What is fluency?

June 6, 2013 at 2:17 pm

This way? That way! Photo: Ed Yourdon

It is notoriously difficult to define fluency in a language.

Are you fluent when you can have a basic conversation without too many umms and errs?

Or just when you can have a conversation about something more complex?

Or is it when you would be confident to work in a language?

A brief and entirely unscientific survey of SOTT’s language learning friends offers a range of answers, but with plenty of similarities:

“When I don’t have to think about what I say and it just comes naturally.”

“I would say I am fluent in a language when I can follow almost everything that is being said and would feel confident to join a conversation without being prompted.”

“Thinking in that language and not having to translate.”

“I would say when you can manage all situations… not only daily ones but also professional and unusual ones that only come up occasionally. When you can watch television and enjoy books and films. When it doesn’t feel like much of the culture is passing you by.”

“I think that you are fluent in a language when you can understand the jokes. You don’t have to find them funny.”

The online etymology dictionary gives some pointers to the origins and meaning of the word:

fluency (n.) 1620s, “abundance,” later “smooth and easy flow” (1630s), from fluent + -cy. Replaced earlier fluence (c.1600)

fluent (adj.) 1580s, “flowing freely” (of water, also of speech), from Latin fluentem (nominative fluens) “lax, relaxed,” figuratively “flowing, fluent,” prp. of fluere “to flow, stream, run, melt,” from PIE *bhleugw-, extended form of *bhleu- “to swell, well up, overflow” (cf. Latin flumen “river;” Greek phluein “to boil over, bubble up,” phlein “to abound”), an extension of root *bhel- (2) “to blow, inflate, swell;”. Used interchangeably with fluid in Elizabethan times.

Some of the related words in those definitions would certainly tally with a typical modern definition of fluency. Relaxed and flowing freely seem particularly apt in reference to language learning.

To avoid confusion over definitions of fluency, the EU’s Eurobarometer surveys ask whether respondents can have a conversation in another language. Although that leaves a great deal of room for interpretation.

As one of the most language-aware organisations in the world, the EU also introduced the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages: Learning, Teaching, Assessment (otherwise known as the CEFR). This system allows learners and assessors to give themselves a level from A1 (beginner) to C2 (near-native level). You can take exams and earn certificates that confirm your language level according to the CEFR.

But the CEFR levels are not yet universally acknowledged. Whereas employers in Europe may well understand what C1 level English means, the same is not necessarily true within the English-speaking world. So you are more likely to be asked if you are “fluent” in any other languages.

What does fluency mean to you?

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