What is “fluent” English?

Looking for a new job? In these uncertain times it might not seem like the best time to be moving to a new employer. However, some people have been given no choice or perhaps this unprecedented situation has provided people with exciting new opportunities.

This is a repost from 2018 but the information is still totally relelvant and helpful for anyone who is searching for a new job but worried about their English skills. CV and interview coaching is one of the most popular packages I offer, so if you need some support, don’t be shy to get in touch for a free consultation.

close up photo of writings on the paper

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.

2 responses to “What is “fluent” English?”

  1. One of the things I notice in others and also in myself that is perhaps the biggest thing that holds us back from launching into a language is intimidation. Sometimes it’s intimidating to speak to natives in when you’re convinced your language skills aren’t good enough: they’ll think you’re rubbish; they’ll switch into your own language because it’s so much easier for them than struggling to understand what you are saying. Other times, it’s intimidating to open your mouth when one of your compatriates is in the room and ‘speaks the foreign language much better’ than you do. Sure, there’s probably some truth in this, but if you give into the intimidation, the only loser is you. Using a language is the only way to get better. Using a language with a native – or even a fellow compatriate with stronger skills – is a sure-fire way to learn and have that learning really stick. In some ways I was lucky learning Dutch. No country in the world speaks better English than The Netherlands, so it could have been intimidating. But on the flip side, practically no Brits speak good Dutch, so anything I could say would impress. The Dutch have a tendency to switch to English at the slightest sound of a non-Dutch accent, so I had to grit my teeth a lot and not allow them to flip me. It actually became a bit of a game..! What drove me was the enormous satisfaction of getting inside a world I was never totally allowed in without speaking the language. And once I got to the point where my Dutch was better than most of their English, I found I had a lot of power 🙂 My advice to anyone starting out, or stuck in the ‘Basic’ zone who feels intimidated would be to admit you are intimidated. And ask yourself why? Recognise that it’s holding you back. And make a conscious effort to overcome the intimidation. Grit your teeth, don’t beat yourself up for the many mistakes you make. Even try and hold on to the comical mistakes (like ‘mit dem Fuß’) – these are part of the adventure and they give you a marker for how you progress. I still have all my funny classic errors retained in my memory. No one is the master of anything they try for the first time. The difference with a language is that it takes quite some time to get good and your mistakes are all too clear to see. Accept all that and you’re on the right track.

    1. Great comment James! Would you like to write my next post? I totally agree with everything you are saying here. Intimidation and fear are the two biggest hurdles to becoming good at a language. That’s why I think coaching works so well with language learning. You do have to figure out why you are intimidated, deal with it and move on.

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