Just about every job advertisement you read here in Germany these days contains the words “Fluent English required”. Something that scares the hell out of a lot of non-native speakers. Even the ones who are pretty good at English.
But before you decide you shouldn’t apply for that job, take a minute to consider the following things:
1. “Fluent” does not equal “perfect”.
Nobody is perfect. Not even in their native language. How many people know every single word that exists in their native language? People would consider me to speak “fluent” German as I am a CEF level C2 and can handle every situation from scary telephone conversations with the tax office to nice conversations with my nail lady discussing the pros and cons of a shellac manicure. All of this I can do without reverting to English, checking a dictionary or getting into too much of a flap. But I am NOT perfect. I make small mistakes all the time. And sometimes big fat ones when I’m having a “Bad German” day. Just for reference, a “Bad German” day is a bit like a bad hair day. No matter what you do, it just isn’t right. One of my Bad German day classics was asking someone in a tourist information office if I could get to the local castle “mit dem Fuss”. A weird combination of “mit dem Bus” and “zu Fuss” which literally came out as “with the foot”. Like I only had one foot. Or I was planning to hop up there “with the foot”. Yes, my husband still laughs about that one.
2. What is the employer really expecting?
For many employers, good English and fluent English are interchangeable. They only write the word “fluent” because that’s what everybody writes these days. The reality could be they need anything from a level B1+ to a C2. (click here to see more on CEF language levels). Don’t know your level? Ask your English teacher for a guideline or take one of the many free online CEF tests available.
3. Get yourself an interview and then let them decide.
If English is important they will test it during the interview anyway. If they decide your level isn’t good enough, then that’s that. But perhaps your level is good enough for what they need and meets their idea of “fluent”. If you really want the job, it’s worth giving it a try at least. You could also ask in the interview more about what skills you really require in English.
So, to sum up, defining the word “fluent” is a bit like defining the word “fit”. I can run 5 km without dying so some people would call me “fit”. On the other hand, I generally can’t do it in less than 30 minutes which means I’m pretty slow, so therefore a lot of people would say I’m “not fit”. In the same way, everyone has their own definition of fluent. Just take a look at the blogs and forums on this subject and you’ll get a lot of different answers.
Try not to see fluency as an unrealistic ideal. There’s more flexibility to fluency than you think.
Do you have a different idea of “fluent”? Feel free to comment below. For regular posts like this straight to your inbox, subscribe to my blog by adding your email address in the box on the right.