“What does it mean to be fluent in Japanese?”


When I tell people I speak Japanese they often ask “are you fluent?” to which I often reply “no, not yet”. Yet I’ve been thinking more about this question, and realised that what you define as “fluent” can vary from person to person.

 According to Google the definition for “fluent” is:

1. able to express oneself easily and articulately.

2. smoothly graceful and effortless.

I mentioned before on the Why Repetition is Important post, that to me getting to the point where you can do something without even thinking about it, is fluent. But this can apply to different aspects of the Japanese language.

Fluent in Japanese
13 Secrets for Speaking Fluent Japanese
A good book for beginners with tips
on speaking fluently.

Speaking Fluently

So I guess to some people being fluent in Japanese is a matter of being able to speak fluently. To be able to understand a conversation and express yourself naturally. This can actually be obtained around JLPT N4-N3 level of Japanese, especially if you go to Japan and live there for a few months.

According to AbroadinJapan (on Youtube), as long as you’re able to confidently talk and be able to talk around words you don’t know, you can have very fluent conversations with Japanese people.


Reading Fluently

To be able to read fluently would be to able to read books, newspapers, video games etc with ease. Now this is harder to define because it really depends on the individual. Although many people will probably calculate this at N2-N1 level, if you practice reading a lot you’ll be able to read and understand texts fluently at any level. I know people who can read and understand texts a lot better than I can at lower levels than myself.

Which brings me to another point. Being able to understand (not just be able to read) a text fluently is (I’ve found) dependant on grammar comprehension. Although you might know all the vocabulary and 80% of kanji, it’s the grammar that give’s you the relationship between these words. Not understand the grammar can greatly affect your understanding of a text and you might find yourself mis-understanding a lot.

But if you enjoy reading and find yourself steaming through manga, or novels, then you are probably fluent at reading those items.


Writing Fluently

Being able to understand Japanese spoken or written down is one thing, being able to naturally and confidently produce written Japanese is another thing. This is very dependant on the part of your brain that creates comprehensive sentences rather than passively taking them in. A good way to practice this is with sites like Lang-8 where you can type Japanese and natives will correct you.

Being able to write Japanese by hand fluently is an even rarer skill, even for Japanese people!


What Does Being Fluent Mean To You?

My point of this post is that “fluency” doesn’t necessarily mean to able to understand, speak and write Japanese like a native. You will never be as naturally fluent as a native without being brought up in Japan speaking Japanese almost 24/7. Many people who study the language only get to 80% fluency and that’s fine!

I also think that what “fluency” is depends on the individual and their goals. If your goal is to be able to speak naturally then it’s fine to call yourself fluent. If you want to be able to read novels but not necessarily write a lot of Japanese, that’s fine too.

Everyone has their strengths and weaknesses and we all study Japanese for different reasons. So the next time someone asks you if you’re fluent, you’ll probably find yourself saying “yes”, which is a great confidence booster ^__^