What We Really Mean by Fluency

When it comes to language learning goals, we need to be clear on what we are actually setting out to accomplish.  There’s no doubt that every language learner wants to achieve fluency in the language.  But often we are not so clear on what we actually mean by fluency.


Beyond Pronunciation
On a superficial level, we fool ourselves into thinking that we would arrive at fluency if we could just sound like a native speaker (i.e. people might mistaken us for a local over the phone).  But if we really think about it, flawless pronunciation is most likely not our ultimate goal.  What we are really after is an ability to use the language accurately and effectively in a wide range of situations.  Also, fluency inherently involves an ability to use the language in a culturally appropriate way.

Fluency Within Domains
Sometimes we also fool ourselves into believing that thousands of hours of practice will one day lead to us waking up being thoroughly fluent in the language.  In reality, we gain proficiency in different domains one conversation at a time (i.e. you are much more fluent in topics you’ve already discussed hundreds of times before).  Therefore it is no surprise that you are probably much more fluent in the personal domain to talk about your family than in an occupational domain to talk about something like rocket science.

So When Can We Call Ourselves Fluent?
You may never get to a point in your language learning to be able to discuss the nuances of quantum physics (unless that actually happens to be something you practice hundreds of times).  But over time you will hopefully reach a level in which you can interact flexibly and effectively across a wide range of domains, including both social and professional settings.  By the time you are able to communicate skillfully and discuss various complex topics, you are most likely entering into an advanced level.  It is helpful to refer to specific standards that different organizations have established as a way of standardizing proficiency levels in a foreign language.  For example:

ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages)
CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages

The ACTFL scale runs from Novice to Distinguished levels.  The CEFR scale runs from A1 to C2 levels.  Some define fluency as requiring Advanced-High or Superior level in the ACTFL scale, or C2 in the CEFR scale.  But it seems to me, unless you require a particular proficiency level (e.g. employment requirement), it is much more productive to talk about what we ultimately want to do with the language.

Why Am I Learning This Language Anyway?
Though it may change along the way, we all embarked on this language learning journey with an end goal in mind.  For some, it may be learning Chinese to be able to communicate with their in-laws and relatives.  For others, it may be to have enough French to be able to backpack through France.  Therefore what seems most pertinent is no so much debating the definition of fluency, but actually targetting the gaps between your current proficiency and your end goal.

One specific tool that is very practical is the ACTFL Can Do Statements.  This document serves as a precise checklist that learners can use to assess what they can currently do with the language, and the functions or tasks that may still need more practice.  Identifying needs in this way will hopefully lead to more focused practice and greater progress.