What is Fluency?

Are you fluent?

It’s a pretty simple question. The answers are more than subjective.

To a non-language learner there seems to be the consensus that this question is a definitive yes or no. So not true. Everybody has their own interpretation of what fluency is and while there is a switch in all of us that can flick on or off when we reach our interpretation of fluency, it’s not easily defined across the board. Yes, we can look at something like CEFR or ILR scales (both in the Language Proficiency Scales post) but they’re still open to subjective analysis.

For me, fluency is a matter of being able to speak freely about any subject I’m interested in. Nothing more, nothing less. I’m not too concerned with accuracy and accept that making mistakes is the norm… Many native speakers make mistakes quite often if you listen closely. I take for granted that I will also be able to read and write with ease, and obviously, if I can speak, then listening is also thrown in. But why only subjects I’m interested it? Well, because if it’s a subject I’m not particularly interested in, then I’m not likely to want to contribute to the conversation at this stage anyway.

The different between fluency and advanced fluency is being able to contribute meaningfully in conversations that don’t particularly interest me. And perhaps more importantly, an overall accuracy and nuance in my usage. I can only do this in English… and it will take me a long time to reach this level in any other language I feel.

Somewhat interestingly, I read on I Kinda Like Languages recently, that Kato Lomb – the Hungarian polyglot – devised a simple test to check your profiency in any language. There are 4 categories with 4 words in each. Category 1 words are worth 1 point each, Category 2 are 2 points each, Category 3 are 3, and 4 are 4. I’m a little uncertain on how to actually determine your language level, but I guess the closer you are to the 40 point max, then the more of a superstar you are. Anyway, the words…

  • Category 1: the moon, to buy, wide, free
  • Category 2: a blow, to enjoy, suddenly, grateful
  • Category 3: a straw, to promote, rigidly, significant
  • Category 4: brass, to browse, obstinately, enthusiastic

I see this as being quite useful for assessing your knowledge of a language. Not for necessarily assessing fluency per se, but still… interesting.


Author: Andrew

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  1. Well, the definition of “fluency” you have mentioned might be a good personal standard but the problem with that is that a man with narrow interests is likely to become fluent in a foreign language in a lot shorter time than another with wider interests. Also, saying “I am fluent” would just be an empty statement without knowing the person saying that.

    I guess saying “I know 43% of the 10000 most frequent vocabulary” would be a more meaningful saying in that sense if we put aside the actual difficulty of counting vocabulary. It is possible to count up general statistics by taking random samples (was it Milton Friedman who contributed to this field quite a bit).

    Similar calculations could also probably be done by testing grammatical structures but I guess that’s more complicated.

    Oh, and thanks for the mention. And I nice blog you got there. I subscribed. 🙂

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  2. @lyzazel
    Absolutely true, and it’s kind of what I was getting at. Each person I talk with has a different concept of fluency… and usually the people with a lower standard aren’t what I personally would consider ‘fluent’ by my standards. But also, perhaps I’m also not considered ‘fluent’ by people with a higher standard than myself. We all just need certificates 😉 ..My pet peeve is when friends and family tell people that you are fluent in X language before you consider yourself anywhere near that level.

    Re: vocab testing… I read a while back about a way of getting approximations using a dictionary, which you’ve just inspired me to post about 😉

    I have to admit, I only found your blog a few days ago and have enjoyed going through much of it. So no worries about the mention and thanks for subscribing, although you caught me off guard with the comment; this post was meant to be in draft still… hit publish I guess.. oops hehe

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  1. LanguageBubble.com :: foreign language learning and foreign language teaching all in one bubble - [...] all depends on what the learner considers fluent, which language they are learning, the environment they are learning in,…

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