What is Fluency? - Part II - Structural Fluency


This is the second post in a series answering the question, “What is fluency?” In this post, we'll look in detail at what structural fluency is.

The most essential and most challenging aspect of developing total fluency in a language is developing structural fluency. Structural fluency is our ability to use the entire grammatical system of a language fluidly and without labored thought. Even young children have structural fluency. An eight-year-old will know that the plural of tooth is teeth and that the past tense of drink is drank. Nouns forms, verb conjugations, and essential syntax patterns are all essential parts of structural fluency.

Structural fluency is the key that unlocks the rest of the language. In our own native languages, we may have full structural fluency by an early age, but we continue to learn and develop through childhood and adulthood - all within the context of our own native languages. The structure allows us to do that. Once we have the structure of the language, we then can have conversations, watch movies, read books, and write letters. We can then live inside the language and begin learning from context. Even if we don't know what words mean, we will understand the relationships between elements in a sentence or utterance.

What about vocabulary?

First of all, when you learn grammar, you learn vocabulary. You automatically learn vocabulary when learning grammar, but don't automatically learn grammar when studying vocabulary. In order to learn that the plural of tooth is teeth you need to know what the word tooth means. Any apparent irregularities in a language's structure will be a marker of frequency. This means that by learning not only the main patterns but also the variations and exceptions, you will have the highest frequency vocabulary of the language. What could be higher frequency than pronouns like you and me, or prepositions like to or from?

Once you have the structure of a language mastered, your ability to learn vocabulary skyrockets. With a skeleton or framework in place on which to hang new words, you can learn from context without even realizing you're acquiring new vocabulary. This is what we do naturally in our own native languages.

Adults have no trouble learning new vocabulary, expressions, and constructions in their native languages. When we start a new job or start studying for a new profession, we end up learning huge amounts of new vocabulary. We think about it in terms of learning a topic rather than learning language, but included with this topic is a whole new vocabulary. Doctors, lawyers, engineers, linguists, historians, economists, and soldiers all speaker different “languages.” This learning takes place within an existing framework, an existing structure, and we do it naturally.

Structural fluency is not the same thing as knowing all the grammar of a language. It's much more about being able to use the grammar. This means that structural fluency is a combination of knowledge of information and skill in using that information.

As children, we acquire knowledge of the grammar of our native languages subconsciously. Then, through practice, we develop skill in using and applying this knowledge to the point where it becomes instinctive and no longer requires effort or thought. The process of reaching the same goal as an adult learner is somewhat different - and understanding the differences actually means the process can be much faster and more efficient.

What we do organically as children, we can do systematically and consciously as adults. Ask a native speaker how many different plurals there are in their native languages, and almost all will fail to answer correctly; yet unconsciously, they will use all the forms in daily speech. In developing fluency in a foreign language, we can come at things from a different angle, actively learn the system, and then develop instinctive usage through practice.

In the next post in this series on “What is Fluency?” we'll look at the actual progression involved in the learning process to develop structural fluency. We'll also look at how understanding this progression can help you determine what will be involved in reaching your own personal language learning objectives. We'll then complete the “What is Fluency?” series by looking at the remaining types of fluency - ritual and cultural - and how to develop each.

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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