Who can say they’ve perfected their skill in a language? Have I perfected my ability in English? I mean, I was born into an English-speaking culture, and I learned that language first, and it was the only language I understood until I was in my teens (if knowing what ¿cómo estás? means can be considered understanding Spanish). Even today, there are English words I don’t know; on top of that, there are English dialects I don’t understand very well, accents that I can’t compute without some thought. Can anyone ever truly complete their study of a language? And if not of your first, how much less of your second, third, and so on! But this shouldn’t discourage us in the least; in fact, it should be an energizing revelation.
The fact is, every language is a never-ending adventure. That’s what makes learning them so beautiful an enterprise. Even after years, when you have phrases set in your mind, pronunciation worked out, and thousands of words at your disposal, there’s more you don’t know. Not long ago, I learned the English word irenic. It means “favoring, conducive to, or operating toward peace, moderation, or conciliation,” according to Merriam-Webster. You may ask, “why not just use the word peaceful?” There is not just one reason to learn words like this, but the one that I believe is the most forceful is that, following this example, irenic doesn’t mean peaceful. They are close in meaning, but take a closer look: peaceful may assume that a state of peace has already been accomplished; irenic claims only that something or someone is oriented in the direction of peace. (Do keep in mind, of course, that irenic is also associated with a certain practice within Christian theology, Irenicism.) Learning more is never a bad thing, and it can open up your world even more, even in your first language. And sometimes, it’s a matter of sounding native or not in a language that is not your first.
Last week, I heard two of my coworkers talking. They were conversing in Spanish, and one is a native speaker, while the other speaks well, but not quite fluently. The nonnative speaker said something to the effect that it was almost summer, and the other replied, “ya mero.” The nonnative speaker stopped the native speaker and asked what that word meant, mero. She hadn’t heard it before, though it is used often in Mexican Spanish, spoken by a large majority of Spanish speakers in the area where I live. The native speaker explained that mero is like casi, the textbook version of “almost”. Another roadblock to speaking fluently removed. Another door opened to experiencing the world with a larger perspective.
So no, you can’t ever say you’ve finished learning a language. And that is an excellent bit of news. This isn’t to say that you will never reach fluency. Of course you will! But even once you are fluent, each new language you learn is a sizable gold mine of experiences and knowledge that you can continue to comb over and delve into in order to deepen your understanding of that particular language, of language in general, and of the world.