Forgetting About Fluency.

 

I’ve always found fluency to be a tricky topic to come to terms with, both for myself and with other learners. When it comes to language learning, competence is a continuum; a fact that seems lost on many newer learners who have their eyes on a giant red target they might as well have placed on the Moon. When you set out to learn a language, what are you trying to accomplish? I’m not just talking about setting goals here, but if you decided one day that you were ready to start learning a new tongue, finally going to put in the effort, and really go for gold, what did you have in mind, exactly?

For me – most of my language projects are somewhat experimental. I have my Russian – which started out as an experiment that I wasn’t able to give up. I have my Spanish, a long term casual affair that has dragged on for years with which I occasionally flirt with almost no regular sincerity. Then there’re the dozen or so other languages that I find myself tasting like one might taste wine samples on a tour. Every once in a while I find one I just like, so I buy a bottle.

On neither of my serious(ish) projects have I ever have it in mind to attain anything remotely near native-like fluency. I have no intentions of moving to Russia, or really even of visiting it or any other Russian speaking countries at any point in the near future. I picked it up because I needed a language I had no prior knowledge of to test a project, and it was love at first word. So I decided that I would like to become “fluent” but what does fluency even really mean?For me at least, fluency means what it sounds like it means. Your speech should be fluid, smooth and not too much time should be spent thinking about the next word to string along in your sentence. It doesn’t mean that you know the Russian translation of antidisestablishmentarianism, or that you don’t make mistakes – even frequently – only that you can communicate most normal, functional, day-to-day subjects without confusing yourself or the people you’re speaking with too badly.

It’s possible to fall anywhere along this fairly lengthy fluency spectrum. This could be as simple as a basic fluency that involves functional, efficient conversation, but probably wouldn’t do you very well in a lecture hall at a university or defending yourself in court. It could be occupational fluency in a particular field – lets say one that uses medical terminology. This means you have a basic fluency as well as language skills that pertain specifically to your job or interests. You can make an argument for an academic fluency – maybe you still speak with an accent, even a strong one, and sometimes forget a particularly difficult word (we do that in our native languages, so no big deal…) but you can work at a highly advanced level of competence.

Then there’s native like fluency.

  

There is no small amount of debate among linguists as to whether one can even attain native-like fluency in a 2nd language at all after a certain point. I’m not a linguist, but I’d like to think that anything is possible with enough effort. Regardless, I still think that it’s so difficult a charge as to make for a somewhat poor goal for those just starting off.

I fear that when new learners approach me and say “I want to learn French, how fast can I become fluent?” that they’re often talking about attaining native-like fluency. To this I have tell them to forget about fluency!  It doesn’t make sense to set a goal so high that judging yourself by its lofty standards sets you up for failure. As I discuss in another post; goal setting is absolutely essential to keeping yourself motivated and making progress, and part of setting good goals is to keep them attainable.




Setting a more manageable goal – comfortable conversation for example, is a far more reasonable and attainable goal to shoot for. Learning a language shouldn’t be a competition against the world of native speakers or advanced learners, or anyone else for that matter. It should be a competition against only yourself in the spirit self improvement. It doesn’t matter what Pimsleur tells you about where you should be after ____ weeks of study or whether your immersion class promises you a B2 proficiency in a single semester. All that matters is that you’re making progress that you can actually see. Seeing is believing after all.

Once you’re conversational; it’s time to think about bigger things, but for many of us – we may find that’s all we need. That’s not to say that we should then dump the language and move on. You should continue to use and improve your new language, but for many people, myself included, conversationalism is a perfectly comfortable place to be and is an accomplishment that should be applauded.

It should be noted that discouraging fluency in a new language is the farthest thing from what I want to accomplish here. It’s a fantastic goal to want to learn a language to your highest potential, and we all like to visualize ourselves walking through a marketplace in Egypt conversing in perfect Arabic with shopkeepers. We see ourselves doing business in Seoul or hanging out in nightclubs in Copenhagen. Without these dreams or others like them, many of us wouldn’t bother with new languages at all. Lets keep in mind however that fluency isn’t a black and white checkered flag over a finish line but more of a grey blur that we make our way through slowly and perilously like driving through thick fog.

 

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  • Carl Tomacruz

    Still, there is no better feeling than perfect fluency. If we can achieve that as rapidly as possible, with as little failure or awkward moments in the way, why not?

  • If fluency, as a goal, does not bog you down with false expectations, then by all means shoot for the moon.

    For some people though, comparing themselves to a fluent speaker is really just disappointing and serves to make some learners unable to see the progress they’ve made, which is a great way to begin to lose steam.

    Thanks for your comment!