Foreign language fluency – what is it to you?

By | May 13, 2014

The other day I read a fellow blogger’s review of the book “Fluent in 3 months” (which you can see here), and that got me thinking about what foreign language fluency really is. If I did an online search I’m sure I could find hundreds of explanations, but I decided to take a different angle and think about what fluency really meant to me.

In my mind there are (at least) two types of fluency: native-language equivalent fluency and working fluency.

Native-language equivalent fluency is the highest level of fluency, and the most difficult to attain. It means being able to say or write anything as well as you can in your native language, and comprehend when listening or reading to the same extent.  To reach this level of fluency you have to be able to say “I’m fluent in English [or your native language] and also fluent in Japanese [or your foreign language or choice]”, and there shouldn’t be a major gap between the two. At this level one also wants to speak with grammar and pronunciation as close as possible to a native speaker.

This is the type of fluency I am aiming for, and by any standard I am very far off. I’m the most advanced in reading, but even there my reading speed is a small fraction of my English reading speed. When speaking in English I typically speak quickly and can easily go off into tangents on a variety of sub topics, whereas in Japanese I’m more focused on expressing one (usually simple) topic at a time, and often struggling with different expressions until I find one I am happy with. But most of all it takes a huge investment of time and effort when doing of any of the above, and is by no means as smooth as a process as in my native English.

Working fluency is probably closer to what the average person things of foreign language fluency as – the ability to express yourself sufficiently in that language as well as comprehend sufficiently whatever comes your way. For example if I want to express that I had a hard day at work, I can put together a few sentences (either written or spoken) and generally convey that to the listener or reader. Whether I’m saying 100% of what I could say in my native language is immaterial, rather what is important is the act of communication itself. Similarly, pronunciation and grammar mistakes are less important here, as long as my general meaning gets along and can be interpreted from other’s language.

Another way of looking at working fluency is that even for native language speakers, there are many different ways of expressing yourself. Some people speak slow, others fast. Some speak with formal or advanced language where others keep it simple. And others talk in a fluid stream while others stutter and trip over themselves. But all of these native speakers have something in common – they can communicate and understand well enough that it serves their interests and doesn’t impact their life in a negative way (except for those with disabilities). If you can hone your skills in a foreign language to be as good as any of those myriad of native speakers, you’ve easily reached working fluently.

Of course, any level of fluency must (implicitly or otherwise) apply to a certain domain. Oftentimes the measure of whether one could live only using that foreign language is used, and it’s a good measure for basic working fluency. But then if someone asks you whether you understand and can speak skillfully about economics, science, or child bringing, and you realize you’d have quite a bit of trouble in those areas. Thats why that even if you are actually living in a country where you speak manly your chosen foreign language, it’s a good idea to set goals for which domain(s) of fluency you are aiming for.









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5 thoughts on “Foreign language fluency – what is it to you?

  1. JB

    I agree totally with your last paragraph. I’ve found that I can talk about a variety of topics really “shallowly” but once I start getting into anything outside of, say, my field of work, I get lost really quickly. I think what’s hardest for me when trying to venture into a new “domain” is figuring out how to increase my vocabulary…

  2. hopefullanguagelearner

    On mistakes, I still think even at the native level mistakes are okay, if they happen in the same frequency as a native speaker, but I guess you touched on this already, on how native speakers all speak differently, this includes when people forget words, or lose what they were talking about entirely etc. I guess this is a disadvantage in your target language, if people can tell you aren’t a native then they are much more likely to assume you just don’t know even if they are mistakes natives make.

    Thanks for this!

    1. locksleyu Post author

      Yes, though there are certain mistakes that are very hard for native speakers to make, like verb conjugations and pronunciation. Once I’ve heard a Japanese person mistake は for が (they correct themself mid-sentence), but that is super rare.


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