What is Fluency?

You don’t start learning a language with the goal of being able to order a beer in a restaurant or to buy a bus ticket. Most people, at least, want to be fluent. The problem is, “fluent” is very difficult to define, and seems to mean different things to different people. As someone who has studied six foreign languages and speaks four of them “fluently,” I’d like to share my thoughts on the subject.

What is fluency?

I think of fluency as comfort. If you are comfortable calling the cable company to complain about a problem with your internet connection or participating in a professional conference in your target language, you are fluent. The less mistakes you make, and the more native-like your accent is, the better. But you don’t have to “pass” for a native speaker in order to be fluent, as long as your use of language doesn’t get in the way of having a natural conversation (not that conversations with the cable company ever seem natural, but you know what I mean).

When I think of fluency, I think of speaking and listening ability. Writing and reading are important language skills, but for me they aren’t don’t factor into the determination of whether or not someone is “fluent.” I think of someone speaking fluently – that is, speaking without excessive pauses with an accent that is understandable.

Fluency is not fixed

People say “use it or lose it” about both muscles and languages. They are right about both. Even if you were fluent in language x 10 years ago, unless you have made some effort to keep the language up, you might not be fluent anymore. It’s easier to refresh a language than it is to learn in the first place, but you still can’t necessarily claim to be fluent in a language unless you use it in some capacity regularly.

Fluency is not the same as “native-level”

Being fluent in a language does mean that you speak it at a very high level, but it doesn’t have to mean you speak as well as a native speaker. Speaking a foreign language as well as a native speaker is a difficult task indeed, and there aren’t many people who achieve it. While it’s a noble goal, aiming for native-like fluency is not a realistic goal for most learners. I’ve met loads of people around the world who speak English quite well, and many who also write for English-language publications. Most of those people still speak with an accent, however. Most of them are still stumped by slang and idioms. That’s ok, and should in fact be a reminder to language learners that they don’t need to reach absolute language perfection.

What does all of this mean?

It might seem like I haven’t really provided a solid definition of “fluent.” That’s because I don’t think there is one. It’s a very subjective way to talk about how well we speak a language.

If you really need to gauge someone’s language ability, you might want to ask pointed questions: Can you read a newspaper? Can you give a speech on a subject that interests you with minimal preparation? Could you talk to a mechanic about why your car won’t start (I couldn’t have an automobile-parts related conversation in any language but English, and even in English I would probably feel a bit uncomfortable)?

When someone says he or she is “fluent,” I take it to mean that he or she is comfortable with his or her level in the language. If I have a specific reason for needing to know the person’s level (like I’m thinking of hiring them to give a tour in that language), I’ll ask more specific questions that should let me know if their definition of fluent is more or less stringent than mine. If I don’t really need to know their language level, I don’t ask further questions, because I don’t really care.

What do you think about fluency? What is fluent? Is being “fluent” well-defined enough to qualify as a goal? Share your thoughts!