Fluency Revisited: 3 Things That It Is and That It’s Not

A few months back, I did a couple of posts regarding the objective of foreign language study: achieving fluency. I did several posts on the definition of fluency, and the levels thereof. Looking back on those posts and considering my views now, I think I need to revise my definition fluency. I’m going to talk about some of the things what it is and what it’s not. This is by no means an exhaustive list. So, here we go!

What fluency is:

1. Literacy

This is one thing that hasn’t really changed for me. I don’t think you can be called fluent in a language unless you can express yourself in all three modes of communication: reading, writing, and speaking. While most people think of speaking when it comes to fluency, I think that in order to master a language, which is fluency, you need to be literate. In fact, the first order of business when you’re learning a language with a different script should be learning it. The best way to acquire more vocabulary is reading, and if you don’t have many opportunities to speak, you should be familiar with the writing in the target language, especially when you’re talking with someone in a chat window on some social network.

2. Interpretation

Interpretation is the exchange of the spoken language through speaking and listening. You need to be able to process and react to the spoken language, using the target language in both instances. It’s not really enough to get the gist, because you may miss certain nuances, such as sarcasm, irony, or jokes. You can’t claim to know a language when you understand everything being said, but cannot respond.

3. Cultural conventions

A big mistake that I see with a lot of people in language classes is literally translating whatever they’re trying to say from English. It is important to understand that people who speak one language do not think in the exact same way as the people who speak another language. This is evidenced by the fact there are words that don’t necessarily translate to or from other languages. You need to learn how people use idioms, how certain words fit into certain contexts.

Another thing about this is that you cannot automatically use another language the way you would your own. Just because you talk casually with just about everyone doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate in another language. That’s not the culture. For example, in most Romance languages, it is not up to you to decide when you can use the “tu” form to address someone who you’ve become good friends after a long time. It is considered polite to either ask (though that is a bit more forward), or wait for that person to give you express permission. And don’t think people won’t notice. They will.

What fluency is not:

1. Being a scholar/academic

Let’s be honest: the majority of the speakers of any language are not professors. And by no means can learners be expected to acquire such advanced skill. Being an intellectual requires the study of advanced texts and learning of a much higher degree, which you can only consider when you actually know the language to begin with.

2. Being a native

Don’t let any teacher or anyone else tell you that fluency precludes anybody who didn’t grow up speaking the language. This is by no means true, because you can learn to acquire that facility by immersing yourself in the environment where the language is spoken (after some time studying the language of course). That’s how children learn: they’re immersed in the language, and know how to use it only after much trial and error.

3. Taking only classes

You need to get out into the world, where people use the language for their everyday lives. Get yourself out of your bubble, your little comfort zone, where all you ever do is take tests and answer questions. Sure, you can practice conversations in class; but even then, everything is scripted. Knowing the language in theory isn’t everything.

So, there’s something else for you to think about. Remember, these are just my opinions, not definitive facts. Take them as you will. Please share this on Facebook, Google Plus, and Tumblr! Leave any comments if you have something to say about this topic.

Levels of Fluency

I often discuss the topic of fluency in a language with my friends and family. I personally have a scale for fluency that my friends agree with, which I’m going to discuss in this post. This is related to my beliefs on what proficiency tests should call what level of competency in a given language. There are several tests, such as the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), the examinations for DELEs (Diplomas de Español como Lengua Extranjera – Diploma for Spanish as a Foreign Language), and DILF/DELF/DALF (French Language Proficiency Diplomas). Note that each level fluency implies speaking ability. One is not fluent in reading a foreign language, that is literacy. One cannot be considered fluent in a language if they can only understand the language, but cannot speak and make conversation. Fluency encompasses all forms of communication in a foreign language, including reading, as well as writing, speaking, listening. Disclaimer: This is largely based off of my discussions with my friends and family, my readings, observations, and personal views on language. This is not meant to be taken as a definitive scale either; this is flexible, as every language is different, with its own quirks and challenges.

Level 1: Basic (~1 year)

You can communicate on a very simple level, and understand slightly more complex conversations. Reading ability is limited to simple children’s books, short public notices/advertisements, and you can write simple things, such as short notes.

Level 2: Upper Basic (~2 years)

You can now participate in more complex conversations including the use of the past tense(s) and present tense. You can also issue commands. You can now read and write simple paragraphs and your vocabulary is expanded, but limited to local situations, and broader, more abstract topics are harder to understand.

Level 3: Intermediate (~3 years)

You can initiate conversations with relative ease, express a set variety of emotions in the target language, and respond to semi-complex questions. You demonstrate command over the use of present and past tenses, and the subjunctive (or equivalent), as well as some compound tenses. You can also write longer passages, and understand a wider variety of texts, including short novellas and simple essays. Your vocabulary is wider, but doesn’t include very abstract or complex topics, such as religion or politics. You understand most, if not all, of what is said to you in the target language.

Level 4: Competent (~5 years study)

Your knowledge of tenses has expanded to include more complex tenses, and you have an increased understanding of the subjunctive (or equivalent). Your vocabulary is now nearly complete, being able to discuss nearly all topics with ease. You can write complex essays, read somewhat scholarly texts with a moderate level of understanding. Your speech is nearly accent-free (that is, your native accent). You can participate in conversations with little to no difficulty, and others involved can understand you completely.

Level 5: Native (~6-7 years)

You have a complete understanding of all the grammar in the target language, and you have a complete set of vocabulary to discuss all topics without any difficulty whatsoever. You can read extremely long passages in the target language (such as novels and longer essays) and write comprehensive responses that demonstrate a higher understanding of the test. You effectively sound like you grew up speaking in the native country of the target language (depending on which variety or dialect you learn). You participate in extended conversations about complex or abstract topics, and can switch in and out of the target language with ease.

Level 6: Scholar/Intellectual (9+ years)

Your vocabulary is expanded to include higher level words, such as more complex or poetic synonyms for ones you already know. You can read and write scholarly texts in the target language, and participate in extended discussions on such topics with ease. You would be fit to be a professor in the language, nearly without exception.