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The Myth of Fluency: What Does It Mean to Be Fluent in a Language?

Achieving fluency in a language is a goal of every serious language learner. However, achieving fluency is a daunting proposition. You may, for example, have heard friends or colleagues effortlessly switch between languages. You feel that there is no way that you can emulate them. As far as you are concerned, they have a special talent for languages and only those who are so gifted can hope to reach fluency in a language. This type of thinking can demotivate a learner. Achieving fluency in a language is certainly a daunting task, but it can be demystified. This article discusses the different levels of fluency and how the concept of fluency in language is often misunderstood, and it provides tips on how to acquire fluency quickly.

Myth of fluency - the tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

How fluent are you in your native language?

Have you ever attended a lecture in a topic that was unfamiliar to you? If you were, for example, a language student, who had to attend an engineering lecture for some reason, how much of the language would you expect to understand? It is likely that you would struggle to follow as the number of unfamiliar vocabulary items increases.

If you have ever needed to participate within a highly formalized environment, you might find it difficult to speak with confidence, even if using your native language.

For example, if you had to appear in court, the language specific to this setting is not likely to be a part of your active vocabulary and it might be a challenge simply to express yourself.

These examples show that absolute fluency in a language is not a given, even for native speakers. Many people would love to strengthen their vocabulary in their own language. Many exert great efforts studying their own language with the aim of using it more elegantly. When we consider the areas of apparent weakness in our usage of our native languages, the idea of gaining fluency in another language becomes less daunting.

The myth of fluency

Even the most capable linguist can only display fluency in subjects with which he or she is familiar. Fluency in a language is not knowledge of every single vocabulary item in every single domain. The human brain could never store such an enormous amount of information in a way that is retrievable to the speaker. Furthermore, there is no agreed definition on what constitutes fluency in a language – it cannot be quantified. Fluency is simply displaying competence in the language relevant to the domains in which you regularly interact.

To cite a personal example, in a previous job, I worked in the finance department of an international firm. As part of this job, I regularly dealt with Netherlands-based clients and I often had to make calls in Dutch. The calls were often very similar – I greeted the client and asked about their day. Then I would ask if there are any issues with billing or payment. I noted the issues and informed them that I would make arrangements to fix them. Then we ended the call. I spoke Dutch very fluently within the confines of my work. I had mastered all of the vocabulary relevant to billings, payments and banking. Even my colleagues, who had no understanding of Dutch, felt that they were beginning to pick up some of the language through listening to my daily conversations.

Changing the subject

If I were to suddenly switch to a new domain in the Dutch language, it would have been a struggle for me. Although I spoke Dutch fluently within my work domain, if someone were to ask me about a football match, for example, I would find it difficult to speak with confidence. Unfamiliar with the accepted terminology, I would have use incorrect, overly-descriptive terminology, perhaps referring to ‘the guy who protects the goal’, rather than the ‘goalkeeper’, for example. Whatever fluency I have in the language would certainly not be on display in a conversation about football. However, with continued interactions within this field, it is certain that my vocabulary and my fluency would have grown and developed.

Linguistic structure and fluency – Open vs closed categories of language

If we consider the structure of language, we can find clues into how best to approach fluency. Language consists of ‘open’ or ‘closed’ categories. In any language, the number of linguistic features which perform a grammatical function of a language is relatively small, in comparison with the number of nouns and verbs. The grammar of a language is a ‘closed category’ in that it can only support a certain number of core items. Grammar consists of the basic building blocks of language. Grammar is relatively static and does not allow for widespread variation.

The lexicon of a language is, on the other hand, subject to widespread variation. Innovation among the nouns and verbs of a language is tolerated and even encouraged. The lexicon is an ‘open category’ of language, which welcomes new members to its ranks every day.

Once you have acquired the basic grammatical forms, the major burden of language learning is the acquisition of new vocabulary.

This can take a lifetime of effort, but if you focus your learning on those domains with which you most frequently interact, you will find that you can reach an impressive level of fluency within a relatively short period.

How to achieve fluency in a language?

So how to achieve fluency then? It is clear that achieving fluency will take time. Where basic users of a language tend to make use of simple, holistic structures, fluency in a language entails a solid understanding of all of the major structures and an ability to correctly integrate new forms into these structures. Fluency is therefore generally the domain of the intermediate or advanced user.

However, this is not to say that a basic user cannot aspire to fluency.

It is just necessary in the early stages to establish a working knowledge of the grammar of the language. Once you have reached this point, fluency is within reach.

Achieving fluency in a language – where to begin?

Acquiring a good foundation of the grammar of the target language can be burdensome work, but it is necessary in order to make your usage of the language productive. It should be possible, with some effort, to establish the basics within a short period of time. Grammatical forms belong to the closed categories of language and they are therefore limited in number. Focus on the grammatical questions that you are most likely to encounter in everyday conversation. Think of the conversations you have every day in your first language and try to emulate them in the target language.

Establish a solid understanding of how the language distinguishes between singular and plural, and about how to form past, present and future tenses. Learn the pronouns. Learn how to ask questions. Keep it interesting – make your learning as relevant as possible to your daily life.

What do you talk about every day?

As you begin to gain confidence in the grammar of the language, you should also be acquiring new vocabulary. Structure your learning so that it is specifically tailored to your interactive needs.

The vocabulary of a language is an open category, in that it can support a very large number of items. This is intimidating for a learner, but if you concentrate on specific key domains, this will lighten your burden.

For example, think of the topics which you are most likely to find yourself talking about. Consider the conversations that you have in your first language on any given day. You might notice that, when you break it down, the number of topics you talk about regularly is quite small.

Perhaps you find that you speak about the weather every day. You notice that you speak about your children, or about your other family members, or work colleagues. You might regularly discuss sports results, current affairs or your favorite television shows. Take note of the major conversations you have throughout a typical day, then focus your learning around this. Aim to recreate these conversations in your study. Translate a typical conversation in your target language and study the vocabulary. Perhaps act it out in front of a mirror and aim to use realistic tones and cadences. This exercise will demonstrate the practicality of the language and will help to motivate you.

Fluency is acquired topic by topic.

By concentrating on a small number of key topics, you should be able to acquire enough vocabulary to interact fluently in these domains. Focus on achieving fluency in the domains which are most practical to you and then slowly broaden your horizons.

How can Clozemaster help?

Clozemaster allows you to focus the building of your vocabulary, depending on the current state of your linguistic development. Beginners can choose to play at a level where the answers to the questions are restricted to the most frequently used items in the language. As you progress, you can widen the net, choosing levels which require familiarity of more obscure lexical items.

Conclusion: Fluency is an achievable goal!

This article aims to demonstrate that fluency is not an impossibly ambitious goal, achievable only by those with special gifts. Fluency is a myth in the sense that no-one can demonstrate fluency in all topics. Someone who speaks eloquently about financial markets may speak hesitantly about sports, for example, even in their first language. Learners should aim to acquire fluency first in those areas which are most relevant to their everyday lives, and then progress to others, one domain at a time. If you consider fluency in these terms, then you are more likely stay motivated and achieve fluency.


4 thoughts on “The Myth of Fluency: What Does It Mean to Be Fluent in a Language?”

  1. Pingback: The Fastest Way to Learn a Language - Clozemaster Blog

  2. Pingback: Language Learning in Adulthood - Advantages, Disadvantages, and Getting Fluent Faster

  3. A native English speaker of 50 years who doesn’t understand legal, medical, sports, or musical terms is no longer considered fluent in English anymore because they are not familiar with domain-specific terminology? This isn’t a fluency issue. Human beings learn new skills and disciplines every day and constantly acquire new vocabulary to support this knowledge.

    For example, a 15 year old child who is a native/fluent English speaker with a strong grasp on the language is still considered fluent, even though they may be unfamiliar with business accounting terminology. This is not an issue with language fluency. The fluent English speaker is simply learning a new discipline, which includes new vocabulary.

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