What Does “Fluent” Really Mean?

Published on
December 10, 2020
|
Updated on
March 3, 2021
|
📖
8
min read
Written by
Ramsay Lewis

At what point can you say that you’re fluent in English? In this article, we consider various ways of thinking about fluency and how that can help inform a language learning programme.

What Does “Fluent” Really Mean?

If you’re learning English, your goal might be to get reasonably “fluent” in it.

But what is fluency?

What does being ‘fluent in English’ actually mean?

People certainly talk about it in different ways. Some companies propose that you can become fluent in as little as three months, as long as you give yourself a kind of immersive experience and focus on speaking.

Elsewhere, you’ll see people suggesting that you can get to some level of fluency only knowing a few thousand words because you’ll be able to talk to people at the shops or have conversations about the weather.

Is that what fluency means? 

You’ll notice now that there are multiple different definitions of fluency. It means different things to different people.

Having an understanding of what fluency means is important because it’s often our goal.

Most of us begin learning a language aiming to, eventually, attain some level of fluency in it. And if it's our goal, we want to be able to know when we have achieved it

So I want to explore that idea in this article: I want to consider a few ways of thinking about fluency. Ultimately, I’m hoping that some clarity about what fluency is may help us better chart a path to accomplishing it. 

Fluency vs. accuracy—they’re not the same thing

Language teachers describe “fluency” as speech that feels natural. 

It has to do with flow: the rate of speech and ease of the speaker. Fluency is about how well students communicate meaning and minimise misunderstandings. 

We would judge someone that speaks more quickly and easily as having better fluency than someone that stops to think about what they are going to say or who struggles to say it.

This doesn’t just mean speaking quickly, it’s about how natural the flow of a sentence is. 

Fluency, for language teachers, is not exactly the same as accuracy

Accuracy has to do with using language correctly. It’s about making sure that you conjugate verbs properly, spell things the same way as the dictionary does, and use words according to their correct meaning. 

To improve accuracy, a language teacher might do activities like fill-in-the-blank worksheets, verb conjugation quizzes, spelling tests, or matching words with their definition. We would make sure to correct students when they make a mistake. The point of these activities is to teach correct language use. 

To improve fluency, we would do things differently. 

We would pair students together to have a conversation, get them to give a presentation, or otherwise have them use language in a natural way. During fluency activities, we typically wouldn’t correct their language use.

For language teachers, accuracy isn’t required for fluency, although it certainly helps. 

When we do fluency exercises, we’re getting our students to practise speaking easily and naturally. It’s okay if they use language incorrectly as long as it's understandable. 

For example, saying “I have 33 years” would be understandable to a native speaker, although the correct (and accurate) way of saying this is “I am 33 years old”.

The key takeaway: you can achieve “fluency” without being completely accurate.

The physical aspect of fluency

Fluency is about how easily you’re able to speak. But that’s not just about forming sentences in your head, it’s also about making them come out of your mouth in a way that others will understand. 

In other words, there is a physical aspect of fluency. These are things like your pronunciation, as well as the rhythm of your language, and even the prosody or the “melody” of the language. 

Each of these is an aspect of language fluency. 

Shadowing is an exercise that is particularly good for practising these physical aspects of fluency, although it will not help as much with the other aspects of fluency like thinking of the right thing to say.

The key takeaway: fluency is not just about what you say in a language, but also—at least to some extent—about how you physically create that language.

Social vs. Formal language (BICS and CALP)

Language researchers and theorists have also distinguished between fluency in different contexts. One of these distinctions is between language use in social situations vs. academic contexts.

Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills (BICS) refers to the language skills that you need in your typical, everyday interactions. These are the skills that help you navigate buying your groceries, asking for directions, and making small talk with your mother-in-law.

BICS is characterised by language that is meaningful to you, that is non-specialised, and that is deeply embedded in a given social context. 

Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) refers to the language skills that you use in academic settings and in the classroom. These are the kinds of skills you’re using if you’re in school or university. 

CALP is characterised by language that is abstract, specialised, and not embedded in a context. 

Achieving fluency in BICS is typically done faster than in CALP. Language theorists have estimated that a person can become proficient in BICS in between 6 months and 2 years. But it takes between 5 and 7 years to become proficient in CALP. 

The key takeaway: what it means to be “fluent” depends on what you’re actually using the language for. “Fluency” in social situations may be different from “fluency” in specialised areas like academia or business. There are many people who would consider themselves ‘fluent’ in some situations, but not in others.

Fluency is about how we feel

Fluency has a lot to do with how we feel when we use a language. 

I’m currently learning Portuguese. It’s not perfect, but I’m increasingly having experiences where I feel satisfied using Portuguese in a given social situation. 

I’ve had many, many experiences where I’ve felt awkward and dissatisfied with my language ability... but the longer that I’ve been learning it, the better I feel about my interactions in Portuguese.

Feeling good is one of the central aspects of language fluency; if we feel good about something, we are more confident, less afraid of speaking, and we end up speaking more fluently. 

When my students say that they want to ‘speak fluently in English’, they often actually mean that they want to be able to fully participate in an English experience—have friends, read the news, understand the shows on Netflix, and make small talk with strangers at parties. 

But more than simply doing all of that easily, they want to do it without fear or self-awareness. 

The key takeaway: one critical aspect of fluency is not feeling afraid or uncomfortable when we’re using a language. 

Fluency isn’t about perfecting the language

I think it’s also important to realise that fluency doesn’t mean you’re “done” learning the language.

At the end of my university degree, I applied to a graduate programme that required that I take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE). One section of that exam tests the candidate’s verbal reasoning skills, and there is a large emphasis placed on vocabulary. 

To study, a friend and I created vocabulary flashcards. We tested each other on uncommon words and even ended our emails to each other with the 5 words we were trying to remember that day. 

I think anyone would consider me to be “fluent” in English. It’s my native language. I even teach it. But there were (and still are) many, many English words I don’t know.

The fact is, we’re never “done” learning a language; it’s an ongoing, beautiful journey.

The key takeaway: you don’t need to know everything to be fluent. There will always be more to learn… we never “finish” a language. 

The best definition of “fluency” I’ve found is the CEFR scale

So far, I’ve traced some of the contours of what “fluency” might mean. But now I actually want to give you a tool or metric you can use to evaluate your fluency. I hope it can help you answer the questions, “Am I fluent yet? How far from it am I?”

My favourite tool to evaluate language ability is the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) for languages. The CEFR splits up language learners into 6 levels. A1 and A2 are beginners, B1 and B2 are intermediate learners, and C1 and C2 are proficient language users. 

In my view, if you make it to C1, you can call yourself “fluent” (this is a bit more strict than others, who may consider even those at a B2 level fluent). 

At the C1 level, a person:

  • Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognise implicit meaning.
  • Can express ideas fluently and spontaneously without much obvious searching for expressions.
  • Can use language flexibly and effectively for social, academic and professional purposes.
  • Can produce clear, well-structured, detailed text on complex subjects, showing controlled use of organisational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.

I like this definition because it emphasises communicating meaning and not speaking accurately. It also considers language use in a variety of contexts, including social, professional, and academic contexts. 

I also like that it’s not too difficult to evaluate yourself. Since I really like setting language goals, this system is convenient for me. Saying “I want to be fluent in Portuguese” is a bit of a vague goal… but saying “I want to speak at a C1 level” is much more specific. 

It shows me what ‘fluency’ will actually allow me to do, and is therefore far more useful than just saying ‘fluent’.

The takeaway: I like the CEFR scale for evaluating my ability and, for me, I would consider myself “fluent” when I get to a C1 level. 

So… what is fluency? 

Fluency means different things to different people, but in this article, I’ve tried to trace a definition of fluency and pull out its key features. I suggest that fluency:

  • Is characterised by ease of speaking and the ability to effectively communicate meaning.
  • Is not the same as accuracy.
  • Is about how we speak as much as it is about what we say.
  • May look different depending on whether we’re talking about fluency in social situations compared to in academic or professional contexts.
  • Is about feeling confident using the language.
  • Does not mean knowing everything. 

So how can you use that to inform your language learning?

Well, the reason most of us care about what “fluency” is is that we want to achieve it. We may have a goal to become fluent in English and we want to be able to know when we’ve met that goal. 

Understanding what fluency is, for you, will help you make those kinds of evaluations. 

More specifically, here’s how I suggest creating a language goal based on becoming “fluent” in English:

  1. Pick a measure of language proficiency that makes sense to you. I like the CEFR, but you could really pick any measure that you like. 
  2. Then use that measure to figure out where you are and where you want to go. For me, I want to get to a C1 level.
  3. From there, design a language programme that includes English listening activities, speaking, reading, and writing
  4. Create a language learning system to help you do your learning activities consistently.
  5. And then measure your progress.

If you do your activities consistently for a period of time, you’ll find that you’ll—eventually—achieve “fluency”. 

And as much disagreement as there is out there about what “fluency” is, I am confident that when you do achieve it, you’ll know. And you’ll be grateful you put in the effort to get there.

References

Gibbon, D. (2017). Prosody: The rhythms and melodies of speech. arXiv preprint arXiv:1704.02565.