Dictionaries in Class by Ijiwaru Jimbo

Everyone talks about fluency. They say this method is guaranteed to make you fluent. This course will make you fluent. This computer program is the key to fluency. Become fluent in 10 easy steps. Or maybe they’re one of the people who claim only children can reach ‘true’ fluency in a language. The thing is, no one actually takes the time to explain what fluency means!

Why is that a problem? It’s a problem because in my experience ‘fluency’ is one of those words where if you ask three people on the street what it means you’ll get five different answers. To clear up any potential confusion when we talk about fluency here, I’ve decided to explain what we mean when we say ‘fluent’.

The Flow

When you break it down, the word ‘fluent’ essentially means flowing like a liquid. It means behaving like a fluid. It means having a certain flow. This forms the primary criteria for what we consider fluency – namely, the ability to carry on a conversation in a fluid, flowing way.

What’s that mean?

It means neither you, nor anyone involved in the conversation, is seriously inconvenienced by your speaking or comprehension level. A fluent person doesn’t have to constantly be asking what words mean, or ask people to repeat themselves. They also don’t have to sit there for several minutes conjuring up the one word they need.

There are a few things to note here. The first is that fluency in no way requires literacy. In most languages literacy will develop a little along with fluency, but in some (notably Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese and languages with similar writing systems) it’s possible to be highly fluent but completely illiterate. The second thing to notice is fluent doesn’t mean perfect.

Reject Perfectionism

There seems to be a widespread idea that you’re not fluent, or at least not really fluent unless you speak your target language perfectly. This is completely and totally untrue. People don’t even speak their native languages ‘perfectly’. For example, I’ll assume since you’re reading this your native language is English. Do you know which of these two sentences is the ‘perfect’ English sentence?

1. I wish I was able to speak another language.

2. I wish I were able to speak another language.

Native speakers will use both of these all the time. One of them, however, is technically incorrect grammatically. I say technically only because I’m a descriptive linguist and think grammar should reflect usage not dictate it, but I digress. Clearly, if native speakers can’t even be relied upon to speak perfectly how can anyone else?

Add into that all the ‘um’s and verbal space fillers, all the times people say one thing but mean something else and all the nonsensical words that are slowly absorbing into common usage like ‘irregardless’ and you come to understand that native English speakers often speak pretty poor English.

Instead of worrying about speaking perfectly, worry about speaking as much like a native as possible. You can have relatively terrible grammar, but still count as fluent in my book if you can have conversations on everyday topics with a variety of people without any significant difficulty.

Fifty Shades of Fluent

Ok, popular as they are, I feel a little cheap for having referenced those awful books. Regardless, fluency isn’t a finish line – it’s a sliding scale. A gradient. You can have two people with very different speaking levels but have both of them be considered fluent in my book.

In fact, if you look at the Common European Framework you can see that by my definition everything from a B2 up is fluent. In fact, there are probably some people in-between B1 and B2 I’d even consider fluent. The point is that a lot of levels can fit in there. You can have what I would consider basic fluency at around B1, and what I would call maybe native fluency at C2.

So if ‘fluent’ is something that applies to such a wide range of levels, and you don’t have to be perfect to be considered fluent, why should I even care about it?

Conversation Is King

The sole purpose of language is to communicate ideas, feelings and information with one another.

That’s it.

Your particular goal may vary, but for most people when you boil it down they want to learn a new language so they can talk to new people. If your goal is to talk to people, then fluency is really the only goal. You don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be able to get your ideas across and understand theirs without dragging the whole process to a halt.

Whether you’re B1 or C2, if you’re fluent you can have spontaneous conversations and if you can do that then mission accomplished.

How to Get There

There are lots of ways to get to fluency, the trick is to start today and don’t stop. You can try one of these three language learning methods, you can find some native listening material to practice with, try out some of these free online language learning resources or start out from the very beginning.

The point is to find something you like, start it and don’t stop until you get there!

Have anything you’d like to add? Is your definition of fluency different, or do you agree with ours? Let us know in the comments!

P.S. If you were wondering, sentence number 2 is technically grammatically correct.

Photo Credit: Ijiwaru Jimbo

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