Attaining Native-Like Fluency -- Not easy, but not impossible

In response to the various posts on other threads, I wanted to give my more detailed thoughts on the subject of native-like fluency, based on my experience.

First off: Native-Like fluency (native level proficiency, whatever you wanna call it) is absolutely an attainable goal in my opinion – even as an adult. Some caveats apply though.

For me, it breaks down into three steps: 1) functional fluency, 2) native-like proficiency, 3) accent reduction.

  1. Functional Fluency – This is usually the goal or dream of most language learners, to be able to communicate fluently in a foreign language, as commonly defined and described in the guidelines for a “C2 Level” proficiency. For most people, this is the last stage of language learning, but to become native-like, this is actually the first stage you’d need to reach. A C2 level is attainable with the usual mixture of study, exposure, and practice, as outlined throughout this site – and it’s feasible to get there without ever setting foot in a foreign country.

  2. Native-Like Proficiency – If your goal is to be able to speak like a native (more on accents later) you’ll have to spend an extended period of time in your target country. It’s important to note that not everyone who lives in a foreign country will become fluent, let alone native-like, but a fluent speaker who is dedicated to improving their skills CAN get native-like when living “in country,” it will just be a matter of time and focus. This is especially true for those going to college or university in their target countries. Overall, after achieving a C2 level you’d need an absolute minimum of 5+ years in a target country to be in the neighborhood of “native-like.” (My estimates.)

Native-like, to me, does not mean you don’t make mistakes, and it does not necessarily mean that you can “pass for a native.” It means that you have the active vocabulary and day to day proficiency of a native speaker. You can actually get to a level where you can speak better than many native speakers without passing for a native! I’ve met quite a few people who have achieved this level, it’s totally doable.

  1. Accents and Accent Reduction – Yes, getting completely rid of an accent is difficult. Opinions will vary on this, but in my assessment, having a slight accent can still qualify you as “native-like” if that’s the only thing that distinguishes your use of the language from those around you. However, if your goal is to get rid of an accent completely, there are specific methods for that as well. For example, in Hollywood, there are ads all over the place for accent reduction courses for foreign-born actors. In my time, I’ve met some of them that have gotten pretty good at passing for Americans – at least while the cameras were rolling.

Overall though, I think fluency is a byproduct of exposure and practice – and native-like fluency is a byproduct of fluency and living in a foreign country. It’s an attainable goal but not something you’d need to push for unless you’re going to actually live there. For most language students, pushing for a C2 Level functional fluency is a better goal to set.


This is a very useful post, t_harangi
I very much agree with amost all of your points, very particulary with your definition of what “native-like proficiency” means and, of course, with the idea that it’s a completely attainable goal and that a C2-level would be a first step in that direction.
My only source of disagreement is your opinion that you must live for an extended period of life in a country where your target language is spoken in order to achieve a native-like level. I think that other alternatives are available

“…Overall, after achieving a C2 level you’d need an absolute minimum of 5+ years in a target country to be in the neighborhood of “native-like.” (My estimates.)…”

In my opinion, it depends quite a lot on the target language vis-à-vis the learner’s native language. If an English speaker spent 3 or 4 years living in Italy, made a serious effort to learn the language, and lived and/or worked among Italian speakers (rather than existing in an expat bubble) then he or she would perhaps have something approaching native like proficiency.

But if the same person were living in Japan and learning Japanese, well, maybe one would have to double (or even more than double) the amount of time needed to reach the same level? (Japanese being so much more difficult than Italian for an English speaker.)

There may be alternatives to living in a target country, but you’d need to simulate that level of exposure somehow. Media exposure is doable nowadays, but the everyday interaction and forced functioning with native speakers would be difficult to simulate for the duration of time that would be needed to achieve the level of proficiency that we’re talking about. I’m not saying it can’t be done, but it would certainly be an added challenge.

Yes, one thing I didn’t get into was the relative differences in various native vs. target language combinations. These are present in every aspect of language learning, from the first stages all the way to various degrees of accent reduction between certain language pairings. The 5 year mark was my estimate for a minimum mark, but with different language categories, it could certainly take much longer.

Episode 5
Callum and Richard listen to a clip from an interview with the successful Icelandic singer, Björk. They discuss the best ways to learn English vocabulary, and some ways you can sound like a native English speaker.

I completely agree that it is achievable to attain native-like fluency if one lives abroad for a few years already having a C2 level. The only problem is that the very moment an adult gets native-like skills, he’s gonna worsen his mother tongue a lot. The reason is that in order to reach such a level, a great obsession must appear and full-time devotion to the foreign language. I have met such people, emigrants, who no longer speak Polish naturally and it takes them much time to find proper words in their heads. Not to mention the pronunciation impairment - perfect English but funny Polish.

Though this happens a lot, it doesn’t have to be the case. With conscious effort, your native skills can be easily maintained.

There is also what I call an “Ex-Pat Valley” in language acquisition – as you’re getting really good in a second language, your native skills can dip, go into the valley, but as you get really comfortable in your new language, you start climbing out of Ex-Pat Valley on the other side and regain comfort in your native language. Most people I know who really do butcher their native tongue are just stuck in Ex-Pat Valley, not quite native-like in either language and not quite making efforts to climb out.

Your posts are always so helpful and inspiring, t_harangi! I am now curious: in which languages have you obtained such high levels?


Thanks! Actually, English is my second language and I think I can safely say that I’ve reached that native-like level with it. With my other languages, I’m mostly aiming for a functional level of fluency as I describe it above.

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What is your native language?

My native language is Hungarian.

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