A person who speaks another language will often be asked to explain how well they can speak it. “But are you fluent?” they’ll often be asked.
It’s a surprisingly tricky question to answer. What does fluency really mean and at what point of language learning can you truly say that you become fluent?
Does it mean you could easily pass for a mother tongue speaker? That you can use it in a business context? Or does it mean that you feel confident chatting away in the language, even if your vocabulary might not be complete?
One organization that has attempted to categorize the question of language fluency is the Council of Europe, which created the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (known as CEFR). Their categorization doesn’t refer to fluency, but their highest level of language ability is described as follows:
(A proficient user) can take part effortlessly in any conversation, conveying finer shades of meaning precisely and with a good familiarity with idiomatic expressions and colloquialisms.
That’s certainly a good definition of fluency in a language. But the CEFR also describes a slightly lower level of language proficiency thus:
(An advanced user) can spontaneously formulate ideas and opinions for social and professional purposes with precision and without much obvious searching for expressions.
A person with this level of language ability would probably satisfy most peoples’ idea of a fluent speaker. Whilst such a speaker may not have all of the vocabulary for any given situation, they are able to negotiate around any deficiencies without it being too great a barrier to making themselves understood.
This suggests that confidence is an important contributing factor to language fluency, including how well a speaker can negotiate obstacles caused by the gaps in their knowledge. Whilst their vocabulary may be lacking, or their knowledge of idioms and slang a little patchy, it’s perfectly possible to work around these and achieve comprehension in many situations.
However, a person who feels confident in a language, despite any gaps in their proficiency in it, may not be as sensitive to nuances that a person with a higher familiarity of the language might be aware of. That’s an important aspect to language proficiency: the delicacy and sensitivity that a language user can achieve.
In English, that might include being able to understand the many meanings of ‘quite’: a word that can mean both ‘entirely’ and ‘not exactly’. A fluent speaker would be able to understand that when an English person tells their graphic designer “it’s not quite what I wanted”, they mean “what on earth is this mess?” Subtleties such as these are gained from experience and exposure to language use and can’t always be learned in a classroom.
Fluency is about context
As a general rule, it’s thought that a native speaker will typically have an active vocabulary of around 20,000 words in their native language. ‘Active’ vocabulary means that they use these words on a fairly regular basis. For English speakers that might include words such as ‘milk’ or ‘house’ where the meaning is understood and confidently used.
But speakers of a language will also typically have an additional passive vocabulary of at least 15,000 words. This passive vocabulary consists of words that they can recognize and perhaps use imprecisely.
Passive vocabulary tends to be quite technical, so it might include words such as ‘derivatives’, ‘fahrenheit’, or ‘quantitative easing’ which may be moderately familiar but not precisely understood. These words might not be used with such confidence as the active vocabulary.
To some extent then, all of us can lack some degree of fluency within our own language insofar as we have a passive vocabulary that we are less expert in using. Even native speakers won’t understand all the obscure idioms of their language, and we’re all guilty of using words or expressions that we don’t entirely know the meaning of. Put the most confident native speaker of a language into a room where an unfamiliar technical topic is being discussed, and they’ll be out of their depth.
That’s why another key aspect of linguistic fluency is the range of language areas covered. A fluent speaker needs to have mastery of both formal and informal written and spoken language. They need to be able to use that language’s various grammatical tenses successfully. They need to possess a vocabulary that covers a range of situations, from working life to everyday life. That’s why breadth of language ability is an important aspect of linguistic fluency.
Acquiring real fluency in a language is having the ability to operate in that language outside of the most common situations. Students learning a language will start with the most regular interactions.
Equivalent expressions for ‘Hello’ and ‘My name is..’ are some of the first things a language student will learn. True fluency is really measured by how a speaker operates outside these common interactions.
The taxi driver test
The first test of this might be when that student arrives in a country armed with their classroom phrase for ‘Please take me to the Hotel Splendide’ yet finds the taxi driver disagrees with them about the fare. A whole new level of language ability is required to understand how to negotiate this situation.
If the disagreement was occurring in France, the student may be required to use the conditional tense to express ‘I would have paid the full fare, had you taken me to my hotel’. If the taxi ride was in Germany or Hungary, the passenger would need to know what level of formality was required even during an argument with a stranger.
Depending on where the passenger was from they might help or hinder the situation by calling the driver ‘friend’ or ‘mate’ during the discussion. And the student’s cultural knowledge – or lack or it – is important in understanding the local conventions for tipping, bargaining over the fare or obeying the meter.
Fluency in a language is a great aide in situations of stress and not many classrooms can entirely equip language students for these scenarios. It seems that fluency in a language is best measured by how the speaker can perform in unfamiliar situations.