On Fluency

I’ve spent more than half my life labouring over gendered nouns, weird and wonderful tenses (pluperfect subjunctive, I’m looking at you here) and obscure grammatical anomalies, but one piece of the language-learning jigsaw still (pun intended) puzzles me: fluency.

Like many others, I’ve aspired to it, but it’s a slippery concept – one which cannot be quantified – and for that reason it’s been both a source of inspiration and dejection over the years.

I love the feeling that comes with finishing un livre français, having understood the whole plot. I love singing along to French songs around the house. (Who doesn’t love a bit of Serge Gainsbourg, Françoise Hardy or Zaz?) I love being able to watch French films and series without the subtitles. Heck, I’ve even been known to watch English series dubbed into French, just because I can. I love catching snippets of French on the train, on the streets of Cambridge. I love being able to make use of my French at work, albeit only occasionally. I love being able to interact with others in another language. I love discovering new words.

But for all the triumphs, there are a multitude of niggling doubts, of difficulties. There are gaps in my vocabulary, but I know that these gaps exist in English too: discipline-specific vocabulary that simply doesn’t overlap with my interests, studies or career. Sometimes I catch punchlines a beat too late. It takes me longer to write emails in French, simply because typing accented characters with an English keyboard is a faff. I find it harder to convey my personality; it sometimes feels as though I have two personas, one for each language.

So, are you fluent yet? Well, isn’t that the million-dollar question.

For a long time, I struggled with the concept of fluency; my perfectionist streak was a hindrance, not a helping hand. I felt as though I had to know the language inside out to qualify as fluent: a black-and-white way of viewing fluency. I was afraid of overstating my language abilities. I learnt the hard way that if there’s one thing you shouldn’t do, it’s understate them.

I see now that there are many shades of grey, that fluency is fluid, that everyone – and by extension, every dictionary – has their own definition of fluency.

The Macmillan Dictionary defines fluent (rather vaguely) as “able to speak a foreign language very well”, while The Collins Dictionary defines fluent as “[being able to] speak the language easily and correctly”; I’m sure linguists would have a field day dissecting exactly what is meant by speaking a language correctly. Oxford Dictionaries, meanwhile, define fluent as “able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately”; for me, this definition is closer to the mark, as accurately accommodates contextual nuances, in a way that correctly does not (in my opinion, at least).

Being fluent doesn’t mean you can recite the dictionary verbatim, nor that you can speak legalese effortlessly in a foreign tongue. Being fluent doesn’t mean you’ve reached the end of the road; languages evolve, and there’s always something new to learn. Being fluent means, to me at least, that you’re at ease using the language; that you can manipulate it for your own purposes; and that you’re familiar with the culture within which it is spoken.

Maybe next time someone asks, I’ll answer in the affirmative; I suppose that for all intents and purposes I am. Just don’t ask me what a bobbit is in French, because even WordReference doesn’t know. (I hope you’ve all been enjoying Blue Planet II as much as I have.)

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20 thoughts on “On Fluency

  1. When I was studying Welsh, my Grandmother (for whom Welsh was her first language) defined fluency as the moment you start actually thinking and dreaming in the language – as if a switch suddenly flips in your brain! I never managed to achieve it, but I have had moments where I’ve sort of felt what she meant – moments that are better explained (or thought) in my head in Welsh than in English.

    It’s a strange thing!

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    1. I’ve heard a few people say similar things about dreaming in your foreign/second language being the moment that you’ve bridged the gap between advanced and fluent. I hardly ever dream so it’s not really something I’ve ever been able to get on board with! I’d agree that thinking in (rather than translating into) your second language is a good indicator of fluency 🙂 It’s a curious thing though!

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  2. wow you hit on a lot of points that ive been thinking about lately. i definitely agree with you about having different personalities with different languages. it can be so frustrating sometimes that i cant be as funny or as clever in french as i can be in English!! ive noticed that about myself and am working on a blogpost about it 😉 and your thoughts on fluency…it really is difficult to define, and based on the comments above it seems like everyone has a slightly different definition of the term. (i had to laugh at macmillan’s dictionary’s definition that u mentioned “able to speak a foreign language very well” lololol) i always hate this question when asked, i normally just say “well there are different levels of fluency…” or i just say that im proficient, im not sure if that really even suffices but i think it’s especially harder for those who havent studied a language to understand how much time and many years it takes to become “fluent”.

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    1. Completely agree with you there – it drives me round the bend that I can’t respond with quips as quickly as I would be able to in English! (Though it does make those moments when I do come up with a French pun all the more special!) The Macmillan Dictionary’s definition was curiously vague compared to other online definitions. I actually came across a “fluency scale” (so to speak) in a book today, which ran from holiday survival language to native speaker, ranking a fluent speaker as someone who could “easily hold a complex conversation but [is] not a native speaker”. I think that’s a fair definition for someone who’s a proficient user of the language and can function on both a personal and professional level in that language. I agree that it’s harder for non-linguists to grasp the concept of fluency and to understand that it takes longer than just a few years’ of study to become fluent. (I know a fair few people who fall into that category!) Looking forward to reading your post on the subject 🙂

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  3. I totally recognise myself in your post. I always struggled to qualify myself as fluent in English even though all my colleague think that I am. But because sometimes I find it hard to express myself as easily as in French I think that I still haven’t master the English language. Maybe one day.

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    1. Given the scope of languages, it’s really hard to reach the point where you can say you’re fluent – I’ve often felt that if I said I was, someone would find a way to trip me up, and therefore have underplayed my language level. I think we’re our own harshest critics when it comes to language abilities!

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  4. I think in the age of exams dictating our language levels, I think now it’s so difficult to distinguish fluency from good grades! My idea of fluency is similar to yours – being able to communicate in the language without thinking about it. I’m not there yet but hopefully one day!

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    1. I agree – especially as exams these days (or at least the GCSE format I took back in 2010) are so much more content-based than accuracy-based, so it leads to people getting high grades but not feeling all that confident in using the language independently. I remember finding the jump from GCSE to A Level quite difficult for that reason alone! Keep it up, you’ll get there 🙂

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  5. This was a good read! I completely understand the two personalities thing… It’s hard not being able to express yourself exactly as you’d like. I love the part about watching English series dubbed into French – why not 😉

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    1. Glad you enjoyed it – I’d been toying with this idea for a while, as it’s a topic that really interests me! It’s a strange feeling when you can’t quite express yourself the way you’d like to, or when your personality seems to shift when you’re speaking/writing in another language. I found it was a great way to keep up the immersion, as it could be hard to find decent French series at times!

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  6. I’ve gotten to the point to at least start admitting fluency (because honestly my French is better than most people I interact with on a daily basis here in the midwest), but I know I’ll never be bilingual. There’s a difference between the two, and I consider bilingual to be a special kind of fluency that you can only have if you were raised with the language. I’ll never be bilingual because I can’t change the fact that I didn’t start learning French until high school, so I’ll never have that kind of perfection. However, fluency is attainable! We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves when we have put so much time and effort into learning the language ❤

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    1. I think it’s only hit me over the last year or so that I can be overly (and unnecessarily) critical of myself in terms of my language abilities. I feel the same way about bilingualism: fluency is for non-native speakers (I’d hardly say “I speak fluent English” since it’s a given that you speak your native language fluently in my opinion) and bilingualism is for native speakers who’ve been immersed in two languages since birth. (I remember being so envious of a family friend who was bilingual when I was younger, as he was surrounded by French all the time!) In my experience, language learners are quite reluctant to say they’re fluent – but as you say, we ought to recognise our achievements, and not underplay our abilities when we have reached an advanced level.

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  7. Having started my language learning at school, 50 odd years ago and fighting my way through a very traditional, grammar-based and translation-led curriculum in school and later university, I emerged blinking into the real world finding that, although I rarely missed the correct adjectival agreement or incorrectly conjugated a verb I was almost incapable of actually speaking the languages I had worked so hard to learn. It’s taken me a long time to lose the paranoia of committing a grammatical faux pas and realise that communication is key. You’re absolutely right. I think fluency for me is how comfortable I feel and the ease with which I can express myself in any given situation. And I’m certainly not there yet!

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    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head there – the trouble with traditional, translation-led, grammar-focused language teaching is that it doesn’t prepare people for communicating in real-time! I owe a lot to one of the teachers I had at A-Level, who struck a really good balance between grammar, translation and fun speaking-based activities. She’d write hilarious sentences for us to translate incorporating everyone’s names and interests, which I think really helped to make it seem relevant. We also made a couple of ads, and were in heaps of giggles over the (awful) puns we cooked up! There’s always more you can do, but I agree that ultimately it comes down to ease of expression and how comfortable you feel using the language.

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  8. I find the idea of fluency to mean, as you wrote, being comfortable using the language, i.e. not having to really think about what you’re going to say before opening your mouth. People have the affinity for mastering languages, others don’t. But as long as you feel confident in your speaking abilities, along with a considerable degree of speech fluidity, that’s what makes one fluent in a language, to my understanding.

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    1. I think that’s a great way of defining it – being able to speak naturally, without having to overthink how you’re going to say what you want to say 🙂 I agree that some people seem to have more of a flair, or natural aptitude, for learning languages, but I also think that anyone can learn a language, if they put their mind to it.

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  9. Ahhh, the eternal struggle of defining fluency. I would say I’m not quite there yet with either my French or my Spanish, but hopefully by the end of my degree I’ll be a wee bit closer. When other people ask whether or not I’m fluent after having lived abroad, I tend to say I’m bilingual instead. To me, that means I’m able to live in the language fairly comfortably, read books with minimal dictionary usage, understand films without subtitles, and generally read academic articles without too much struggle (although there are still technical things I need to look up, but that’s the same in English). In order to be fluent, I feel I’d need to expand my vocabulary more and be able to talk about specific interests in detail without grasping for words.
    Also, I definitely agree with the different personas for different languages thing. I feel like I’m much less shy in Spanish than I am in English despite having nowhere near the same vocab range (not sure what that says about me, but hey ho).

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    1. It really is the slipperiest thing to define! I find it fascinating to hear other language learners’ thoughts on what fluency means to them, as it varies so much from person to person. (I also find it slightly amusing that non-language learners seem to think that it only takes a short stint of living in a country to become fluent. If only it were that easy!) I was the same with academic texts – but I think that’s the way it is with technical language (and academic articles are often written in a higher register with more unfamiliar vocabulary). Having multiple personas is a curious thing; I feel as though I’m less reserved in French, and not as self-conscious.

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