Fun with Language
Am I fluent in English?


Ever wondered how you would know when you are fluent in a foreign language? I did, quite a lot. In school, teachers used to give us answers like "when you dream in a language, then you know the language" or "when you think in the foreign language, without translating from your native language".

Both don’t sit right with me. I can’t really tell you in which language I dream. I know for sure that I started to dream in programming languages too a few years ago. And definitive not only in those I’m fluent in – C languages are for nightmares only. So that theory is off the table for me. And regarding thinking in a certain language: Even in my native language I have to think hard and flip a mental rolodex to find the correct word in the needed language. For me, starting to think in a foreign language is a good sign and shows you are getting comfortable with the new language. But as long as your mental rolodex is often filled with words in your native language, I don’t think "fluent" is the right word – again, this is my point of view and how I experience languages.

Long story short: until now, I had a hard time saying "I’m fluent in English". 


Since 24.3.2022 around half past four in the afternoon, I think of myself as "fluent in English". Based on this really specific date and time, you can already guess, there was an incident which changed my mind. Let me tell you the story, because I find it highly amusing:

At this specific time, I woke up from my general anesthesia after a surgery. The first think I did was asking the nurses if the operation was a success and if there were any complications. They answered that everything was fine and there were no complications. I was so relieved, it took me a bit to register that the nurses asked me if English is my native language and if they should change the correspondence language in my file. Well, let me tell you, my brain just froze a minute – when it was back online, I told them "nei" (no) in good old Swiss German.

You know these characters in comics who run over a cliff and keep running until they look down and notice that they have no solid ground below them, and only then they fall down? That was my brain. It was so occupied with the outcome of the operation, that it forgot which language to use. Could have been that I heard an English word while waking up, or that I dreamed in English while knocked out. In the end, I don’t care, but I find it a beautiful anecdote for two things: that my surgery went really well and for the point in time when I started to believe that I’m comfortable and fluent in English.