What is Fluency?

February 14, 2024 at 3:00 PM – 8 min read

Anyone involved in the educational space knows that teaching is challenging, regardless of the students’ age levels. It is for this reason, among others, that many educators work towards their PhD such that they might one day teach adults and thus no longer have to deal with the issues that one faces when teaching children and adolescents. As someone who was many years teaching and tutoring foreign languages to adults, I can assure you that older students present their own unique challenges to teachers as well, chief among them the following question:

“How long until I become fluent?”

While I was often tempted to answer this question with: “Never, because I can tell that what this question really means is ‘What is the least amount of time, money, and effort I have to invest in learning this language until I do not have to do it any more?’” I of course recognized that this was not the most prudent response from a sales perspective. It took me roughly nine years of consistent study, including a two month stint abroad to become fluent in German. Fluency in French took me ten years of study and two programs abroad. These adult students more or less wanted to be told that they would become fluent after meeting once a week for ten weeks, which of course is simply not feasible.

The word fluency itself remains difficult to define. At a very fundamental level, the word fluency stems from the Latin word fluentem which means “flowing, as water does in a stream”. In that case, one would understand fluency as someone who speaks the language such that the words effortlessly flow from their mouth. Yet this definition does not take several other factors into account. Would we consider someone who speaks with ease yet constantly commits grammatical errors to be fluent? Would someone who speaks a language with perfect grammatical accuracy but with a heavy accent, thereby making themselves difficult to understand, be less fluent than one who commits grammatical errors with a flawless accent. What role does the written language play in this definition? I, for example, can read Dutch. I cannot speak, pronounce, or understand spoken Dutch. Am I therefore every bit as fluent or more deserving of paid employment than an illiterate native speaker of Dutch? Of course not. Is a ten year old French girl who has grown up in the target language’s culture less fluent than an American who has been studying French for the past twenty five years and has obtained an advanced degree in French linguistics. The American scholar has a greater lexicon. The French child has a superior psychological and linguistic blueprint in French. The point of these hypothetical examples remains quite simply that fluency is difficult to define.

What these previously mentioned adult students may have been missing, was perhaps a deeper self-awareness of why they were studying the target language in the first place. If their goal was native-level fluency across all modalities, then they just needed to understand that their language journey was going to last a lifetime and that they had better learn to fall in love with that journey. However, if their goal was something more precise; to simply understand the lyrics to music in the target language, to travel to another country while expressing themselves and understanding responses during customer service interactions, or to communicate with a spouse in another language…the word fluency then takes on a whole different meaning.

George Trombley, a successful Japanese interpreter and author of the Japanese From Zero textbook series, makes two salient points regarding language study and fluency. Once you have studied and internalized a particular set of vocabulary words or grammatical functions, you are fluent in specifically that content…even if it’s only your first week of learning the language. Did you just learn all of the greetings in Russian, then guess what? You’re fluent in Russian greetings! Do you only know how to talk about ordering coffee in French? You guessed it, you’re fluent at ordering coffee in French! The goal is simply to gain fluency in as many functions as possible over time. We forget sometimes that the same concept exists in our native language, as we are not necessarily fluent across all topics. Here is an example from my own life:

My best friend rowed competitively for the University of Pittsburgh’s crew team. Whenever I visited him in Pittsburgh and watched his races, it often seemed as if his crew teammates were speaking another language, especially when they used terms like “coxswain”, “catching a crab”, and “sculling”. Although I am a fluent native speaker of English, I am not fluent when talking about collegiate rowing…or at least, I wasn’t until I spent more time around rowers and made it a point to learn their lexicon. Now I can converse with competitive rowers as if I were one myself! (I am not.)

Trombley further maintains that there is one trait he recognizes in his students that ultimately determines early on whether or not they will eventually become fluent: guts! Language acquisition is an avoidably long and often frustrating process, and the learners who become fluent are those who simply refuse to give up. Trombley recognizes guts in students who are not afraid to make mistakes when speaking, students who push through uncomfortable and unfamiliar conversations in Japanese, and those who put in extra time outside of class exposing themselves to the language, regardless whether it’s by watching Japanese movies, memorizing helpful vocabulary, finding Japanese penpals, or simply thinking of meaningful questions about the language that they can ask the following day in class.

Indeed the examples above do not represent an exhaustive list of how to define nor how to achieve fluency. Everyone’s language learning journey is different and what of course matters most are how and why one is studying a language as opposed to how long that journey will take. We applaud anyone who engages in the daunting task of learning a new language and would simply urge them to follow George Trombley’s advice and not give up!

Please comment or reach out to us about how you would define language fluency!

Trombley, George. "Japanese from Zero - Book 3". YesJapan Corporation, 2018.

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Written by Adam Shepherd

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