What is Fluency? - Part I


Fluency is one of those words that gets kicked around in language learning a lot, but rarely adequately defined. What is fluency? What does it mean to be fluent? How can we define this idolized goal in terms that are practical for language learners?

Before we get into what fluency is, let's take the first post in this series to dispel a common misconception. Fluency is not about vocabulary. I've often seen native fluency defined as “knowing all the words” in a language. That is simply not the case, especially with languages like English, whose lexicon of individual words alone is at least in the hundreds of thousands, not including phrases and set expressions. I am an educated native speaker of English with a BA, two masters degrees, and a PhD - yet, I cannot understand many forms of legal and medical English, nor do I know a great deal of engineering language. I can, conversely, talk about language and linguistics in terms that most medics won't understand. There are thousands or even tens of thousands of words in English that I don't know.

Most of our professional vocabulary is actually learned in adulthood. I learned to talk about languages in university and grad school in a way I'd never been able to before and with vocabulary I'd previously not known at all. Send an 18 year-old kid off to the marines for training, and in six months he'll be speaking a different language. Sure, it's still English, but he'll be using terminology, jargon, and expressions non-military personnel won't understand at all. Does this mean that the marine is more fluent in English after training than before? Was I less fluent in English before higher education? I'd say, no.

Fluency is not about knowing everything. It is instead a combination of skill and knowledge, rather than simply knowledge. Sure, you need to know some vocabulary, but too often the focus in language learning is placed on acquiring individual pieces of knowledge without a wider sense for the skillset involved in using that knowledge. At the same time, some programs try to take a limited amount of knowledge and accomplish as much as possible with it. The Michel Thomas method is notable for this. While such an approach has its merits, true fluency is a combination of knowledge and skill. As the name would suggest, fluency is our ability to fluidly use a body of knowledge.

So what do we need to know in terms of information and vocabulary? What do we then need to be able to with it as a skill? Total fluency in a language is comprised of three elements:

  1. Structural Fluency
  2. Ritual Fluency
  3. Cultural Fluency

Let's define these briefly here and treat them in more detail in subsequent posts.

Structural Fluency

Our ability to use the complete structure or grammar of a language constitutes structural fluency. This includes knowledge of grammar - like the fact that the plural of “man” is “men” - as well as skill - not having to think about pulling certain constructions together or matching subjects and verbs. Even young children have full structural fluency, yet children do not have large vocabularies. This is the hardest aspect of total fluency for adults to acquire.

Ritual Fluency

Ritual fluency is our ability to handle ritualized interactions and adjacency pairs. This can include greetings, goodbyes, introductions, taking meals - a lot of the topics covered in conversation courses and survival language. This represents a small portion of a language, but it's high frequency and drilled to the point where it is instinctive. When tired, ill, or even intoxicated, we can respond instinctively to questions like, “Who are you?” and “Where are you from?”

Cultural Fluency

A lot of what people mistake for vocabulary is cultural reference. “To be or not to be,” “Over the river and through the woods,” and “Green eggs and ham” are all references to shared culture. Grammatically, they may or may not make sense to a non-native speaker, but the literal meaning is irrelevant - only the cultural reference will be significant. Cultural fluency is about having shared cultural experience: having read the same books, watched the same movies, sung the same songs, and participated in the same cultural events as the majority of speakers of a language.

We will cover each of these types of fluency in greater detail in subsequent posts, but one final point needs to be made about the vocabulary fallacy. How did you learn vocabulary in your native language? You probably read a lot of books in school, watched movies, and talked with family and friends. Well, it's the same for foreign language, once you have the structure of the language down. By gaining structural proficiency in a language first - as is possible with our language maps and memory systems - you then gain entry to the language and can begin learning from context. If you then focus on culturally significant material and read the books and watch the movies relevant to the culture you're learning, you will pick up all the vocabulary you need, as well as gain cultural fluency. Vocabulary is therefore more of a byproduct than a focus of proper language-learning process.

The question "What is fluency?" is covered in our free video course, Time Management for Language Learning. Sign up HERE to learn more.

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