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Fluency In A Language – What Does That Mean Exactly?

Language Fluency

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How do you define fluency?

A lot of people are under the impression that to be fluent in another language means that you speak it as well as, or almost as well as, your native language.

Many of these folks would define fluency as knowing a language perfectly – lexically, grammatically and even phonetically.

Well if this is the case then I’m not a fluent English speaker. I don’t know every aspect of English grammar and I certainly don’t know every word in the English language.

 

My definition of language fluency

Fluency is a spectrum (see the video below).

This is my primary criteria for determining a person’s fluency level in a foreign language:

They’re able to use their target language to learn more target language.

What do I mean by that?

If you don’t know the word for tail in your target language for example, but you know how to describe the long body part behind a dog or cat – enough to elicit the word from a native speaker in other words – then you’ve demonstrated a high level of fluency.

That’s it.

There are a lot of words in English that I still don’t know even though I’m a native English speaker, but I have more than enough language to describe what I mean and elicit terms.

I can do the same with my second language, Arabic.

 

How can this definition of fluency help me learn my target language?

Your goal in the early stages of a new language should be to focus on learning enough language to convey meaning and elicit new language without having to go back to your native language.

As soon as you kick off a new language endeavor aim to learn these things as soon as possible:

  • Pronouns and demonstratives.
  • Basic, most common nouns. These would include things like house, food, car, family, etc.
  • Simple prepositions. There are usually a lot of prepositions but focus on 5-10 basic, common ones.
  • Basic, most-used verbs. This would include verbs like walk, talk, go, come, sleep, eat, etc.
  • Easy adjectives. All you need are some common, very simple descriptive words like fast, tall, fat, good, etc.

The great thing about adjectives is that you don’t need to memorize the antonyms. All you need is a negative particle (e.g. not) or “opposite of” and apply it to each in conversation, i.e. that man is not/the opposite of fat (skinny). You’ll pick up the antonyms over time as you talk to native speakers.

Likewise you don’t need to memorize thousands of nouns. If you don’t know the word for washing machine for example, you could say “the thing I wash my clothes in”. Thing is a very handy word to know.

Arm yourself with enough basic language that you no longer need to rely on your own native language to communicate with people.

How do you define language fluency?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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  1. Fantastic post!!

    As an avid language learner (an 'fluent' Japanese speaker), I'm often asked about the meaning of fluency and I agree completely with you.

    I don't claim to be a 'perfect' speaker of japanese (far from it in fact), but as you said in your post, can quit happily speak with natives without reveting to English (my native language).

    I also very much agree with your ideas on how to get the most out of your learning endeavours. learning words like 'thing', 'action', 'tool', etc can help to facilitate learning through your target language rather than simply learning your target language much faster!

    Regards

    Reply
    1. Thanks Nick! 🙂

      Reply
  2. as someone who is studying linguistics…. my working definition of 'fluency' is someone who can create new sentences on their own and have them understood by another 'fluent' or 'native' speaker. (no matter the complexity of the sentence)

    Reply
  3. fluency for me is when you know a language well enough that you can feel it
    like when students ask me (in my, lets say, native language) if a messed up sentence is correct
    and i need to repeat the sentence to myself with a different word order until i get it
    not run to the grammar book to make sure it is ok

    if i can think in that language without struggling, then i know i’m there
    it’s not really about making (grammatical) mistakes or sounding like a native speaker
    they make mistakes too
    but mostly about the native speaker not even paying attention to the language i am using but being lost in the content of the conversation

    i don’t think being able to translate is an important factor (at all)
    in fact there are a few concepts i only know in some languages because i learnt/found out about them thru that language
    sometimes they also simply don’t translate in that they are not used/are irrelevant in some cultures/countries
    not knowing about them in another language doesn’t reflect my failure in getting fluency in that language
    once you get into specialized language/jargon
    how many native speakers would even know these concepts?

    perfect grammar isn’t necessary, i don’t think
    and though a rich vocabulary would be desirable
    i don’t think it should define somebody’s fluency either
    what is much more important is knowing what is the appropriate thing to say in a given context (and i don’t just mean expressions/idioms/proverbs)
    a language lives within a culture and i can’t imagine how i would not come to understand the culture if i speak the language fluently
    this doesn’t mean you need to know every dialect/regionalism
    who does?
    only those testing you would go out of the way to try to prove to you otherwise with a variation of “i knew it!” or “i thought you said you spoke ____?”
    but you need to have an excellent grasp of at least one dialect or even better, the standard one
    at least one to allow you to prove the validity of what you just said

    you ask about fluency but do not specify if writing is a factor
    many a people are illiterate but can still speak a few languages as their own
    i tend to specify what i speak/read/write/understand fluently
    i studied or used my european languages in a university setting
    which means that i can write academic papers in them
    i ran out of energy to get any of asian languages to reach that stage
    and then there is the language i was born into
    and the language of the country where i spent my childhood
    i could talk your ears off in them
    but i couldn’t write a high school level paper in any of them
    which takes me back to square one when defining fluency
    but i’m also a perfectionist

    Reply
  4. That's true, but even in your native may have trouble describing something especially when the term is no natural to them(I find this in English, I have to look words up in a dictionary) I perfer to think of as the being able to comunciate comfortably and naturally in the language or at least understanbly in the language part of which involves what you said. I also look at the different spheres where it used social, professional academcic Socially I feel comfortable in Spanish, but academically and professionall I would have to learn the higher order grammar and vocabulary.

    Reply
  5. I'm proficient in eight languages, four of which I don't speak AT ALL (Latin, Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew.) I speak Russian well enough to teach other languages in it, read it and touch-type in it, but have difficulty understanding spoken Russian unless it's spoken directly to me. I'm fluent in Russian and German but would be a lousy spy because I don't understand well (or at all) what I overhear, but only what is spoken directly to me. And yet Ukrainians sometimes tell me that I speak it better than they do, because I speak the literary Ukrainian rather than street language. (That's flattery. I don't speak as well as they do.)

    Reply
  6. My personal definition of fluency is being able to respond to the target language without expending effort to "decode" the statement in your head, and responding in a similar manner. I've been trying to reach that with my Italian, but so far it only works with simple sentences. But I'm hopeful! 🙂
    Anyone know any good Italian news stations in the US?

    Reply
  7. I think you might be underestimating what it means to be "fluent" in a language. The most important criterion in my opinion is whether you are able to freely speak in that language without doing any on the fly translating. When you would like to express yourself you should be able to do so without thinking about how you would say it in your native language and then translating it on the fly, which is what most people who are not fluent in a language do.

    So even if you can describe a word (for example, tail) in that foreign language, if you are not able to do so without this "on the fly" kind of translation then I would say you are not fluent, despite how many words you can describe like this.

    Reply
  8. Fluent to me is when I can have a complete conversation with a native talking about the movie I saw yesterday in that language, being able to hold an office job that only uses the target language in e-mails, start meetings and presentations alike. It’s not sounding as authentic as a native but being able to live your life in that language without help just like a native. I can proudly say that I can do that in my native Arabic, my second language French which I learned all my life and my third language English that I started studying in high school but gained my fluency after living in the United States for more than 10 years. That is what I consider fluent. I know a lot of Spanish and I can understand a lot but I can’t go watch a movie in Spanish and follow all conversations in it. Oh and one important hung for me to say that I am fluent is being able to listen to stand up comedy and get it!!! I am hard on myself like that 🙂 a lot of people that don’t know half the Spanish that I know say that they can speak it.

    Reply
  9. This is an interesting definition of fluency. I am concerned about this issue because I live in a country where many people speak two or more languages, but none of them “fluently.” In my definition of fluency, a literate person who is fluent should know the language well enough to ENJOY speaking, reading and writing the language. If a literate person struggles to speak or read or write the language then I would not consider them as fluent.

    Reply
  10. Not sure this thread is still alive…but I like your ‘applied linguistics’ definition of fluency (assuming it comes from your training in that domain). I am also an applied linguist, altho I prefer ‘field linguist’ having spent over 3 decades working with African language development on site in West and North Africa (bringing languages from being only spoken to being fully developed (written, documented, having a literature & mother tongue authors producing materials for literacy, etc). Applied linguistics these days is getting kind of dicey with more theoretical trending than I like to see when one says ‘applied’! That connects with fluency/proficiency (I’ll equate them unless you lead me into seeing differences…would you make any contrast between fluency and proficiency?)
    found it interesting and fun to read through the replies also.
    My working definition and daily quest for my own language and culture learning is that I am proficient when I am up communicating effectively and acting appropriately in the context and task at hand whatever they may be…so, as a beginning learner, I may be very proficient in greeting people, but not much more. Which is fine, for the time being. And having attained a ‘near fluent native speaker, superior level’ on a standardized assessment, can I successfully and sustainably live, work and play alongside members of my host community…if not – then toss the ‘grade’ or ‘progress’ statement and go back to the drawing board – it’s being able to do what you want to do that counts for proficiency!!

    Reply
  11. Oh hello! Just saw you speak Arabic as well. I am currently studying this language aside English/Polish translation. I am so determined to become fluent. I find it so impressive that you can speak it. Can you give any tips as in what had helped you mastering it? Any interesting TV channels?

    Iwona

    Reply
  12. I’ve had trouble with that question for a couple of years now xD
    To me, fluent is when you’re not thinking to find the words, but you’re able to talk and have a normal conversation (about the weather, hobbies, school or tv-shows) without having to stumble and go; ‘ Euh..euh..yeah..the..eh…eh…thunder.’
    Or at least, for me tháts fluent. I’m Dutch and while I’m typing this, my brain just switched to English, without effort. So..I consider myself fluent in English.
    Yet in German, I still leave a lot of pauses, wanting to check the words in my mind and searching for the right der/die/das to go with the sentence.

    I actually had a discussion just a few minutes ago (hence the reason I searched for this) because someone kept loudly yelling that German is só easy for Dutch people that they can learn the entire language in 3 months.
    Which is ofcourse, bs, since I’ve had German lessons in 4 years of school, but I’m not nearly as fluent as I’d want to be. Like being able to open a bankaccount or explain you’d want to rent a bike, without any trouble or struggle at all.

    Reply
  13. wow, if that’s what fluency means I’m a lot closer to it in french than I thought 😮

    Reply
  14. To me being fluent in a language means being able to converse with somebody about anything in that language. I’m fluent in Spanish but didn’t realize it for a while because I thought fluent and bilingual were synonymous. I don’t speak Spanish as well as I speak English so I don’t consider myself bilingual.

    Reply
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