July 07

learning languages: what is fluency?

One of the things I come across a lot is the question of fluency. When can you say that you are fluent in a language?

There are a lot of different viewpoints on that topic. Some people feel that if you can order at a restaurant in a foreign language and operate on a tourist level, you are fluent. Others feel that they need a near native command of a language to be truly fluent. There is no real answer and it is a bit of a matter of personal interpretation. To me fluency implies that you can speak without a lot uhming and ahing, as in that you can speak fluently, but not necessarily have mastered the language.

The Common European Framework of Refrence for Languages is a guideline to different levels and what you should be able to do at a certain level.

From Wikipedia:

The Common European Framework divides learners into three broad divisions that can be divided into six levels:

A Basic User

A1 Breakthrough or beginner
A2 Waystage or elementary
B Independent User

B1 Threshold or intermediate
B2 Vantage or upper intermediate
C Proficient User

C1 Effective Operational Proficiency or advanced
C2 Mastery or proficiency

So what does this mean now? As far as I’m concerned fluency is somewhere around a B2/C1 level, probably closer to C1. My own personal benchmark is when I am able to rearrange a sentence in my head quick enough to not have any noticeable pauses in the conversation. What I mean is this. Often when speaking in a foreign language I am not sure about something. I may have forgotten a verb ending or a proposition, but I can change the sentence quickly into something I know and without an noticeable pause or the uhming and ahing when trying to think of the right word.

For example if I want to say ‘Last night at/in the restaurant I…’ and I’m not sure if it’s ‘at the restaurant’ or ‘in the restaurant’, I could just change my sentence to ‘Last night we went to a restaurant and I…’ because I’m sure that after ‘go’ there is always ‘to‘. That to me is fluency, I know different ways to express myself and I can pick one that I’m sure about in the shortest amount of time. I also think this is a very important skill.

What about you, when do you consider yourself fluent?