The Simple Difference Between Language Fluency And Proficiency

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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The Simple Difference Between Language Fluency And Proficiency

What does it mean to be fluent in a language?

I’ve attempted to answer this in my own way in the past.

Previously, I talked about it being a spectrum rather than a specific target.

In other words, the correct question is not “are you fluent?” but rather “how fluent are you?”.

I’ve been thinking and reflecting on this a lot lately during my time in Ireland and I’ve encountered some online discussions that made me want to clear something up.

Something that I think people miss.

Language fluency does not necessarily equal language proficiency and vice-versa

I think that what causes the most confusion for people is the blurring in distinction between these terms.

For some people, ‘fluency’ is simply synonymous with ‘proficiency’.

But this is incorrect (kind of).

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked, “How many languages are you fluent in?”

What I think they mean to say is, “How many languages are you proficient in?” (and then of course comes the challenge of defining what they regard as ‘proficient’)

The term ‘fluent’ is in fact a Latin word meaning “flowing”.

In language acquisition circles (at least originally) it refers to the speed or smoothness at which a foreign language travels out of a person’s mouth.

‘Proficiency’ on the other hand refers to your skill level – how much you actually know and are able to use.

So you might have an incredibly high level of language proficiency (large vocabulary, strong grasp of grammar, advanced reading level) yet have terrible fluency when you speak (you’re slow to produce speech and get the words out or an impeded pronunciation).

Likewise, you may have encountered people who are quite fluent yet aren’t overly proficient.

I realize that this sounds like I’m playing with semantics but I think it’s important to grasp.

How I’ve always defined “fluent” to people

I’ve often tried to simplify my own definition this way:

Being able to use the target language to acquire more target language.

In other words, if you’re unable to discuss a topic in your target language, but your proficiency level is high enough that you can elicit more target language (without reverting back into English), then you’re entitled to say, “I speak …… “.

Foreign language autonomy.

For me, this is the point at which I personally decide whether or not a person is able to speak a language or not.

You don’t need to be able to discuss economics – but you need to be able to elicit the language necessary to talk about economics if need be.

Make sense?

I’ve referred to this as ‘fluent’ in the past.

But as I’ve been reflecting more on this topic recently, I’ve decided to no longer use that term in this context.

I think it’s important to reserve ‘fluency’ as a grade or spectrum for one’s speed/smoothness of speech and to strictly use ‘proficiency’ to refer to one’s ability to use a language.

That way we can avoid a lot of confusion.

The inevitable questions

So obviously this leads to two separate and inevitable questions:

“How fluent are you?”


“How proficient are you?”

And it’s at this point that you clarify just how proficient or fluent you actually are.

For example, I’m proficient at talking about my family and work in Irish but I have practically zero proficiency discussing peat harvesting or thatching.

My fluency level naturally varies depending on how much I’ve used specific topics in the past (i.e. the more I’ve said something, the better I am at saying it obviously). So if you talk about something a lot, you’re going to eventually become very ‘fluent’ (fast and smooth) when talking about it.

If you’ve never talked about a topic before and someone asks you about it, you’re going to be less fluent on that particular topic even if you have the proficiency to talk about it.

(Also see my post on automatic and controlled processes.)

So I prefer to grade both proficiency and fluency in terms of what you can actually achieve with the language and on which topics, rather than obscure levels (e.g. A1, B2, C1).

What can you actually accomplish and how well?

Of course, fluency and proficiency can overlap and to a large extent, depend on each other – the more proficient you are on a topic, the more likely you are to have an equivalent fluency level.

In the same way, you cannot be very fluent unless you have the proficiency first.

I hope this brief reflection makes sense to you. 🙂

What are your thoughts?

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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Mike Jones

Mike Jones

Fluency means lack of turbulence in foreground. Proficiency means lack of turbulence in background. In scenarios in which background and foreground are conflated (a common occurrence), fluency and proficiency are also, naturally, conflated.

Mike Jones

Mike Jones

This can be expressed in terms of conditional probability.
First, some notation: If A is an event, then P(A) is the probability of A, and if B is another event, then the probability of A, given that B has occurred (usually read ‘the probability of A, given B’) is denoted by P(A|B).
Let A be the event of being highly fluent, and B be the event of being highly proficient. Then if the probability of both A and B is high, then each of P(A|B) and P(B|A) is also high.



I just realized I may not be fluent even in my native English. Does that mean it might not happen for other languages either? D:



You truly made an interesting point about it. It made me think of my students when they come to me and say that they have words and verbs in their head, but nothing comes out of their mouth. I think sometimes we focus too much on choosing the right words and verbs and on pronouncing them right, that we eventually forget about our goal of becoming fluent. Obviously, this could lead to many more philosophical conversations, so I’ll just compliment you for giving us food for thought. :)

Dana Hooshmand

Dana Hooshmand

I really like this definition and I’m going to use it as I write about getting to fluency!

I have a mission to learn Arabic in two months of intensity in Jan/Feb 2019, and need goalposts. (It’s my 7th language, so I’m not a noob at this, but definitely recognize the challenges of the timeframe).

I find the level definitions needlessly technical, and occasionally depressing (realizing I’m not at the top, despite feeling ‘fluent’).




You make an excellent point about the differences between fluency and proficiency. They are not mutually exclusive terms at all. In my Spanish class we often talk about “street” Spanish. I have some students who have no fears and will speak rapidly about particular topics. The level of grammar... well... that’s a whole other story! Then I have those who painstakingly eke out a flawless sentence. I try to help them find the balance in these cases. 🙂

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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