What is fluency to you?
So I've heard many people here saying they hope to be fluent or are already fluent on a given language... but I get the impression not everybody thinks being fluent in the same terms.
According to Merriam-Webster, someone fluent is someone capable of using a language easily and accurately , while the Oxford dictionary says: The ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately.
How does that translate to real situations? For me being fluent in a foreign language is being able to hold an oral conversation with a native speaker with relative ease... it's doesn't need to be a conversation about quantum mechanics... a simple everyday conversation. Understand and be understood without many awkward pauses and "can you repeat that?" instances.
Another related term is proficiency, which also imply a high degree of language knowledge.
So, what is fluency to you?
For me it has to do with my thought process and how I learn. When I am using the language can I think without switching my internal dialogue back and forth constantly? How do I learn. Can I use my new language to learn new words in that language. If I am reading a book in the language, can I usually infer the meaning of new words by context, even if the word is unfamiliar to me? Can I read a book or understand a movie in that language. I think of fluency as the ability to learn/decipher new information by context. English is my primary language and yet I still don’t know half the words, but I can read a book and understand it even if I don’t know all the words. If I am having a conversation with someone and they talk about something I have no knowledge of, like physics or a historical mouvement, I will understand their explanations of unfamiliar terms in that language without opening up an english dictionary. That said, I think there are different kinds of fluency. I have spoken Hungarian since birth and am conversationally fluent, but because I went to school in Canada I cannot read it or write it, so I don’t really know. Fluent as a word itself derives from the Latin word Fluere, which means to flow, so I would consider myself fluent when I feel like I am in flow with the language, the words carry me, sentences come with ease, rather than struggling against the current. Really though, there is always more to learn!
You can walk down the street understanding the traffic signs, order a cup of coffee or tea or whatever you like to have to drink or eat, have small talk, read a novel, buy something from a store and talk about your hobbies all in one day without needing to look at a dictionary or translator in that language.
To me it's more than what the dictionaries define it to be. Though the Merriam-Webster definition is more vague as it requires the use to be defined in the first place.
So, speaking of that use thing, I imagine fluency to be something greater than a daily conversation. It's also reading, writing, watching movies and shows, listening to radio, and also being able to maintain a conversation in at least one professional field (that can be quantum mechanics, or molecular biology, or sewing, or farming, or running a hundred meters as fast as you can - whatever it is you're proficient at). You may lack speed a bit, because different people tend to speak at different pace even in their mother tongue, so it's no problem if you take a little time before you reply. But picking up what others say is of course essential.
In fact, I believe that there is just a single thing standing between a learner and that kind of fluency once the grammar is handled - that's the vocabulary. This takes the longest, as at least 15-20 thousand words are required to be ready at any moment for that, and one can only learn so many so fast.
Fluency has so many definitions that I find myself trying to avoid it when having serious conversations about language ability. Here are some of the things I've heard people say makes one fluent:
- Speaking the language as well as one's native language
- Being able to think entirely in the language
- CEFR B2 or C1 or C2
- Being able to use a monolingual dictionary in the language to look up words
- Capable of speaking the language without pausing to come up with phrasing
- Feeling comfortable using the language
So I prefer to talk in CEFR levels, or speak of specific capabilities (like regularly reading news articles without a dictionary), rather than speak in terms of fluency, because I know that, odds are, the other person and I aren't talking about the same "fluency."
I think it is difficult to explain when you are fluent in a language because no matter what I always feel I am not good enough. I am German and I can use my native language in all situations I can imagine. But I have been learning English for a lot of years now and still do not know what to say or how to say something in certain situations. I enjoy reading books in English, at least four books a week, (well, I know I am a bit crazy about books) but watching a film in English does not come easy to me. I started to watch movies in their origin language when I finally got really annoyed about the changes of their dubbing actors in German...
So one could say I am fluent in English, however, I think I still lack the ease at using it.
Being able to hold a somewhat decent conversation is, to me, not yet fluency. He can speak English, but he is not yet fluent in it. I think fluency starts when you are so good in the language, that you can speak it without effort and for most part even think in it.
Right now I am learning Irish. I do not expect to ever get fluent in it, but I do hope that I will be able to read books and understand other people speaking it without too much difficulty. That is my personal goal. Not fluency.
Fluency is the ability to speak to a native easily, a native who doesn't know your native language. If you can think in both languages, or look at an object and know instantly what it is in both your native and your other language, then you are fluent. Also, if you can flip dialogues with complete ease without even thinking, you are fluent.
My take on it is that you're able to use the language in most everyday contexts, talk with a native speaker, read a book etc. You can have fluency even without being able to talk about subjects like quantum physics. However, for me personally, I think a lot of fluency is being able to think in the language. It takes effort to make sure your sentences flow when you're speaking it, but just being able to freely express ideas in your own head without using your native language is also an important part to me.
A native-level fluency, from what I believe, is different than just normal fluency. Native-level fluency would allow someone to speak the language with little if not any mistakes, and have more advanced conversations. Fluent speakers can make a lot of mistakes but still have a very good handle on the language, however a native-level speaker would speak around the level of... well, a native.
CEFR level C1
Section: Common reference levels
C1 - Effective operational proficiency or advanced
- Can understand a wide range of demanding, longer clauses, and recognize 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 organizational patterns, connectors and cohesive devices.
I fluency, to me, is to be able to talk in every day conversations with many people on a variety of subjects. With a pretty decent understanding of what the native speaker is saying. As said already, I am not looking to discuss quantum physics. but being able to discuss music and art and how is the family, what to order or go to a store and understand a lot of what the product wrappers say. Or order online from amazon.is, or whatever the equivalent is for Greece and say Italy is also. LOL And to talk with native speakers with relative ease, that I can get my point across, without having to know all the words. You can still learn along the way. To become even more fluent. After all, I can't discuss quantum physics in English, let alone attempt it in another language. LOL
I generally link "fluency" to speaking. To me it's:
being able to have a conversation at a pace which is almost as high as you would have in your native language
making few mistakes while speaking
being able to have a conversation about almost anything, either because you have a wide vocabulary or because you have the ability to find an alternative way to bring the message across in a clear way
Some people are able to become fluent really quickly as they're easily able to express themselves with a limited vocabulary, finding alternative ways of saying things. While others, like myself, need a wide vocabulary to become anything close to fluent. As long as my vocabulary doesn't span beyond something like 10.000 words, I won't be able to speak the language fluently (my poor communication skills are likely to blame). As a result, the only foreign language I'm able to speak fluently is English.
Proficiency I'd link to writing and comprehension for understanding. For me the order is comprehension > proficiency > fluency, while seemingly it's in the opposite order for most other people.
I think "natural" is a big part of fluency. Does the language come naturally to you? Can you "flip a switch" where you are extremely comfortable switching between your native language and another language? Do you have to think and translate in your head or do you just "know it"?