Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

3 Key Steps to Foreign Language Fluency

key ring How to achieve fluency in a foreign language is a perennial hot topic in the language groups and forums that I visit. It's also a marketing hook - "fluent in 10 days" - as you've probably seen.

But what does "fluency" really mean? How do you get there? And, how long does it really take?

To most people, being "fluent" means that you can speak a language easily and freely.
In other words, you're not speaking in fits and starts, and for sure you're not constantly groping for words.

Everyone gets to fluency a little differently. But for most, these steps are key:
1) Begin speaking the language as soon as you know how to say a few words.
2) Focus more on communicating and less on grammar.
3) Improve your pronunciation as you go along.


If your goal is "conversational fluency" in a foreign language, you'll want to start practicing your new skill right from day one. Whatever words and expressions you're learning, start using them whenever you can.

Until you find a conversation partner, you may be limited to repeating aloud or talking to yourself. In addition, use a language program that lets you repeat and record words and phrases.

You need to train your ear as well as master the right mouth mechanics. Whatever you do, it's crucial that you move your mouth to form the words and say them out ALOUD.


From other language learners, I often hear: "Talk, don't care about correctness. ...Two Women  If it's close enough it's good enough."

Being a language teacher, I'm surprised that I don't balk at this. But that's what the real world looks like: If you're not speaking your native language, you're bound to make mistakes.

Look at me. I'm fluent in Dutch. When I'm in the Netherlands, people are surprised at how well I speak Dutch. Yet, when I post on a site for learning Dutch, I get corrected on details.

For example, I'm told that you say: "ik zat in school" (I sat in school) instead of "ik was in school" (I was in school) - to mean that I went to school in the Netherlands, which I actually did for a couple of years.

I like these corrections, and I'm learning a lot. But the bottom line is that I have absolutely no problem communicating in Dutch, even though I do make mistakes.


A perfect pronunciation is not a requirement for fluency. There, I've said it.
I know plenty of people who are fluent in a language and who still have a foreign accent.
A German friend of mine has lived in French Switzerland for quite a few years.
She has family there and runs a successful business. French is the language of her daily life and she navigates through French easily - with a delightful German accent.
It's clear that her foreign accent in no way impedes her fluency in French and that it doesn't affect her business nor her friendships in a negative way.

So, accent is not something you need to worry about - unless people can't understand what you're saying.
What we do know, though, is that you can work on your accent to make it sound closer to that of a native speaker.
Sounds are produced by the way you move your mouth.
With practice - by repeating and recording your own voice - you can learn to say sounds that are not part of your native language.
If you're really serious, you can take accent reduction training online, or with a professional in your own neighborhood.
(My German husband did this and can now pronounce the American "w," a difficult sound to learn for German speakers.)
But most of us find that our pronunciation can get better by practicing on our own.


The part I haven't mentioned yet is that you'll want to have lots of vocabulary. In order to talk about various subjects, you need enough words to cover them.
The most powerful way to acquire vocabulary is to read. I enjoy novels because they give me information about levels of language (also called "registers") and about the culture of a country where the language is spoken.
My husband, on the other hand, prefers to keep his languages current by reading online foreign newspapers every day.

How long does it take you to get to fluency? It's up to you and the time and effort you are willing to put into your language learning. Benny Lewis, a popular blogger on language learning, likes to aim for 3 months.
Is that a challenge you want to take?

I think there's something to the three-months time frame. When my family moved to the Netherlands and I got plunked into school there, it took me close to three months until I felt comfortable enough to give a talk in front of the class.
Similarly, when I moved to Canada, it was after about three months that people stopped asking me where I was from.
But clearly, total immersion is different from learning online on your own. But if you can stay motivated, fluency is bound to be within reach.