

I’m living in Spain this summer, and I’ve met a few people who are non-native Spanish speakers, who (upon my very basic assessment) may not have the command of Spanish that I do. But I’ve seen them navigate Spanish society and social situations effortlessly–Something that has been a real struggle for me. My own discomfort socially makes me feel like I’m not quite as fluent as I thought I was. So these other maybe-not-as-fluent-as-I people likely can’t work as interpreters, but they’re having a different (better?) experience than I am living in Spain because they’re more culturally savvy. I guess sometimes you can’t have it all.

Earlier this week, I went to my favorite café and ordered a glass of wine. I asked for a vaso of wine, which is the wrong word in Spanish. I know this. It’s a copa of wine, which is a bit of trick as a native English speaker, since copa sounds like cup, and we don’t drink cups of wine. We drink glasses of wine, and cups coffee. Asking for a vaso of wine is like asking for a cup, or maybe a tumbler of wine [insert your own joke here]. I noticed my mistake because the waitress was kind enough to correct me–“Una copa de vino–Y hablas muy bien el español, eh?” I just wanted my copa de vino, and took that compliment at face value rather than mentally flying into a I-know-I-speak-Spanish-well-my-Spanish-has-been-tested-over-and-over-again-for-the-last-twenty-years tirade.

There are so many things that make up language fluency. I suppose a lot of it is how you need to use the language, and how you’ve learned it and used it. Many interpreters have a more complicated relationship with language fluency than I do, having grown up speaking more than one language.

So what is the truth about language fluency? After formal education in Spanish, 15 years of working as an interpreter, nearly every day in a bilingual environment, a graduate degree in interpreting, with several stints living and studying in Spanish-speaking society? If you ask how my Spanish is, I’d say: I’m working on it.

I’d love to hear your stories about that time you discovered you were more, or less, fluent than you thought you were. Share in the comments!


P.S. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages has an oral proficiency chart that’s really helpful when defining oral proficiency in the workplace (court interpreters are included!). You can find it here.

13 thoughts on “What Does Language Fluency Mean for an Interpreter?”

  1. Brilliant as always my “sunshine”! Are you coming back any time soon? I will love to have a couple of copas with you sometime so we can discuss your fluency in Spanish and my broken English 🙂 Miss you!

    1. I’ll be back end of August so we can have some copas! And by that time, you’ll have to deal with MY broken English!

  2. I’m glad to see someone with a similar experience to mine! I have been working as a medical interpreter and translator for 14 years, leading a language program for about 10 of those years. I’ve had my interpreting skills tested over and over as my department would either report to a new director, have to comply with new regulations, or have a new person in charge of language access at a system-wide level. I’ve taken countless assessments, workshops, and now certification exams, feeling that because of my English-speaking upbringing and my undeniably Anglo last name, I had better have the credentials to back up my claim to being not only competent, but above average in regards to speaking Spanish at a professional level.

    Having worked as an interpreter and translator for most of my adult life, my Spanish is pretty acceptable, but I recognize that there will always be areas that are lacking, simply because I do not (nor does anyone) have the time to become 100% fluent in all situations, whether they be social or professional. For example, I never learned about auto mechanics in Spanish, so I naturally revert to thinking in English when faced with a car problem. Also, the other day while speaking to my mother-in-law I got frustrated with myself for never in my 24 years of constant learning having needed to use the word for “hem” in Spanish. No matter what, I couldn’t come up with the word. Fortunately for me, my mother-in-law is as bilingual as she is gracious and was able to give me two words (bastilla and dobladillo) to add to my lexical arsenal.

    Thank you for your post. The struggle is real!!!

    1. Hi Jason! Thank you for sharing your experience! I feel I could write a book on this topic–Especially now that I’ve had time this summer to pause and reflect on my language learning path. Interestingly, a student was remarking to me today that she realized quickly after arriving to Spain (we are here for 7 weeks) that she was not going to be fluent by the end of the trip. And that is part of the point of the trip! To discover what communication is in different contexts, what the limitations are, how language is intertwined with culture…Like I said, I could write a book!

  3. I love this, Liz. You and your experiences are always so honest and genuine and lovely. I recall trying (in French) to be pleasant and saying to new French friends that, normally, I was not a beer drinker. But, I liked French beer because it tasted like it did not have “préservatives.” ( This was before beer making became such an art form in the U.S.) My new friends laughed heartily. Afterwards, one joyfully explained that, in French, that word means birth control and,” No. We don’t use birth control in our beer…Although, that might not be a bad idea.” Most of them were studying to become doctors…) For years afterward, I told that story to students. I wanted them to understand that well intentioned mistakes happen. Sometimes, they are even gifts. In my case, those friendships that have lasted nearly four decades. 😘

    1. I love this, Carol! It’s a great story to share with students, who I think can become obsessed with not making mistakes or sounding silly–To their detriment. I agree, those “mistakes” can even be gifts.

    2. Un Preservativo es un condón. Birth control , es control de natalidad, y se refiere a la píldora anticonceptiva.

  4. Dear Liz,
    I am so very inspired for what you’ve achieved over the years! It is interesting that the one constant we second language learners deal with, is the exposure to language B. As you are already doing it, keep writing about it because we have all been there at one point or another. Did I ever tell you the story of “focus”? I’m sure we’ll have a chance to have a drink over it.

    1. Yes, the B language exposure is crucial! And this summer has been a good reminder to me how much effort it takes, especially after achieving a certain level. You don’t just show up in the country of your B language and then improve. Though to be fair, the A language upkeep and improvement can require effort too. I never heard your focus story–I’d love to hear it over a copa de vino!

  5. Liz,

    I just recently came across your blog and really enjoy it, sorry for such a delayed response from when you wrote it. Thanks, and hopefully you keep it going! I’m a Spanish professor who does some interpreting and translating, and I do some introduction to them both for students. I’ve been learning/studying Spanish for 30 years now (wow, just typing that makes me feel way old), and hopefully I’m starting to get close to being “fluent”, but I don’t know how many more decades it will take for me to get there.


    1. Hi Mike! I’m glad you found the blog, and so happy to hear you enjoy it. I don’t know if I’ll ever finish untangling “fluent” as it pertains to my work in interpreting, but it is a puzzle that I enjoy working with. Last year I taught an undergrad class in Spanish, and in some respects I felt more pressure to know more about Spanish, be more fluent, etc lecturing in Spanish than I sometimes do as an interpreter.

  6. This is so reassuring! I just found your blog and I love it, you have the blend of humour and knowledge I wish I could master 🙂
    I always feel like I’ll never reach fluency in my other languages and it brings me down a lot but I like your perspective on it, it’s nice to know it’s a common issue 🙂 thank you!

    1. Hi Katie! I’m so glad you found me 🙂 I think the trick is to define fluency as it works for YOU. And you’re not alone in this issue!

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