Defining Language Fluency: It Isn't Perfection

I see a lot of people talk about "redefining fluency". The irony is, however, that the ones doing the complaining are, in fact, the ones doing the redefining. When pressed to describe fluency, they will often admit to expectations that a fluent speaker have a native-like accent, or a vocabulary of countless thousands of words, or some ability to pass some arbitrary exam.

In reality, none of these things are fluency. I will refer you now to the actual definition of fluency, so that we can all be clear:

flu·ent –adjective
1. spoken or written with ease: fluent french.
2. able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily: a fluent speaker; fluent in six languages.
3. easy; graceful: fluent motion; fluent curves.

Fluency does not mean that you have perfect grammar. It does not mean perfect spelling. It doesn't even mean having a huge vocabulary, or passing some arbitrary exam, or satisfying someone else's demands.

Fluency is not perfection

The word fluency literally means fluid, or flowing. It means you're able to comfortably use a language without long, painful pauses while you try to think of a word. It means you can say what you need to say, and do so in a reasonably uninterrupted and natural manner.

In fact, a person can be fluent and still say everything wrong! (I'm not suggesting that you should try for that, of course.) The fact is, with good body language and lot of confidence, a vocabulary of just a few hundred words would be enough to speak most languages fluently.

Is it possible to be fluent in one year, as I claim on my web site? Yes, without a doubt. Is it possible to do it in even much less time? Definitely. With the right circumstances and a good attitude, fluency could likely be reached in a matter of months.

In fact, I see no reason why a person couldn't exploit certain situations (such as a language that is similar to one he or she already knows) to reach fluency in just a few weeks. Sure, they probably won't have a great vocabulary... and yes, it would only work for a handful of languages that are "easy" for that person... but I absolutely do believe it is possible.

Setting a target

I define the level of fluency I intend to reach at the beginning of each year. (Notice that I am not redefining fluency — rather, I am explicitly defining the level of fluency I intend to reach.) I did it last year with Italian, and I did it again this year with Turkish. And while the definitions are mostly the same, they do also have some differences. Of course there are differences — they should be different! — because the two languages will have difference uses in my life.

Your measure of fluency — the target you set for your language learning goal — should reflect your goals with the language. If you want to spend a month traveling around a country and learning about its cities, people, history, and culture, your goals will be somewhat different from those of a person who intends to live in one city for three months. And both of those will be far different from someone who plans to move to that country for work, or someone who wants to teach there, or immigrate there, or run for political office there.

But all of that is something much different from fluency. Never let the critics scare you off... it is they who are redefining fluency. And they do this because they don't want to see you succeed. They like knowing something you don't. But I'm not letting that stop me, and I hope you won't let it stop you either.


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Author: Yearlyglot
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  • Well said Randy! It's sad when people create some false idea of fluency as absolutely equivalent to bilingual, as yet another reason to discourage themselves (or others) that reaching it is impossible.I find it ironic and hypocritical that people who would jump down your throat for saying you speak a language fluently saying that you would be too flexible with the definition, usually have incredibly nebulous definitions of fluency themselves. Their idea is not related to reality or what most people understand as someone's ability to integrate in real native conversations; it's just about wasteful perfectionism.As far as I'm concerned fluency just means that I can live my life through that language entirely as I would in English.

  • Yup. So many holy wars come from a simple confusion over terms... something that could easily be avoided by using a dictionary. :)

  • I really enjoy your blogs. They are applicable to learners of another language, not just conceptual or classroom based.Thank you.
    David Orman
    docwellness.wordpress.com

  • I've taken to labeling the level of fluency I have in my Spanish and Mandarin as "conversational", but not "professional".  Many times I make the distinction to put it in terms my monolingual comrades can understand because they, by default, assume that fluency does in fact equal perfection.  On a personal level, I define fluency in a very different way.This idea has been floating around in my subconscious for a while, and I'm glad that you wrote about it!  Thanks.

  • Thanks. I'm glad you find value in what I do.

  • I like the idea of terms such as "conversational" and "professional", because they indicate the difference. A "conversational level" or a "professional level" tells me a lot.I think most monolingual people have an absurd idea of what fluency is, which shouldn't be a surprise given that they have no idea what is involved in learning a second language. When you don't understand it, hearing someone speak a foreign language is indistinguishable from magic. No surprise, then, that a non-speaker might not be able to discern a native speaker from a fluent speaker, and the two might fill the same space in his mind. :)

  • Well said, it's massively important to be very specific about an objective you intend to reach, and the word "fluent" is actually quite loosely-defined, so you've got quite a bit of wiggle room.  I personally like to use the word "conversational fluency" a lot, as that's almost always what I go for, my personal definition of that is being able to hold a conversation with a native speaker about any day-to-day subject (pick any story out of a newspaper or magazine to talk about, or about what you're studying at school or your work or whatever--i.e. not quantum physics or financial derivatives) at a normal conversational rate of speed (that is, as fast as a native would talk) for at least 15 minutes without having to refer to any outside sources (e.g. dictionary or the internet) for help, plus you should be able to read normal everyday literature and be able to understand what's being said (you don't need to know every single word to do this) without referring to a dictionary, translator, etc.That's just what I do, I find that that level of competency can be reached by someone in 6-12 months if they're determined enough and willing to spend a couple hours a day working on it.Cheers,
    Andrew

  • What you are describing is a level of competence, not of fluency.

  • I completely fail to see the difference, that's precisely what fluency is: a level of competency with the language.  And what I described is what I personally consider "conversational fluency" to be, that's just my personal definition of it.

  • Apparently you're not alone.  But there *is* a difference.Fluency is not a measure of competency.  Fluency is a measure of ease.

  • And when you use words like "that's just my personal definition of it", you're part of the problem, not part of the solution.

  • What "problem" would that be?

  • Those who "redefine fluency".

  • I don't think I'm redefining it, I think I'm absolutely staying within the admittedly VERY vague definition of it (essentially, "speaking/writing with ease, smoothly, etc."--and that's it, that's the definition)--I'm narrowing it down by describing a specific type of fluency, but I was definitely under the impression (I could be wrong, I can ALWAYS be wrong, haha) that I was staying well within the dictionary definition of the word.

  • On the contrary, when you talk about understanding what you hear or read without the use of a dictionary or the internet, you are talking about competence.  It's a matter of *input*.Fluency is the ability to create *output*.  

  • Good point. Just to note though, the term bilingual (especially in the research literature) also has many diverse definitions. There are many ways to be bilingual and many ways to be fluent and sometimes they overlap but often they do not. Go n-éirí leat leis an chéad dúshláin eile.

  • True, there's a difference, but I'd be hard pressed to say I'm fluent without some sort of competency to back it up.Right now I can say all sorts of simple sentences in Turkish for certain situations without a whole lot of trouble. I would consider that fluent output for these specific situations. But if I try to string together more complex phrases, perhaps involving various clauses and conditions, I'd have a rough time of it even though I may know what needs to be said. It's just not automatic yet. I suppose in that case the competency is there, but not the fluency. You're right that fluency is output. That really only comes with a lot of practice, no matter how thoroughly I know "the rules".

  • So important to do away with self-consciousness and start speaking from day 1 to achieve fluency! Great post.

  • please delete this comment

  • This is an interesting post Randy. I agree with most of what you say. My recent experience in Madrid taught me that there will always be words I do not know, there will always be expressions I am unfamiliar with; which is also the case with English! I don’t need to know nearly as much as I thought I did before hand to reach fluency. I was able to function pretty fluently and there are tons of words I do not know. However, I was able to function “fluently” for my three-week stay.I believe this topic is controversial mostly because of the fact that we all perceive words differently. The connotations we have attached to words may be similar, but it’s pretty safe to say they will vary from person to person. The connotations we have attached to words vary because we all encounter their usage differently to some extent. There’s no questioning that.While a dictionary definition is a good place to start. Dictionaries can’t cover every variety of a word’s use. Language is alive; language is fluid; language has many forms - Hence the reason dictionaries need to constantly be updated to keep up with changes (at least they try)In short: No one is wrong about how they see fluency. Although I perceive fluency the way you do (for the most part) I also hold the belief that there is no one concrete definition. People always see things differently. What matters in my opinion is knowing what you are aiming for as an individual and work hard to get there.Who cares what someone else thinks about fluency? As far as I’m concerned, time is better spent learning the language in question.

  • Scope, context and common understanding are important. Here is a thought, imagine you are interviewing for a job position, an applicant states on their resume that they are fluent in Russian. What are your expectations? particularly if a high standard of Russian would be helpful in the post (maybe the applicant doesn't know that). You have native Russian speakers that may speak with the applicant.  What will satisfy you that they described their ability with Russian accurately. This kind of thought experiment could be used to work out what most people understand by the word fluent.Fluency may not be absolute but conversely people have every right to hold their own interpretation, if somebody describes themselves as big, how big do they have to be for you to agree, how smart, how musical? How are people being scared off by being told that the level for fluency is high? most people who have never learned a language assume this definition anyway, it really makes no difference at all to them what fluent means. Showing them what they can achieve may help them but re-framing the word fluent for them does what exactly? Do most people just want to say they are "fluent" in another language without feeling guilty about saying that and don't give a damn about their actual absolute ability?Realistically if you are going to have a heading in your goals that literally says "Define fluency" with a bunch of points under it then you are going to open yourself up to criticism about redefining fluency for sure whether you are technically correct or not, most people don't read blogs as legal documents or want to engage in the kind of nitpicking you did with Andrew below.If you want to help the average person learn languages and help them with confidence, then why fuck with their heads and lead them down a tangled path of their mother tongue. Unless like some bloggers you are using their popular misconception of what fluent means to a marketing advantage (language learning books have been deliberately doing that since at least the 70's).Most spoken/written language is informal, as opposed to formal languages like computer languages or technical language etc. You shouldn't need to resort to definitions unless you are not being clear. I am sure you could have stated your goals without controversy. Maybe you don't care, but then why are you blogging?Whoops wrote an essay in an comment again oh well.

  • Was there a point in there?

  • I thought so, but I see the problem, I will split my thoughts into a number of comments plus maybe one or two more, didn't want to be acussed of spamming is all.

  • Who is talking about re-defining fluency? Without context and links it is hard to know if there is a valid argument. It seems be what inspired to write this post so would be a great help if you could provide link/s.

  • How are 'the critics' scaring off language learners? Links or examples would help.
    I don't really see how any arguments over levels of fluency can be scaring off learners.

  • Andrew, in my opinion Randy is just nitpicking. I would be surprised if most people think that fluency has absolutely no relationship to competence. I knew what you meant, I assume most people would know what you meant.
    Next time hire a lawer ;)

  • Agree with the point on dictionaries, in my opinion if you have to resort to a dictionary to explain what you meant, you aren't communicating clearly.

  • I don't see necessarily an evil when people use the term differently as long they define it so that they make clear what they are talking about. I am sure that you will find also different definitions in different dictionaries.
    The problem arise when we want to discuss together about something. Than we must be sure that we are talking about the same thing, and then it is necessary to explain what we mean for fluency and, for the sake of the discussion, to agree on only one of the many possibles definition. 

  • If you make up your own definitions to words, but include those definitions along with the words where they're used... you might be able to expect people to understand you, but you're putting all the work of being understood *onto the listener/reader*, so at the very minimum, it makes you egotistical and non-conformist.Still... if I play along with this hypothetical, and assume that the definition to every word is included with the word, for every situation where the word is not being used as defined in a dictionary... the grand point remains the same:  you don't get to accuse others of "redefining fluency" when you are the one doing it.

  • When people start holy wars in the language-learning community over whether or not this person or that person is not fluent, or worse, that they're misleading people by redefining fluency, that is definitely not helping or encouraging anyone to learn.  If I were an outsider, with no prior knowledge and an interest in learning a language, I would take a look at all this petty fighting and nonsense, and eventually give up on the idea altogether... probably take up sports instead. 

  • I'm not going to link to trolls.  Sorry.

  • Of course, no one is suggesting that you should try to become fluent but remain incompetent.  That's a pointless argument.

  • And likewise, I would be surprised if most people could describe "fluency" in a manner that is anywhere close to the actual definition.

  • So tell me then... how exactly do you expect people to understand you when you use your own made-up meanings for words?  Especially when those meanings are at odds with the accepted definition that the rest of society counts on:  the one in the dictionary...

  • What argument? I was basically agreeing with you. Step back and read it again.

  • Yeah, everything after the first sentence was basically agreement or elaboration of the idea.  But the first sentence is not.  (When people say "true, but..." that's a strong indicator of disagreement.)Anyhow, yes... on the majority of what's been said, I think you and I agree.

  • That seems to be the way that most people operate all the time, the very reason that formal languages in Law etc. are developed, because then it matters. In regular communication if you want to be clear you use a word in the way that most of your audience expect it to be used. It happens all the time. Don't you adjust your language to the type of person you are speaking to? People parse meaning out of what you say not dictionary definitions. A trawl through Google show fluent as commonly being use in the meaning you don't like.So most people would see a difference meaning of fluent between saying "That was a fluent rendition" and "I speak fluent Chinese" that is my experience, I speak from experience not dictionaries. Iwill test this phrase on some real people and see what they think it means to them, should be interesting.

  • Again with out concrete examples (trolls or not), is is not easy to be sure what they meant, maybe we are taking "redefining" out of context.

  • If you're going to count a "trawl through Google" as validation of your linguistic theories, we'll have to have a conversation about the use of "there, their, and they're".I'm not interested in anecdotes, Chris.  What I'm interested in is an end to pettiness, particularly of the brand that accuses people of misleading others when they use a word correctly, while the person doing the accusing is intentionally misusing the word.End of discussion.

  • Funny how the guy making sarcastic remarks about hiring a lawyer is now the one demanding evidence and putting me on trial.  Don't be a hypocrite.

  • Thanks!

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