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What do we mean by language fluency?

These are much debated questions among language teachers and students alike! Some would argue that being fluent in another language means achieving a level proficiency equivalent to a native speaker; in other words, being able to speak it as well as you speak your own language. But to the majority, language fluency is a spectrum. It actually refers to the extent to which someone can speak smoothly and effectively on a range of topics in a second language. Rather than achieving complete accuracy in a second language, you might think of “fluency” as “degree of proficiency” in a language.

Linguists rarely agree on a single definition of second language fluency. But at ICLS, we offer a common-sense definition: a speaker achieves language fluency once they can confidently, competently, and easily express themselves in a language other than their own.

Being fluent in another language doesn’t demand complete mastery of vocabulary.

If that was the case, nobody would be fluent in their own language, let alone a second one! Let’s take a case in point. The Oxford English dictionary contains 273,000 words. About 171,000 are in current use. However, the average educated English speaker will know and speak somewhere between 20-30,000 words. Knowing just 1,000 to 3,000 words in English is sufficient to carry on everyday conversations.

It’s generally acknowledged that advanced language learners know 4,000 to 10,000 words, while 10,000 or more words places them in the bracket of native speakers. But language fluency really isn’t all about the number of words you know. Understanding the relationships between words and expressions is what ultimately creates meaning. Words matter, but connecting words and meanings matters more.

Here are a few strategies to help you evaluate whether or not you might be considered fluent in a language other than your own:

Do I translate backwards and forwards in my head?

This is a great way to assess your level of fluency. If you find yourself constantly translating between your target language and your own native language, you’d be hard pressed to describe yourself as fluent. By the same measure, if you’re able to think as you speak in your target language, you’ll speak more fluidly and naturally!

Do I speak quickly in my target language?

If you’re a slow, plodding speaker in your target language, you’d be hard pressed to describe yourself as fluent. Speaking slowly is usually a sign that you lack confidence and spend too much time weighing up the right words to use before uttering them.

How well and quickly do I understand what’s said?

Rapid understanding of what someone says in your target language is probably more important than speedy speaking in measuring your level of language fluency. Immediate understanding of language spoken in conversation in your target language indicates a good level of fluency.

Can native speakers understand what I’m saying?

If native speakers are looking at you with bewildered expressions on their faces, odds are you’re not making yourself understood. The main objective of learning a new language is effective communication. So if native speakers can’t understand you, there’s a good chance you haven’t yet developed fluency! Perhaps you need to work on your accent, pronunciation, grammar, or vocabulary? Identify the problem and remedy it with an ICLS teacher.

Do I feel at ease speaking in my target language?

This is a really important question to ask yourself. If you’re able to speak in your target language almost as easily as you speak your mother tongue, then you are well on the way to achieving language fluency.

Language fluency is a vast topic, and debates over its meaning are not confined purely to proficiency in speaking a language other than your own. There’s more to communication than speaking and listening! You may be excellent at conversing verbally in a second language, but barely able to write a single word of it. Four key skills make up true language fluency: speaking, listening, reading, and writing.

In addition, cultural fluency is key. Unless learners understand the customs, behaviors, and beliefs of their target language’s speakers, true, authentic fluency will remain elusive. For example, body language is key to communication in some cultures. There’s an old joke that demonstrates this: Q. ‘How do you silence an Italian?’ A. ‘Tie his hands behind his back.’

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