The road to fluency is long and lined with potholes, into which we want to crawl and never come out of again. The threat of failure stalks us every step of the way, especially in the intermediate stages, and we'd never make it, if there weren't for those splendid little successes that crop up, sometimes when we least expect them. And they have nothing whatsoever to do with passing exams or getting certificates. Here we go:
1. You can identify "your" language(s). You can tell instantly that that book page with Cyrillic text someone's shared on Facebook is, in fact, Ukrainian and not Russian. Or even though you haven't the foggiest idea of what those tourists walking in front of you in the street are yakking on about, you know for certain that it's German and not Dutch, Danish or Swedish. And then you turn the corner really quickly, because it would be soooo embarrassing if they actually tried to ask you anything right now...
2. You've had your first successful communication with a native speaker. It was only half a mangled sentence, but, by golly, you've managed to order yourself a coffee! WHOOP! And the waiter came back... with a coffee! Double-WHOOP! Suddenly, all those hours spent poring over grammar exercises and combing through flashcards seem worthwhile. This experience is so intoxicating that it instantly turns you into a junkie, constantly on the lookout for the next fix. In fact, you're going to ask the waiter RIGHT NOW for the way to the toilet. Even though you can see the door with a big "WC" sign on it from where you're sitting.
3. Remember our tourists from #1? You've now arrived at the point where you can give them directions. (Except if you're me - I'm incapable of giving directions in any language. Must be something congenital. A few months ago, a French couple asked me the way to the cathedral. My response was to raise my right arm and point it in the approximate direction, accompanied by a couple of encouraging grunts - a bit like a gorilla attempting a Nazi salute. Not sure I helped those guys find the cathedral, but it did make them chuckle...)
4. You've understood a joke in your target language. It was trite, banal, barely half a notch above slapstick. But you laughed and laughed till you nearly peed your pants. Because you "got" it. Oh, you were so impressed with yourself that you shared that little gem of teenage humour with all those friends of yours who are native speakers of that language. The next morning, mysteriously, your friend count is down by a dozen.
5. You can follow and engage in a conversation in a noisy bar. This really is the acid test. Until you are in the situation of trying to communicate in another language in a busy place stuffed to the rafters with people and music blaring, you'll probably never have realised just how much work your brain is having to do, which you're mostly unconscious of. Usually, even if you can only hear every third word or so, as long as it's your native language, your brain fills in the blanks for you. It's like when you're engrossed in a book and you're not actually reading the words, but "recognising" them, and when you turn the page, you already know what the next word will be before you see it. If you're still grappling with a language somewhere at intermediate level, your grey cells won't, can't perform this task. You actually need to hear/see every single word in order to understand what's going on - especially since you're still struggling with so much unknown vocab. But once the switch finally flicks and you've mastered the heaving bar scenario, you know you have truly arrived!