Fluency In A Language - What Does That Mean Exactly?
- 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.
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.
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?
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