While travelling, I found myself continually stumped and stuttering with this question. I came to Argentina speaking no Spanish. My Spanish has now advanced well beyond "Una cerveza, por favor," but language is something that is never going to be perfect. Learning another language is fun and rewarding but also continually frustrating. And verbs...forget about it.
For me, learning Spanish was a bit of a roller coaster. At the beginning--especially as I started at level 0--everything was up and up and up. I remember thinking it was almost magic when I would say something to a waiter and he would understand me. I memorzied perfectly my speech of "I'm Meg. I'm from the states. I'm going to teach English. I like red meat. I also like wine." And then someone would ask me a question. And it was pretty much game over. I slowly learned different tenses and added new vocabulary, but it was always up and down. Good days and bad days. A visit back to the states of a month would set me back three months of Spanish. Now, I've reached a plateau but am still steadily gaining.
Language is a fluid creature. It's constantly moving and changing. Words come in and out of use and meanings shift from country to country. A country's language is a reflection of its culture. For the more "passionate" latino culture, Spanish has a colorful array of phrases I wouldn't dream to utter in English for curse words. Similarly, there are over-the-top and flowery terms to express love and affection. It's not just "sweety"...it's "mi vida." Argentina also has a dialect of slang called Lunfardo. The country's machista tendencies peek out of its slang with its constant references to farts and balls.
With such greatly varying idioms and expressions in each place, mistakes are inevitable. For example, picking up a language tip from a friend who studied in Spain, I used the word "coger" for "get." I walked around Buenos Aires for two months sweetly asking shop owners where I could f*ck bus number 152. One of my favorite language-slip stories is of a friend of mine named Cat. She's a young, bubbly, California blonde who introduced herself for the first two weeks as "Cat...como Gatita"...or "Cat...as in slut." Mistakes are easy to make...but everyone makes them. You just have to try not to blush too much.
I think what throws me off is the world "fluent," because I associate fluency with perfection. However, perfection isn't the ultimate goal in learning another language. Communication is. Even if you don't know the word for "corkscrew," you can convey what you mean by saying "the thing that opens the bottle of wine." And never underestimate the power of charades. So am I fluent? I can understand most things. I can say less than I understand. But I can get my point across...even if it's inelegant. Is there a category for that? I do know that I'll never again snicker at a funny accent or incorrect turn of phrase. Being the butt of a joke that you don't quite get isn't any fun. I have gained a respect for and fascination with languages in general and am looking forward to tackling the next.