What is fluency, and how to attain it?

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People’s abilities in foreign languages vary. A lot of people are scared of making mistakes while speaking, and in doing so making a fool of themselves.

One of the biggest preoccupations that language learners have is attaining fluency in their target language. Fluency is upheld as the holy grail of language learning, and many feel that they cannot claim to speak a language until they speak it “fluently”. This attitude is reflected in media coverage of polyglot-related stories, with headlines claiming that people speak so many languages “fluently”, and switch between them “effortlessly”. However, I’m not sure that most people really understand what they mean when they say the word “fluency”, because in my experience to find people who feel equally confident in two or three languages and can function flawlessly in all of them in all contexts is extremely rare. “Fluency” implies that the learning process is complete, but surely in any field of study it is impossible to reach a level of understanding so thorough and that would suggest that there is no more left to learn? Polyglots will be the first to admit, they are language learners as well, not language machines.

The fluency issue is symptomatic of what can be quite a negative attitude to studying languages. I think there are three categories of people when it comes to languages:

  1. The billingual-from-birth type.
    These are people who are completely fluent in two or more languages, and pretty much always have been. They often have two parents who are first generation immigrants, and their household language is different to the national language of their country of residence, which they are then educated in. Or, there are people who have moved around in their childhood, and switched from schooling in one language to another, and as a result have had to attain complete fluency in another language. This group of people has received maximum exposure to his/her languages, and as a result has managed to learn them with minimal effort, and rightfully declares itself multilingual.
  2. The learnt-it-at-school-and-kept-it-going type
    These are people who are broadly monolingual to begin with, and have learnt to speak other languages later in life. They have probably picked them up at school, and then carried them on, perhaps but not necessarily to a very high level. This group’s language skills have been attained by making an effort, and the learning process never ends for them. Even if they study the languages for years, they will still come across pieces of vocabulary that they never knew, and will possibly still now and then be recognised as foreigners by native speakers.
  3. The learnt-it-at-school-but-couldn’t-get-my-head-round-it-oh-well-good-job-everyone-speaks-English type
    This group is the majority. These people have had no exposure to foreign languages while growing up, found the limited amount they studied at school extremely challenging and as a result don’t think that they will ever be able to master another language.

Each of these groups relates in adulthood to language learning quite differently. In my experience, Group 1 tends to have fairly high expectations of people learning their languages, but in turn struggles to learn new ones. They’re unused to making the effort to learn, as their previous learning experiences were so effortless. They’re therefore fairly intollerant of people making mistakes, however big or small, and I suspect subconsciously think ‘I can speak all these languages without any problems, so why can’t this person?’ I have been told on several occasions by people in this category to try to just “feel the grammar, and know that it’s right”.

Group 2 is where I put myself. Although I had a grounding in Greek from my childhood, I have had to make an effort to learn most of it, by watching TV, using dictionaries, and the experience of being shoved into the deep end at my Greek Embassy job in June. I find people in this category go one of two ways: either they are very understanding of fellow students’ mistakes, or they can become competitive and want to compare their language knowledge to other people’s, and therefore take every opportunity to correct them. People in Group 2 will rarely declare themselves with confidence ‘fluent’ in their target language, at least in the way that Groups 1 and 3 would define it. They know language learning to be an on-going process and will still feel hesitant about their abilities every now and then, despite how proficient they may seem to others.

Group 3 also goes in two ways. They admire people who have learnt a foreign language, especially if it seems that they are “fluent” in it, but at the same time can be impatient when people make mistakes while speaking their language. I think it is difficult for this group to sympathise with language learners while not learning languages themselves. This group especially wants to see proof of “fluency”, but often without really grasping what it is.

This leads me back to the question of what fluency actually is, and when you can claim to have it. I think it means the ability to understand and speak spontaneously, without much hesitation or be phased too much by grammar. I think fluency is a measure of how confident you feel, how far you would want to negotiate a situation in a foreign language without resorting to “Do you speak English?”. I like to differentiate between fluency and expertise: the majority of language learners (and teachers alike) fall into Group 2 of my classification system, and therefore may have large vocabulary gaps in specific areas which betray them as non-native speakers. For me this does not detract from their ability to speak, be understood and most importantly to function in a foreign language. I think trying to achieve fluency can be a distraction for language learners; it is often not an attainable goal which, if pursued, can be demotivating.

However, it goes without saying that while many language learners know that they may never be as proficient as a native speaker, they still want to achieve as high a level of fluency as they can. This is a question of widening vocabulary, and making sure you have an opportunity to use it. You have to expose yourself to as wide a range of words as possible, and I find one of the best ways of doing this is by reading, with a trusty dictionary to hand for when problems arise. Newspapers and Wikipedia are great for specialised vocabulary, and formal writing styles, but reading novels and short stories and watching films will help you to gain a greater understanding of other ways in which the language is used. Particularly in novels, new vocabulary that you encounter is nicely wrapped up and served to you in context, which will help you to remember it. More often than not will reappear several times, which helps keep it fresh in your mind. Reading ‘the real thing’ (i.e. language that is designed for and by native speakers) will also give you a sense of the importance a particular word, by seeing how often it is used, and I find this much more useful than slaving over never-ending, abstract vocabulary lists. If you make a habit out of reading in a foreign language, you’ll find it only gets easier, and it will increase your confidence by re-affirming grammar points that you may have come across in textbooks, and giving you more examples of how they are applied.

I’d like to leave you with a few things to think about, on this issue of fluency.

  1. Don’t give yourself a hard time about how much progress you think you have or haven’t made. It’s important to keep checks on your progress for your own motivation. Online tests might be one way of doing this, but also watch films, read, and keep tabs on how much you understand and retain.
  2. Be realistic about how far you want to get. Base your language learning around your goals, and make sure that you are satisfied with your achievements. There’s no need to get too concerned about the B1/B2 etc. standards of language proficiency, if you don’t feel that they apply to you.
  3. Make mistakes! There is no better way to drill in grammar than by being corrected, so try to take the negative responses that you might get on the chin. Nobody should expect you to achieve native-level proficiency particularly quickly, but this should not put you off having a go.