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  5. How do you define fluency?


How do you define fluency?

As language learners, I think we all want to reach fluency in our goal language. But, I was thinking, how do we know when we've reached fluency? What defines fluency?

I feel like the definition of fluency varies. According to the dictionary, fluency is "[the ability] to express oneself easily and articulately". So the dictionary thinks if you can converse and communicate with people, you're fluent.

Then there's the ILR and CEFR scales (which are standard descriptions of language ability for the US and Europe). Will reaching the top of those scales mean you're fluent?

And then there's personal opinion. I feel fluency is the point where you don't have to continuously translate in your mind - okay, so that means... he... went... on a trip... to... - and can think in the language.

So what are you thoughts? What do you consider fluency? Do you think we will ever fully reach fluency? Or is fluency not even something we should be pursuing or considering too much?

August 25, 2017



Personally I'd say a high B1 or a solid B2 in the CEFR scale is fluent.
I put fluency much lower than "native".
And, I know native speakers who can only dream of a C1.


Those were wonderful to watch! After seeing those I'd call a B2 fluent but not B1. To me, fluency is enough to get your ideas across in a flowing manner without having to look up words in the dictionary. It's best if you can say exactly what you want to say, but if you can't recall a word you are able to talk your way around it, or figure out a different way to express yourself.


However, I think that most B1's are understandable. For example, I took a summer course where the teacher had come over from Spain. His English was roughly the B1 level in the video, maybe a tad bit lower, but it was still one of the most interesting courses I've taken. Sure, he didn't know some words, but most people in the class understood what he was saying.


I know native speakers who would struggle to pass a B1-2 written exam, tbh.


Fluency...is so hard to define. That's what makes it a bad goal to have for yourself. It's not really one identifiable moment I think. If it had to be defined, it would be as simple as it sounds: when you can speak, understand, write, and read fluidly, without pausing to look up a word or translate in your head, the language just flows from you fluidly like your first language. This can look and feel like different things for different people. It takes sooo long to get to "fluency" and I may never reach that. So, to answer your last question, I don't think we should be aching and longing for that wishy-washy thing called fluency. It's far too large a goal. We should set smaller, more achievable yet still challenging goals to work towards understanding and producing as much of the language as we can. And that may not always be fluency.


I think it's the inner feeling of pride and the sense of accomplishment; that if we set this huge goal called "fluency" and are able to "achieve it", based on how one defines fluency, then we have achieved something that makes our lives seem more significant. It's like that for many things, especially aspiring doctors, or of other highly praised professions. It's the feeling of having Heaven's light shine upon you when you enter a room (metaphorically) because you have achieved something so large, worthy of pride. Though, I dislike this mindset, and I'm someone who is trying to make my goals more realistic than grandiose. Like you said, creating smaller, achievable goals boosts one's confidence and is ultimately better than creating unrealistic goals. At the same time, there's nothing wrong with dreaming big, unless it's just too unrealistic to handle. I would be more content if I could consistently achieve many small goals than struggling to achieve one big goal. That sense of humility, that you are willing to dream smaller in order to build onto a larger hope, is often the best route and a good strength of character.


^^^ Your last sentence sums up my opinion. I think that smaller goals perhaps leading to one overarching goal is best. But simply having "fluency" as a goal is far too vague and large to pursue without those easier objectives. I don't know. I guess what I'm trying to say is, dreaming big is good. But making those simple, boring dreams and accomplishing them in order to reach that bigger goal is even better.


I agree with this as well as i said in my comment fluency is an opinionated term.


My criteria for success (you could call it fluent hearing) is when I listen to French and it sounds to me like I am listening to someone speaking in English. In other words, I know what they are saying without translating.


I try to save myself the trouble by just not using the word fluent. Instead I use something like "If I were dropped into the middle of (insert country), I know enough that I probably wouldn't starve to death."


Hahahah, that's my usual standard, too! Fluency is too fluid a concept to be useful. "Being able to get by" is concrete and attainable.


Haha, I've tended to view "able to get by" / "tourist [insert language here]" as almost the essence of non-descriptive! No idea if it means sidling up to the hotel check-in desk and saying "Me want sleep" or "I'd like a double room for the night, please" but not being able to discuss, say, politics, history, or the details of tying one's shoes.


Hah! I guess I make a distinction between "tourist language" and actual ability to have a conversation, albeit a simple one?

I've been able to do touristy stuff in the local language in many countries where I wouldn't claim even elementary ability - Germany, Spain and Cyprus for sure. If you were to try having even a simple conversation with me in German, Spanish or Greek, you would rapidly discover the limits of my ability 8-o

"Me need sleep" = tourist language.
"I'd like a room for the night" = being able to get by.

But... this does illustrate pretty well how different people have different standards and why "fluency" is an unhelpful description. I mean, you can be fluent at asking for directions, does that make one fluent? I don't find it a very helpful term.

(Having basic politesse I would also class as tourist language - to me, learning to say hello, goodbye, please, thank you, excuse me in the local language is a no brainer. That said, I was the designated translator in my family from about the age of twelve (or arguably from the age of 8, when I first went abroad to the Netherlands and was the only one of my family who learned those things, though between me being 8 and Dutch people's excellent grasp of English, it wasn't an issue) exactly because my family mostly didn't manage more than a half dozen words between them, so I realise it's not so much of a no-brainer for some people ¯I_(ツ)_/¯ I have never understood that attitude.)


I think both Lrtward,toggitang22,and you,-katrina- are all correct. fluency is not a set bar it is rather an opinionated term used by many people to quickly say the ability to speak a language well. I am not saying however that just because you know what "mi gustan los pantalones comodes" means you are fluent. I believe you must know a large amount of the language so, as toggitang22 said, you dont have to constantly translate the speakers words. if you think about it no one knows every single word in the english dictionary so why shouldn't a spaniard or mexican be the same?


Fluency is such a vague term, it's only useful to a language learner, IMO, if you define fluency for yourself as the level you want to reach.

I'd say probably somewhere around B2 is functional fluency. C1/C2 is becoming literate in the language, and in some ways surpassing some native speakers.

Absolute fluency - having the same depth and breadth of vocabulary, perfect pronunciation, fluency etc as in one's native tongue - is, to me, not just borderline impossible to attain for most. but simply unnecessary. That kind of fluency and perfection to pass oneself off as a native speaker is probably only truly useful/necessary for those who need to actively deceive people. If you're a spy, say, then sure, it would be useful. For the average language user, seeking to attain that kind of mastery is probably going to be discouraging and maybe will out them off from more modest achievements that are genuinely useful.


Absolutely. Very wise post that many should read.


I would say B2 is a good baseline for fluency. I think exactly the same about the translations. When speaking is automatic, translated rarely or very rapidly, and without too much effort. A fluent speaker is not a native, so I think we can allow them an occasional little error here and there, speaking and being understood is more important... although dramatic errors every other sentence is not a fluent speaker. They should understand enough to have no trouble with conversations, and be able to watch many videos.


why videos? (swiggity swooty)


I agree with the several people who describe fluency as speaking fluidly and listening without constant translation gaps. I think if you began learning a second language as a child reaching fluency in more than one language is more than possible, so I believe it is as an adult too. I think it just takes more effort and dedication so it's important to really enjoy it and derive a sense of accomplishment and pleasure from it. I'm sure like many other abstract concepts it can be measured by different scales like the ones you mentioned, but I think that doesn't give a whole picture. I know people who write beautifully and articulately in English that are native English speakers, but if you have a conversation with them they stutter and stall as they can't collect the words quickly enough. But they are without a doubt, fluent English speakers. Could be something to say for those who verbalize well as opposed to those who write well.


I know people who write beautifully and articulately in English that are native English speakers, but if you have a conversation with them they stutter and stall as they can't collect the words quickly enough. But they are without a doubt, fluent English speakers. Could be something to say for those who verbalize well as opposed to those who write well.

Yes, this! Similarly, I know native speakers who can hold a wide-ranging discussion in English who likely couldn't pass a B1 exam, because their ability to talk is much better than their ability to write with correct basic spelling and grammar, never mind do so beautifully or articulately.

If fluency was perfection, we would have to argue that some natives aren't fluent, which is self-evidently nonsense. Fluency therefore must be something different from absolute, native-like perfection.


For me it's being able to instantly comprehend and respond to most complex conversations in a language, which would probably translate to B2. I don't think you have to be at native/near native level to be fluent. If someone makes small grammatical errors or doesn't really know what a word means sometimes, they can still be fluent.


Fluency to me is when you can be creative with a language.


Fluency is definitely an achievable goal. My own experience learning my first foreign language, French, was probably a good deal more "on-off switch" than for most. (for one, it was before YouTube, podcasts, and the like and the attendant ubiquity of foreign-language audio material) I studied French for years in school, but we never really spoke it or had it spoken to us much. Then I went to France for a language program. At first I could understand just my teacher and had some struggles trying to speak. Then I think a couple weeks later, it was like a light switch turned on, and I could understand when people were talking to me as I went around doing my everyday things. Since I'd also been able to activate my apparently acquired but never used speaking skills by that point, I think I can reasonably date my acquisition of fluency to that point. I'd be hard to exaggerate how small my vocabulary probably was to make this possible, but with a language like French, you rapidly acquire the mass of obvious cognates, and it winds up not too difficult to talk about many quite complex topics.

With a language like Russian, where there are many fewer obvious cognates, I think it's easier to have a sort of "patchy fluency" where there are commonly-encountered domains you can talk about easily and others you can't. It actually makes the logic of the CEFR levels easier to understand I think.


In my definition of a fluent speaker, a fluent speaker is: anyone who can speak a language like if he was born with it. Literally his mother tong. Like what you said Katrina, fluency is the point where you don't have to continuously translate in your mind.


Your two definitions "as if he was born with it/mother tongue" and "don't have to continually translate in your mind" are not at the same level, though. The first is very hard to achieve, the second much less so. I've been seriously studying Hebrew for more or less a year. I'm laughably far from using it as if it were my mother tongue, but I can have lengthy conversations where I'm not thinking in English then translating to Hebrew. By your description, I'm both fluent and not.

I personally would count your second description as some degree of fluency. Not perfect, but very able to conduct a decent conversation without too much difficulty. (I would describe my Hebrew as intermittently fluent; it depends on the topic and how tired I am on any given day! And my grammar and vocabulary are still imperfect and need plenty of work.) Your first definition, however, is something more than simple fluency/competence; that's mastery. That's something very few people achieve in a language they didn't grow up with, but it's also something very few people need.


Yup, your right though flootzavut. But there are some people who can. Check out this English guy who can speak Korean. My mother tongue is Korean so i can tell this dude speaks about 95% fluent Korean https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xAuqT7040qo


I think we should just give it a shot and try our best. Practice, practice, practice until we reach fluency, if that is what we want...

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