When I first start learning a language, I often feel like a baby.
I remember when I first studied abroad in Aix-en-Provence, and I was playing at the pool with my French friend’s 7-year-old daughter. I could interact with her just fine! My French went through different phases- having started learning it in middle school classes and learning as a teen, my learning process was slow. When I was in grad school, I was able to perform plays and do poetry readings. When I studied abroad for grad school in Paris, I had so many more skills and capabilities at my disposal. We made French friends through our American school’s sister program with a local Parisian university, but I kept those friends since I was able to keep up and have actual conversations with them. Now, my Francophile friends and I send memes to each other and I’m able to share the sense of humor I have in English. I feel like being able to express your sense of humor (whether it’s just silly or sarcastic, wacky, dark and morbid, cynical, or nerdy) is the last step in feeling comfortable in a language.
My other languages are all at varying phases of growing up these days.
In Spanish, I’m probably a young adult…I can’t properly express my humor yet and I’m still working on having confident conversations. But I can read anything I get my hands on, and I’m able to crack up at youtube videos and movies.
In Italian, I feel similarly. When I was in Italy, I ran into one of my teachers and her children on the streets of Rome and I was able to have a normal interaction with them all. But when another adult non-native student and I got together to go to a park and practice speaking Italian, we had a nice yet halting conversation. I haven’t progressed to reading novels yet, but I’ll get there!
My Chinese is an angsty teenager. That’s how I think of it haha. I’m at a crossroads, where I’m trying to break out of beginner and reach one of those sweet intermediate conversation moments. I’m no longer a baby, but I wouldn’t take me seriously for any adult interactions. You could say I’m angsty because I speak in short and direct sentences!
My Polish and Icelandic feel like toddlers. I’ve been learning these languages on and off for a few years, but they’re at a lower priority for me so they haven’t progressed as much as the others. I could probably read a children’s book and get by, and I could greet someone & order food at a local market.
My German and Japanese are of course still babies. I just started learning German seriously this January, and I started learning Japanese for the first time in January as well. Think of babies gurgling to greet their mom, or kindergartners singing songs about colors and numbers on their ABC rug in class.
It’s okay to feel like a baby with your new language! It’s humbling even, and a good reminder that adults learn new things too, and that you have to start somewhere. The concept of fluency is a subjective one, and I feel like being able to have a flowing improvised conversation and expressing your unique sense of humor is a good indicator for this. When you feel comfortable enough in a language to call it your own!