What is Fluency? - Part III - Developing Structural Fluency


This is the third post in a series on What is Fluency? In the last post, we looked at structural fluency and what it is. Now, let's look at the process required to obtain structural fluency.

Since fluency is a combination of knowledge and skill in applying that knowledge, the first step in acquiring fluency is to acquire knowledge. You cannot use grammar or vocabulary you don't have in your memory. Before you can acquire knowledge, however, you much first acquire understanding - it's very difficult to remember something you don't understand.

I like to think of the progression as:

understanding — production (knowledge + skill) — fluency

The grammar of another language will contain aspects that are conceptually different from one's native language. How gender and case are marked or how verbs are conjugated may require some shifts in how we think about the world around us and our actions in that world.

Once we understand the full system of a new language, we've reached an important milestone. Linguisticator's video courses are specially designed to bring learners to this point as quickly as possible. With our language maps, we have all the structure laid out in one place; then the video courses explain all this material in a streamlined and succinct manner. Understanding will help us develop passive abilities in a language and is a necessary first step towards fluency, but we need to internalize this understanding and convert it into knowledge to progress to the next step.

Once we have understood the material, we need to develop production. In order to produce elements of structure, we need to first have them stored in our memories. If you haven't actively learned that the past tense of drink is drank, you won't be able to use that form. It's fairly common sense, but it's actually really important, as many language learners don't appreciate the difference between learning to understand and learning to produce language.

Production is the transition from understanding to fluency. It is a combination of acquiring the knowledge - actually storing information in your memory - and then practicing the application of that knowledge. We have to work on the mental and physical skills of recalling elements and pronouncing them. At first, this will be belabored, and we may take several seconds to string together elements that would take a fraction of a second in our own native language. We have to train the muscles of our vocal system to pronounce new sounds and sound combinations.

Hopefully, you'll see why we structure our courses in the way we do. Understanding is a necessary first step. There is no faster way to gain understanding of a language's structure than by having every pattern fully explained to you. This is why we create our maps and video courses explaining them. Next, you have to turn that understanding into knowledge. There is no faster way to do this than by using a spatial memory system, or memory palace. That's why we teach how to create a memory palace to store the complete map. With understanding converted to knowledge, you then have the capability of production. It's time for the third and final stage: developing fluency.

As it's name would suggest, fluency is about using patterns fluidly. We cannot do that if we have to concentrate hard to recall them or work hard to produce the movements of the vocal system their pronunciation requires. In order to develop true fluency, we have to produce the patterns of language again and again in as many variations as possible. This involves both seeing the patterns represented in text and audio, as well as actively trying to create new utterances.

Over time, the same constructions will repeat several times to the point where they feel comfortable. Whole phrases or constructions then become like single words. Instead of stringing together a word at a time, your base unit of language becomes a construction or utterance you've already used before (whether you know it or not). The way you string these utterances together may be entirely new, but they are themselves essentially formulaic.

It's important to note that where you end up on the spectrum of understanding to fluency depends on your particular objective. It is possible to learn to understand a language without really producing it. It's possible to develop production without really being able to use the language fluently in speech. These accomplishments should not be scoffed at, as they 1) may fulfill your own objective, and 2) are necessary precursors to true structural fluency. In fact, I'd say developing understanding is the hardest part, production second most difficult, and fluency the easiest. Practicing something you already know does require a lot of work, but it's much more fun than building that knowledge in the first place.

Developing structural fluency as an adult is challenging. For those who want to use a purely conversational approach to language, it will take years to develop full structural proficiency, and even then you are likely to make many key mistakes. This is particularly true if learning a highly inflected language. Using a memory palace to learn a map makes the process both fast and fun. After storing the necessary structural knowledge, you can practice the patterns by engaging in the language directly - which is the whole point! Talk to people, read books, and watch movies. With the structure stored in your mind, you'll be amazed at how fast you progress beyond to fluency.

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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