People overestimating themselves is a bit of a pet peeve of mine I suppose, so I always find it grating when I hear people describe themselves as “fluent” in Japanese. The author of this webcomic does so on her site’s FAQ, but this particular comic below has given me a new theory about such people:
I think when people say that they are “fluent” what they really mean is that they can manage.
“I am able to have an argument in Japanese.”
“I am able to have a boyfriend/girlfriend who only speaks Japanese.”
“I am able to get served in a restaurant using Japanese.” etc.
To me, none of these things even hint at fluency. You can have an argument, but can you understand what your opponent is really saying? You’ve found someone to sleep with you, but can you see into your lover’s soul and truly understand their feelings? You can eat at restaurants, but can you read everything on the menu and eavesdrop on every word of the conversation at the next table over?
Being able to get by in Japan using Japanese does not seem worthy to me of applying the highest label we have for language competency that you could possibly obtain (“native” being solely a birthright). But it is by no means a regulated term; they are just applying their own definition, even if that definition just requires them to be able to tick off some bare minimum requirement on a checklist. It’s rather like just passing some multiple choice exam and declaring yourself learned.
So, I think I will continue to look down on people who, in my opinion, erroneously describe themselves as “fluent,” but I believe from now on I will have a better idea at how them came to make such a generous estimation of themselves.