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Philosophical Question: Fluency

Hello, Duo! I just wanted to know what you guys call "fluency?" When exactly does one become fluent in a language? When people ask me what languages I speak "fluently," I of course say "English" (my native language), but I hesitate to say "and French" because I don't know what defines "fluency." To one person, the definition of "fluency" might be different than to another, for language competency is hard to measure objectively even with a test (language is an ongoing process, it's impossible to know every word in a language, language use is situational etc.). Therefore, I want to know: When is it appropriate to add a language to your repertoire?

December 3, 2017



For me I try to explain how well I can communicate in a language and count it if I can make friends. I see language learning as a lifelong thing. If fluency means perfecting a language I don't believe it's possible, there is always more to learn and room for improvement.


'Fluency' is derived from the Latin verb 'fluere', 'to flow', which implies that whichever way you use your target language, you should be able to use it smoothly. That doesn't mean perfectly, but to such an extent that it's for the largest part without thinking about it.

In reading, this means actually being able to read a text without using a dictionary constantly. With listening, this means being able to listen to an audio fragment and understand what the topic is about, even without catching every little detail. Speaking is, of course, a true test of fluency, as you can only get a conversation going by improvising on the knowledge you have. Writing is difficult to asses, as writing can be difficult for some even in their native tongue; even good writers have to use dictionaries and thesauruses.

The problem with such a description, however, is that it is heavily dependent on the level you encounter. Reading (a translation of) Harry Potter is not the same thing as high literature or a technical academic paper, and having a chat with your housemates is not the same thing as having to explain to your coworkers a difficult concept. So your fluency in your target language is, to an extent, dependent on your skills in your native tongue: not everyone reads at the same pace and not everyone can talk about a particular topic. An Italian farmer is naturally more fluent in his native language than I am, but not every Italian farmer will be able to comprehend an academic text in Italian to the fullest extent.

In a more common use of the word, I think fluency refers to the use in basic encounters: can I order something without looking for words? Can I listen to the radio and understand most of it? Can I write a mail to my coworkers without spending half an hour on it to get it right? And can I read the newspaper without reaching for the dictionary every minute? That is, in my opinion, what we would cal fluency, and from that point onward you can improve it even further.


For me, "fluency" is when I can learn other things in the language without constantly looking in a dictionary. For example, I consider myself fluent in Danish (my native language) but also in English. Currently, I am learning a lot through Khan Academy in English, just because. And sure I forget words all the time but my friends are just sort of used to me switching between Danish, English, and soon French.


Perhaps you could go by the letter scale? I think C2 or higher is meant to be fluency ie. (if I remember the descriptions correctly) you can quickly and correctly form coherent thoughts and sentences in that language, know a wide range of vocab, and can read everyday texts/watch everyday shows without spending much time working to comprehend.


I think C2 or higher is meant to be fluency ie. (if I remember the descriptions correctly)

Following the European Common Framework, you have to be at least a B2 level. The C-levels (C1 and C2) may well be of interest to those of us whose careers centre around linguistics, but other people may have jobs that, while requiring skills and experience, may not require the linguistic precision of C2 :)


I consider fluency carrying on complex adult level intelligent conversations with natives.

Others seems to consider it carrying on everyday interaction, simple conversation.


four things that define fluency for me: A) can you listen to a recording and understand 90% of what is being said without a need to listen to it again? B) can you summarize what you hear using correct sentences/grammer and write up to 150 words or more (150 words just a standard, could be more) C) can you give your personal opinon about any topic and expound? i.e are you able to have a debate? D) are you able to speak logically, correctly with native speakers of the language?


I like to think fluency is how comfortable you are traveling to a French-speaking country and just talking and comprehending people without having to go to a dictionary. Of course, these are just regular conversations and not some topic on theoretical physics.

Also, to test your fluency, are you able to translate all you wrote into French without any guidance?


As for the stuff about counting reading and writing skills towards fluency instead of only towards literacy, keep in mind the millions of people throughout history who never got the chance to learn to read and write in any language. Would you say they can't have been fluent in their nat


Basically, no. Those people weren't fluent in reading and writing in their own language, because they were illiterate. But they were fluent in speaking and listening, so given a chance, they would have picked up reading quickly enough.


I have always held to the following for determining if I 'know' a language (the word 'fluent' is not one I like to use as it's meaning is vague):

  • I know what that person is saying and that person knows what I am saying We can effectively communicate, therefore, I know a language.

Nowadays, this has changed a bit, but it still remains largely the same: namely that in order to know a language you must be able to speak to people and these people must be able to understand what you are saying. This also extends to the written language: if I am able to read a book, article or even a small thing like a (very colloquial) youtube comment, know what it is all about and can write comments (like these), I know the language and one could even state I am 'fluent'

When is it appropriate to add a language to your repertoire?

I think it is appropiate when you are capable of truly expressing yourself in that language. When you can speak to (or chat with) native speakers without encountering any language barriers. When you can easily survive in a foreign country using that language. When you use that language and think, "holy crap, my language skills are actually pretty sweet! Did I just express myself in a fairly sophisticated manner? Oh, yes I did!"


I feel, for fluency, if you could navigate around (asking for directions, reading a map, bus/train schedules) in your target language, then youare doing good. The most basic fluency is a tool to help us communicate verbaly. One could easily communicate by pointing, and other non-verbals, but basic fluency frees you from the frustration of not being able to communicate. Literacy is being able to read/write in the target language. This is a tad easier, for you do not have to worry with proper pronunciation.

Either way, if you could read a piece of simple text (nursery rhyme/children’s story), then you could consider yourself basic fluency, meaning you could somewhat communicate with others in an extremly simple fashion.

Fluency (capital F) is an absolute, native like ability to speak in the target language. This takes years, even for your native language, but means thinking, understanding, and learning in that language.

Personally, I believe you could say, “I have basic fluency in [target language].” And no one would really challenge it, unless they speak your target language.

Although my Duo does not reflect it, I claim basic fluency in French, Esperanto, and German, but natively, I speak English. It may be difficult for me to communicate in all of them, but I can. Sometimes it is very difficult to, but I ( we would also work well here) must remember that means I need more practice. I think we always need practice. Always.

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