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.
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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