We did it. We took up the challenge of dipping our toes into another most controversial topics among language learners.
Nope, it’s not the question of about the best language to learn, nor about the most efficient way of learning a language. This time we reached out to famous polyglots and language experts to tickle their minds with the question about fluency.
Here’s what the language-learning community’s most respected linguists, polyglots, bloggers and app creators had to say.
What does ‘fluent’ mean to you?
It’s where friendships are possible
Benny Lewis, the Irish Polyglot, author of the book and blog Fluent in 3 Months
You’re unlikely to ever get a consensus on what “fluent” or “fluency” means. It’s like asking people to tell you at what point someone can be said to be “beautiful” or to give a clearcut scale of where beauty begins. It’s truly in the eye of the beholder.
The language flows when you can function as an adult in it, in social situations especially. For me this “social equivalency” is where fluency begins. It’s were friendships are possible.
If I can talk to people confidently about normal things, at a normal speed, and understand their replies without them having to adjust to me as a beginner, then this seems like a reasonable place for us to assign “fluency”. Following the European Common Framework, you have to be at least a B2 level to be here.
On a more practical level, it’s important not to go overboard with perfectionism and equate fluency to being bilingual, or having no accent, or never making minor mistakes. The C-levels (Mastery) may well be of interest to those of us whose careers centre around language learning, but normal people who want to live through a language may have jobs that, while requiring skills and experience, may not require the linguistic precision of the C-levels. You are certainly a fluent speaker at those levels, but you are also one before you get there.
So, if you are smiling and enjoying yourself in a bar, restaurant or living room in another language, with native speaking friends who are glad to talk to you, an average Joe would raise an eyebrow at the suggestion that you weren’t a fluent speaker.
Chill out about it!
Lindsay Dow, language tutor and blogger at the colourful Lindsay Does Languages
Fluency is a mysterious word that is so often put on a pedestal as the ultimate language learning goal. We’ll add something to our bucket list like “be fluent in Spanish”, which is great, but fluent is so open to interpretation that “being fluent in Spanish” can mean something very different to each of us.
There are a couple of things I think about fluency. Number one – we need to chill out about it. Take the pressure off because as I said, it means different things to different people so how can you possibly measure it accurately?
Number two, following on from that – what if there’s different types of fluency? You’re ready for your holiday to Germany? You’re holiday fluent. You spend all day emailing Thai companies about Facebook? You’re business email fluent. I made a video about this a while back which explains my thoughts on this in more detail: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eWfJrXQnpvA
A machine to cross the mighty ocean.
Malachi Ray Rempen, creator of Itchy Feet: the Travel and Language Comic
Imagine you’ve decided to build your own handmade flying machine. At first, all your crazy contraptions will crash and burn messily. You’ll learn a lot about air speed and wind resistance and lift, but you never quite manage to stay up in the air long enough to get anywhere useful, and people will stop and stare or even point and laugh at your failures. That’s language learning. But as you keep at it, the crashes become less frequent and less painful.
Becoming fluent in a foreign language is like when you’ve finally built a flying machine that might dip, might stutter, might not obey all your commands and flies upside-down, but holy hell, it’s actually staying up in the air, and you can finally use it to cross the mighty ocean, soar over the jungle canopy or take you wherever you like.
From the ItchyFeet site
It’s like driving a car.
Luca Sadurny, polyglot and co-founder of MosaLingua, a mobile flashcard app.
While learning to drive a car, you need to think step by step about what you need to do to keep going (hitting the brakes, changing gears…). You move slowly, make several pauses and feel quite uncertain. But after some training and practice, you end up being more confident and driving in a more automated way.
If you think about it, reaching fluency in a language is quite similar. Your first steps are uncertain and you speak slowly because you need to think about the words you want to use or how to combine them in sentences.
But after building up your vocabulary and practicing, you start to express your thoughts in a more automated, fast and spontaneous way, even if you make some mistakes.
Simply put, we could that fluency is the ability to express yourself in a language without even thinking about what you need to do to keep going.
Don’t leave the definition to certifications.
Siskia Lagomarsino, translator, language tutor and… the polyglotist
For me, fluency is a difficult thing to define because no matter how many C2 certificates tell you you’re fluent, it’s actually a very subjective issue. We all have different goals for the languages we’re learning, and while for me fluency generally means being conversational in (almost) any theme in a language, for others it may be something different.
Some people want to be able to communicate while travelling, yet others may want business fluency unrelated to a more social kind of language, and others may quite simply want to understand their spouse’s family at Thanksgiving and participate in the conversation.
Leaving the definition of fluency to official organizations and certifications is a very effective way to leave your personal goal-setting in other people’s hands.
So if you ask me what fluency is: it is communicational satisfaction—the feeling that you’re understanding and being understood in a context of your very own.
Make your language skills enjoyable and life-enhancing.
Olly Richards, blogger and podcaster I Will Teach You a Language
The are plenty of conflicting definitions of fluency out there, so it only seems to make sense for each person to have a personal definition that matches their ambition.
Fluency, for me, has always meant: “The ability to hold enjoyable conversations on any non-technical topic without any undue strain on either person.”
In other words, if I can talk to a native speaker about any topic that’s not too technical, we can both enjoy the conversation, and neither of us have to strain too much to understand or interact with the other person, then that’s good enough for me!
Now, you might reasonably argue that fluency should be defined more ambitiously than that. However, I would say that for the vast majority of people learning a foreign language, my definition is good enough to make their level in the language truly enjoyable and life-enhancing.
That green vegetable that looks like a little tree that George H. W. Bush refuses to eat.
Ellen Jovin, studies over 20 language and documents her adventures at Words and Worlds of New York
Language fluency for me is when my words have the consistency of a liquid rather than a solid. For example, if I suddenly can’t remember know how to say “broccoli,” I can replace it, as I continue talking along unimpeded, with “you know, that green vegetable that looks like a little tree that George H. W. Bush refuses to eat.”
Language fluency doesn’t have to be tidy or pretty, it might drip onto the floor and leave sticky spots at times, but overall it flows.
It generally means I will be confident enough to ask periodically, speedily, and without humiliation, “How do you say X in [insert language]?” Fluent people have the ability to reroute efficiently around the things they don’t know how to say and come up with alternative wordings to get a communication task done.
It’s about expressing your views, C2 isn’t necessary!
Uszula Gwaj, blogger and youtuber ulanguages
There are probably as many definitions of language fluency as language learners throughout the world. In my opinion language fluency is the ability of expressing your views, opinions and needs without bigger effort and hesitation. I think that you don’t need to have C2 level to call yourself fluent and be able to use the language on the daily basis effortlessly. It is also very general to say that you are a fluent speaker of a particular language. You may be fluent at speaking but you do not write with ease, you may be an expert at legal English but not really fluent at medical language.
Keep it flowing.
Kerstin Cable, language podcaster and blogger at Fluent Language
Fluency is such a core concept in language learning, and it means many things. For me, fluency is not about accuracy. I don’t mind making mistakes in language learning and I don’t need to feel that I’m perfect before I feel like I can have a conversation. It’s more to do with speed of production, and being able to process what I hear and reply back quickly. Many people think that fluency means confidence, but those two are not linked quite as closely. Instead, being confident is a requirement you need for becoming fluent.
In a nutshell, my definition of fluency goes like this: You’re fluent when you can have a conversation that doesn’t break down. You don’t have to understand or say 100%, but you need to keep things flowing. That’s what it’s all about – communication.
Can you talk about liver transplants in English?
Max Hodges, White Rabbit Press
People often ask me if I’m “fluent” in Japanese, but I answer that it depends on the conversation. Many of us would not be considered fluent even in our native language when trying to join conversations about breach of contract legal cases, preoperative immunological factors for liver transplant recipients, or a chat about a recent Kabaddi tournament. Fluency is domain dependant. The language lessons in a travel guide, for example, address specific activities, such as shopping, dining, and emergency situations. Similarly, even native Japanese speakers consider business fluency to be a separate domain from casual conversation.
Fluency is a spectrum.
Donovan Nagel, the face behind the Mezzofanti Guild
The term fluent in my mind is essentially meaningless because every person defines it very differently.
Fluency is better and more accurately thought of as a spectrum rather than an end state or achievement. In other words, it’s incorrect to ask a person “Are you fluent?” or to say “I’m fluent” since there’s really no general consensus on what that actually means.
Instead you should be asking “How fluent…”.
My personal opinion on what I would describe a functional fluency level is this: being able to learn or extrapolate more of the target language using only the target language. When your proficiency is high enough that you’re able to interact and improve without resorting to your native language, you can be confident that you’ve reached a satisfactory level of spoken fluency.
It’s not about being a silver tongued devil!
Bartosz Czekała, speaks 9 languages and blogs about memory, mnemonics, memorisation and mind at Universe of Memory
My definition of fluency is rather straightforward. I can call myself fluent if I can talk to a native speaker of a given language, regardless of circumstances, about almost any topic. Politics, adoption, superstitions, describing a medical procedure – you name it.
Typically, such a command of language requires about 10000 words which is an equivalent of about C1 level (according to the CEFR).
Don’t get me wrong – I am not talking about being a silver-tongued devil.
I would simply never think that I have reached fluency if I had to constantly punt on various questions. Nor would I believe it to be true if native speakers had to constantly dumb down their message in order to talk with me. Achieving such a level always takes time and a lot of effort. But it is definitely worth it!
No pauses and stumbles!
Kris Broholm, polyglot and creator of the Actual Fluency podcast and blog
Fluency for me means the ability to use the language without too many pauses or stumbles. I don’t subscribe to the school of thought that considers fluency as absolutely mastery of a language.
When considering spoken language I feel like you’ve reached fluency when you can speak in a natural pace. Additionally if there’s a word you don’t know, you’re able to explain it in the language itself.
In other words, when you can conduct yourself exclusively in that language, and not rely on other languages, then I would consider yourself fluent in the spoken language.
Fluency is communicating the meaning.
Simon Ager, founder of Omniglot
When you’re fluent in a language you can use it to talk about the things you need to, and the things that interest you. You may make mistakes, forget or not know words, and your pronunciation may not be perfect, but you can communicate your meaning well enough to be understood by native speakers. You can also understand others, even if you don’t know all the words.
Fluency doesn’t mean perfection.
Steve Kaufmann, founder of LingQ, speaks 15 languages
The meaning of fluency in a foreign language is clear. It refers to the ability to converse with a native speaker, on a wide variety of subjects, without much strain on either side. This presupposes a large vocabulary, strong listening comprehension skills, and a somewhat smaller active vocabulary. It doesn’t mean perfection, neither in word usage nor in pronunciation. Fluency corresponds to B2 on the European Common Framework of Reference. Fluency usually refers to oral communication.
Does your image of fluency include working as a secret agent?
Gabriel Wyner, Author of Fluent Forever, reached fluency in German in 14 weeks
Each of us will find a different answer to this question.
The term is imprecise, and it means a little less every time someone writes another book, article, or spam email with a title like “U Can B FLUENT in 7 DAY5!1!”
Still, we maintain an image of fluency in our minds: a summer afternoon in a Parisian café, casually chatting up the waitress without needing to worry about verb conjugations or missing words in our vocabularies. Beyond that café, we must decide individually how far we wish to go.
I would confidently describe myself as fluent in German. I’ve lived in Austria for six years and will happily discuss anything with anyone, but I certainly needed to dance around a few missing words to get out of a €200 fine for my rental car’s broken gas cap. (Apparently, the word for “gas cap” is Tankdeckel, and the words for “I don’t give a damn if I’m the first person to drive this car, the spring holding the gas cap closed was defective” start with “Das ist mir völlig Wurst . . .” and go on from there.)
You’ll have to determine for yourself whether your image of fluency includes political discussions with friends, attending poetry readings, working as a secret agent, or lecturing on quantum physics at the Sorbonne.
You think you struggle with vocabulary? You may be lacking cultural fluency.
Aaron Ralby, a linguist and scholar blogging about memory at Linguisticator
Total fluency in a language is comprised of three different types of fluency: ritual, structural, and cultural. Ritual fluency is the ability to handle ritualised interactions – like greetings, goodbyes, and common interactions – without hesitation and thought. A subset of ritual fluency is application fluency, which involves being able to handle a very specific scenario or application well. Doctors, for example, can learn to speak fluently in a medical context without being able to order a sandwich.
Structural fluency is the hardest type of fluency to gain as an adult, and involves understanding the structure of a language to a point where one can manipulate the parts and pieces of a language to create new utterances fluidly that are also grammatically correct.
Cultural fluency is often overlooked, and is the ability to handle cultural interactions, events, and habits, as well as recognise and use cultural references. Many learners believe they struggle with vocabulary when in fact they are actually missing references to key books, movies, songs, and events that would help them understand speech or text.
Total fluency is a combination of all three, involving the understanding, knowledge, and production of language necessary for one to be comfortable in any situation. For most learners, however, total fluency is not necessary; understanding the learning objective is key to helping students target the material they specifically want to learn.
Fluency requires months or years of practice.
Zackery Ngai, CEO of HelloTalk
One has attained language fluency, when he or she can communicate clearly and effectively with other people in that language. Foreign language fluency is difficult to achieve because it requires months or years of actual conversation practice with native speakers. HelloTalk language app’s mission is to help language learners worldwide attain language fluency.
Fluency is not free of misunderstandings.
Shannon Kennedy, Eurolinguiste
Fluency is one of those words that’s really hard to nail down and define, but it’s a word I’ve thought a lot about as I’ve studied different languages to varying degrees of “fluency”.
In my opinion, “fluency” is when you’re able to speak and understand a language enough that it doesn’t hinder your ability to communicate. This means that you might still make mistakes and misunderstand certain words or expressions (especially those that are steeped in cultural context) on occasion, but it doesn’t keep you from expressing yourself in the language or from having an good overall understanding of what is being said to you.
I also feel that there are also different degrees of fluency — one can have a fluent reading ability or they can be fluent in the language just for a specific industry (for example, they can talk about laws and contracts without hesitation but might not be able to talk about the weather) or they can even just be conversationally fluent (and unable to go too in-depth on really specific topics).
Lastly, your speaking when “fluent” should be without too much hesitation and have a natural flow.