What is fluent?

Ok I am not the first person nor will I be the last person to ask this question, but I think it is important.  I  have talked about this before, how one needs to know what your goals are and define them in such a way that you know when you have arrived and crossed that finish line.

I think one of those important definitions has to be fluency and what that means to you.  Everyone defines fluency differently and there will always be an argument.  I think most people have a general ‘sense’ of what they mean by fluency, but they just don’t know how to define it.  “I will know it when I get there.”

A very scary problem is that, even fluent speakers of languages never feel they are finished learning about one language or another.  Ok, I can only speak for myself on that, but I get that impression from many a fluent speaker of other languages that I have met.  For me, I openly and honestly declare that I can speak Thai fluently.  I do this despite the fact that I still make mistakes and I still have big gaps in topics that I don’t know how to speak about.  I consider myself fluent, because I have defined what I mean by fluent.

What is your definition of fluent then?

I define fluency as being able to reflexively use/understand the patterns of the language. On top of that I have a strong enough vocabulary base that I can communicate around the words I don’t know and once I do know them, I can use them intuitively.  Seems pretty straight forward right?  I like this definitions because it is rigid, but flexible to any language learning goal you need.  It even works for English.  Yes I understand the English Grammar patterns for many situations, but I can not speak like a lawyer.  I am not fluent in that part of English.  Once I got used to the language patterns of Law and had a strong enough vocabulary base, I could easily say I am fluent in Law.

So just define fluency then right?

I don’t like to just end there, because I think language proficiency can be separated into 4 related, yet separate skills: Speaking, Listening, Reading and Writing.  These skills can easily be allocated into quadrants.  Here is a simple picture I made on my computer in 5 minutes:

Ok before you start saying BORING, just hear me out.  This little quadrant thing has helped me define what I am looking for now in my language learning. This things lets me define what I am doing in each skill group to get there.  For example, when I listen to a podcast/watch a movie I want to be able to understand at least 80 percent of what I hear.  I don’t have to know how to use those words, just have to understand them.  Since reading and writing are not that important to me yet, I don’t have any goals for those skill.  This doesn’t mean I don’t read or write in Spanish, it just means that I don’t have any goals for them.  As my spanish has been progressing, I have decided that I need to start setting some goals for those soon.

Now this little quadrant thing is cool(for me) and has helped me organize my thoughts and goals, but it would be useless if I didn’t know what I was ultimately going for and that was fluency.  All my goals and activities I plan in each quadrant has to ultimately be justified as something that will get me closer to my goal of being fluent.  That is why I don’t have any goals for reading and writing, because I feel it is more important to build your oral fluency first and then written fluency.  If I didn’t know what I wanted then I would have just been doing random stuff and activities with out really know why I was doing them

There you go.  That is what I have done to try to get myself to the next level of Spanish.  Will it help? Only time will tell.



Filed under Opinions, spanish

11 responses to “What is fluent?

  1. I’m not sure what to call fluency – the ability to speak fluidly? But that can’t be right. Some speakers prefer to stay quiet, mostly listening. While others, with a much weaker vocabulary and understanding of grammar, chatter on quite happily.

    I totally agree with a goal oriented approach. My goal is a simple one – to never give up learning languages.

    • Sorry your post got caught in my spam filter somehow…Actually this is the first legitimate spam ever. I agree, just saying your can speak fluidly is hard to define. Its not black or white either. Two people can be fluent, but one person may be “more fluent” than the other. I guess its like getting a black belt in Karate. Once there you find out that there are even high degree black belts and you’re still not done. Which is why I think your goal is best, Never stop learning languages!

  2. Kara

    I’ve been trained to identify proficiency levels and these are the documents we use. This might be some interesting reading for you!

    • Sorry, my spam settings caught your comment in its web. Yours is now the second legitimate spam message I have ever recieved. Thanks for the links I have always wondered how a self learner could get tested for his or her proficiency. When I was in the states, I took a test for my Thai, but it only tested to 3rd semester university level. It was also Pass fail so I don’t really know much more than I did before except that I am at least proficient enough to get a C- in a 3 semester college course.

      • Kara

        You’re welcome! There’s a test here called an OPI that gives an official “label” for your skills. It’s expensive though. Using a profiency scale or rubric is part of the big push that’s going on now in my district. My students’ grades are purely based on their language skills at the end of the course. I love it and they always know where they stand. From what little I heard in your video, I would say you are in the Intermediate area. Great job!

      • Thanks again! That is so cool to hear about the proficiency scale being used as a grade. It holds the students and the teachers acountable to get them to learn how to use the language! I think I have mentioned before how I had friends who had gotten A’s in Spanish for 3 years of Highschool and still couldn’t put their own Sentences together. I never felt it was the teachers or the students fault either.

        I did think it was the curriculum and the desire of the administration to pump out grades with a long paper trail to justify it. The music department was also at odds with the Administration over that same issue.(ok off my soap box) I know my short videos are not much to judge off of, but thats awesome to hear that I am in an Intermediate level! Thanks again!

  3. Well if you asked me that question straight off id have said… when you can comfortably get by in a language… or even when you think in a language!

    It’s a bit of a fuzzy line though!

    • It is a fuzzy line isn’t it, It’s not really black or white. One does not just cross a line or somehow wake up and say I’m fluent! I like your definition as well. I noticed you will be going to Thailand, when are you going?

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