Not Fluent In Any Language

Image source: satanslaundromat

On, Carrie talks about the “Latino 1.5” – which by definition is: “not proficient in English or Spanish and born to first-generation American immigrants from Mexico and Central America.”

This reminded me of an issue Carlos faces, which I know is familiar to many others out there.

According to the definition, Carlos isn’t truly a “Latino 1.5” – he wasn’t born in the United States and wasn’t brought here as a child. He was born and raised in El Salvador and immigrated here at about 18 years old. While learning to speak English, he has maintained his Spanish – making him bilingual – but there’s a problem.

Do you remember how you spoke at the age of 18? Has your vocabulary grown since then? Most of us would say, “Yes.” In fact, scientifically speaking, your vocabulary should have grown by thousands of words between the ages of 18 and 30 – perhaps more if you like to read.

Image source:

Although this is a chart of vocabulary size by age for English-speakers, (and the English language has double the words the Spanish language has), common sense tells as that a chart for speakers of any language would look similar – with one’s vocabulary increasing with age.

But what happens when one is removed from their native-speaker environment? Less interaction in the language means vocabulary growth slows, stagnates, or worse, begins to decrease as new words are not learned and unused words are forgotten.

So back to Carlos. What does this mean for him, and others like him? It means that while he is bilingual, he is not fluent in either language – at least not at the level he should be for his age. The longer he’s in the U.S. the more Spanish he forgets. He has Spanish-speaking co-workers but they’re Mexican, not Salvadoran. While he hasn’t seemed to pick up any Mexican-isms, (as is really common for Salvadorans in the U.S.) – he does seem to use less Salvadoran-isms.

His mother no longer lives with us and he has a lukewarm relationship with most of his family. He calls his best friend back in El Salvador a couple times a week with phone cards that last around 15 minutes and that is pretty much the only Salvadoran Spanish he gets to speak. He doesn’t like to read either, so his vocabulary doesn’t grow even in standard Spanish – He is, for the most part, stunted in his native language.

In English, Carlos seems to learn a new word every day, but having begun to learn it so late in life, it’s highly unlikely that he’ll ever reach the fluency enjoyed by native speakers – particularly when it comes to reading and writing.

As for me – as a language lover, book lover, a writer, and someone who just generally finds pleasure in expressing myself through words, I think the situation is kind of heartbreaking. I can’t imagine the frustration that one would feel not having sufficient words to describe thoughts and emotions with precision. An example of this happened just yesterday.

Carlos went to great lengths to explain to me that he was feeling “weird” – he told me he had been thinking of memories from his teenage years and listening to music from that time in his life. He said that the memories and music made him sad in a weird way even though the memories and music are both happy. The word Carlos was looking for was “nostalgic” (or, “nostálgico” in Spanish) – but neither of these words were part of his regular vocabulary so I had to supply them for him. Once I gave him the word he was able to give his feelings a name, which is reassuring as human beings have an innate need to understand things and categorize them.

Image source: Nick Warzy

Are you not completely fluent in any language or do you know someone who is?

Update: I see that the Tiki Tiki is blogging on a similar topic today. Check out, “Oye, Are you Really Bilingual?”

Update #2: A friend, (Diane) mentioned to me that she blogged about her experience on this topic and I asked for her link. Here is another story about losing fluency in one’s first language. Also, I learned from Diana the name of this phenomenon in case anyone wants to research further: Language Attrition.


  1. Sadly, I think there are many native born Americans who are not completely fluent in the way that you use that term. My first husband’s family has been here since before the American Revolution, and he can speak English, but I during our divorce I discovered that his reading comprehension and writing skills were extremely poor. I’m married to a Central American immigrant who came here as an adult not knowing any English and who is truly fluent in both Spanish and English. I think the real difference is that he connects, in both languages, to things that he likes – politics and sports, in his case. Those are the subjects that he likes to watch on tv, check on the internet, and, occasionally, read in the paper, and he follows them in both languages even though he is not a huge reader. There are resources out there in English and Spanish, but I wonder if part of the problem is that American culture (and many others) focus on the quick and easy, and we don’t spend a lot of reflective time delving into things deeply. We seem to live in a sound-byte world, and you don’t need to know much to get by at that superficial level. I hope we can change that.

    • Astute observations, Susan. Thanks for commenting. I agree that there are many monolingual people in the world who aren’t fully fluent in their native language. Perhaps it isn’t necessary in some cultures or societies and maybe some individuals don’t require the sort of self-reflection that some of us need to feel content… I don’t know. It would make for an interesting research topic though.

  2. Tracy – I also found it funny (but great) that you and Tiki Tiki Blog posted about the same topic on the same day. Though being the top-of-the-line writers that you both are, you each tackled the topic from very different angles and gave equally valuable but totally different perspectives.

    Though the outcomes are somewhat different, Carlos’ and my experience are very similar. I came to the US at the age of 20. I’ve always been an avid reader and lover of language in general, so even for my age, my Spanish vocabulary was advanced. But fast-forward 16 years with little exposure to Colombian friends, limited reading done in Spanish, almost no exposure to Spanish-language media, and you find me struggling some times to speak or write my own native language. I’m like one of those people I used to hate watching on El Show de Cristina who were introduced as being from a Latin American country but had a weird affectation and discomfort to their speech. Now I understand it.

    And like Carlos, that disconnect with the language comes up in a weirdly emotional way when I go back to music or movies that I used to watch as a young kid. Unlike a person reminiscing on things from their past in the same country and language, when you do it as a person who has moved countries and languages, it feels like you’re replaying scenes from a beautiful dream that you had and were disappointed to find out it never actually happened.

    But ok, I’m getting sappy now and making myself sick. The point of it all: I agree with you – not having the words to express what one feels is a very frustrating situation. Just like everything else in life, to gain something you almost always have to give up something else. We came here chasing a dream and many of us achieved it, some times at the cost of giving up a big part of who we are (or were).



    p.s. that second sign is hilarious: “If you don’t understand what this sign says, we kindly ask that you approach the front desk and say to the clerk with the mustache and the red bow tie that you need to be spoken to in “Español””

    • Ah Rubén, you always leave the most awesome comments! :)

      I actually texted Carrie (of Tiki Tiki blog) and told her we had posted on the same topic of fluency. Jajaja. I love that we both took it from different angles/situations though, as you said.

      I had to smile a little at the nostalgia you describe because unlike Carlos, you’re talking about music and movies in your native language… Carlos has memories of his youth when he hears American rap and dance music from the early 90’s. Jajajaja. (I actually helped him write a short post last night about it – his first blog post in quite awhile: )

      Thanks for the comment, Rubén – The last paragraph especially is really beautiful and heartbreakingly true.

      And yes – that sign is hilarious. I wonder what genius came up with that one.

  3. I would be curious to know if/when your husband’s English would surpass his Spanish at all. Do you think it has, or will? Especially since I would imagine life changes would also change the situation and vocabulary. For example, this attending school for dental hygienics, or when the kids go to college (learning new words for financial aid and the application process!). My husband is in the same boat (although he immigrated to the US when he was 26). But as he continues with school here, I see his vocabulary growing (academically and socially, as most interactions are with American-born students).

    PS: I haven’t seen any updates on the dental school for Carlos in a while. Is he still attending classes?

    • Amiga, Carlos graduated the class and received his Dental Assisting Certificate! :) He got A’s and B’s on all the tests.

      He hasn’t become a dental assistant because the income would be much less than he makes, but he feels confident having it on his resume and it looks good on him that he complete a college level class in English. It was a good experience for him.

      As for when his English will surpass his Spanish – I’ve wondered that. So far he is still more fluent in Spanish. It will be interesting when he reaches his 20th anniversary in the United States and will have more years here than there.

  4. You have hit the nail on the head! I am an ELL teacher working with mostly hispanic HS students and when I entered this career I expected to be working with immigrants, especially newcomers, not KIDS of immigrants- students who were born here. When I mention to fellow teachers that Juan or Luz were actually born in the U.S. they are taken aback and ask “Why are they still in ELL if they were born here?” Your post explains it perfectly. They aren’t really proficient in either language. Their first language skills developed socially, but never academically, and they entered the educational world thousands of words behind their peers. When they learn new academic words in English, they have nothing to connect it to in their first language. My true “newcomer” students, however actually aquire English much faster, as long as they come from an academic background in Spanish. They soak up the academic language like sponges because they actually know the word for it in Spanish. When I tell my 2nd generation students what the word is in Spanish, mostly I get blank stares. My husband and I are now trying to raise my son to be bilingual and TRUELY bilingual in both languages but it’s a very challenging task! My husband who left Mexico with only a 9th grade education (but got his HS diploma in English and is now in college) struggles to help me when I don’t know a word in Spanish. Thank goodness for bilingual dictionary apps for cellphones!

  5. Interesting! My mother is born and raised in the U.S. but only went to school up to the 7th grade and was raised in an atmosphere of English is only for speaking to white people….never in the home or in the barrio. There are many words that she can only say in Spanish because she never learned them in English. I am the same way and it can be a little embarrassing when speaking to co-workers and I can’t remember the word for comál or sartén etc :)

  6. I have an aunt who was in French Immersion and she cannot spell in English OR in French. It’s always been in the back of my head when choosing a school for my kids. Here’s the thing though, and your post sort of touched on this, some people have a knack/love of language! My oldest can’t spell and hates to read, but loves audiobooks. My youngest loves reading, loves language, loves spelling.
    I love how you balance Carlos out and help him along when he is stuck. I’ve said it before but you two will last forever! :)

  7. My husband was born and raised in the US in a Spanish speaking home. He started learning English in kindergarden but I tease him that he’s still not fluent. There are English words I grew up using that he has never heard of. He’s definitely considered fluent in both languages but there are times he doesn’t know the word for some things in Spanish. I’m sure what you described is pretty typical. Good thing Carlos has you… maybe you should teach him a new word a day. :)

  8. Hi Tracy I can definitely relate to Carlos Im a 1st Generation.
    Raised to teen years in El Salvador. I can neither speak write my best english or spanish. when I went To El Salvador I was asking for A ”printiadora” aka Printer I had no Idea the spanish word is Impresora.

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