A couple of months ago, an ex-CELTA trainee of mine posted this on Facebook:
“Recently I spent a bit of time in the UK and on a few occasions told people (not language teachers) I live in France. The question they always seemed to ask is "Are you fluent in French?"
"I find myself unable to answer this question…I reckon my productive skills are B2+ and my receptive skills a bit lower than that. But I also know that I struggle in a range of situations (room full of natives all speaking fast; technical or specialised lexis). Does that make me "fluent"?
"In my teacher training I don't think we used the word "fluency" much. (This isn't a complaint - just an observation.) So my question is - what IS fluency? Does it exist? Plainly it does to people who aren't teachers - so is it just that the answer to the question "Are you fluent in ..." has to be (somewhat annoyingly) "It isn't a simple as that?"
The post got me thinking about what we mean when we talk about fluency in a language, and the slight differences in definition between what the layperson and EFL teachers mean when they say someone is fluent.
In this first post, I’ll be exploring what the layperson means by ‘fluency’ and in the next post, I’ll be looking at the concepts of ‘fluency’ in the world of English language teaching.
When someone on the street asks you ‘Are you fluent?’, it is likely that they are referring to your proficiency in the language.
To someone who has never learnt a language before, they might perceive it like learning to ride a bicycle. You can either ride a bicycle or you can’t.
I’m sure there are different levels of proficiency when it comes to cycling, but when someone asks you ‘Can you ride a bike?’, they are most probably expecting a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ answer.
This would of course seriously irritate the cycling enthusiast who is desperate to differentiate themselves from the beginner cyclist who is a danger to everyone on the road and the guy who cycles to work everyday but doesn’t do rougher terrains.
So when someone asks, ‘Are you fluent?’, they probably mean ‘Are you good at the language?’ They are probably expecting:
‘Oh, I can get by in day-to-day situations but my grammar is awful,’
‘Yes, the locals think I’m a native speaker’
‘No, I can’t speak a word.’
They are probably not expecting:
‘I’m a B1 in listening and an Upper Intermediate in speaking, but I struggle with speaking about medicine, engineering or any specialist topics…but I would struggle talking about those things in my native language too,’
‘I have memorized 3000 words and my knowledge of grammar is great but I can’t seem to apply most of my grammar knowledge when I’m speaking…at least not without pausing for about an average of one minute between each sentence. But I understand everything I read. Except when there are cultural references, which is about 85% of the time.’
Wikipedia defines being fluent in a foreign language as having a high level of proficiency and fluid, as opposed to slow and halting, language use.
Coming from the Latin word ‘fluere’, meaning ‘to flow’, adjectives like ‘easily and articulately’ (Oxford dictionary), ‘smoothly’ (dictionary.com), ‘readily and effortlessly’ (the Free Dictionary), ‘easily, well and quickly’ (Cambridge dictionary) are used to describe how a fluent user of a language might speak or write.
The Merriam Webster dictionary even states that a fluent speaker is able to not just use a language easily but also accurately as well (which contrasts with the EFL definitions: see next blogpost).
It is interesting also to note that most dictionary definitions of ‘fluent’ refer to the ability of a language user to express themselves, i.e. their speaking or writing abilities, and not to their receptive skills (listening, reading) or their cultural knowledge or their ability to interact and be part of a discourse community.
Based on my little search on the web, here are some interesting characteristics of a fluent speaker, according to the layperson:
- You can dream in the language
- You can eavesdrop easily in the language
- You can’t tune out background conversations
- You can speak the language without making any mistakes
- You can understand every TV programme, film or book in that language
- You can understand comedy in that language
- You no longer translate words into or out of your native language
- People don’t modify their language for you any more
- You no longer need to learn any more.
So to answer my friend’s question, what do I say when a layperson asks me, ‘Are you fluent in German/Chinese/Italian/Spanish/Japanese?’
I’d say, ‘More fluent than when I first started, but the learning never stops.’
That, or I could give them a link to my next blogpost.
Chia Suan Chong is a General English and Business English teacher and teacher trainer, with a degree in Communication Studies (Broadcast and Electronic Media) and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching from King’s College London.
Fascinated by the interplay between culture, language and thought, Chia is also an intercultural skills trainer and materials developer, and is now based in York.
She is also the voice of @ETprofessional on Twitter. You can find out more about her on her blogsite www.chiasuanchong.com