Beyond Words: What is language learning?

Beyond Words: Understanding What is Language Fluency

What is language fluency, and at what point does one ‘know’ a language?

Many people have extremely strong opinions on the answers to these questions, however I find these conversations highly subjective, and largely irrelevant. So, let’s have a look at the concept of fluency and consider what it means.

Key Takeaways:

  • Language fluency refers to your ability to speak, read, write, and understand a language smoothly, easily, or readily.
  • Achieving fluency means you can communicate effectively in various contexts, understand native speakers, and express your thoughts clearly without hesitation.
  • Importantly, fluency doesn’t always require an advanced level of language proficiency. You can be fluent without mastering every aspect of a language.

Introduction to Language Fluency

The world “fluent” from the Latin word “fluere” meaning “flowing”, is defined as “able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily”.1

Achieving fluency in a target language requires extensive practice, exposure to native speakers, and immersion in the language’s cultural context.

What Language Fluency is Not

Although in general conversation it is common to be asked “how fluent are you?”, what others mean by ‘fluent’, and what fluency actually is, are two different things.

There is a difference between fluency and proficiency.

Language fluency is NOT the same as language proficiency. Fluency is often confused with accuracy, which focuses on the correctness of language use. Your level of accurate usage will determine your level of language proficiency, not your language fluency.

The concept of language fluency does not reference specific language proficiency levels. Increasing proficiency helps fluency, but proficiency alone does not result in fluent expression. Fluency emphasizes the ability to communicate effectively and naturally in real-time situations.

What IS Language Fluency?

Fluency is simply one aspect of language proficiency.

So, what does language fluency mean? Is a five-year-old native speaker fluent?

By five years old, a child usually speaks in smooth sentences, involving multiple concepts, asking for what they want and need, and having lengthy exchanges. However, there are many words they do not know and many areas of knowledge they have not yet learned.

Does that mean a young child is not fluent? Yes and no. For the knowledge areas they have learned, they are fluent. For others, not yet. Thus, the concept of fluency is not particularly useful without qualification.

Even the term “native speaker” can be controversial. Most native speakers of a language do not have specialized vocabulary outside their own area of study or career.

English-language newspapers often write at a level that the average ninth-grade student (approximately 14 years old) can understand. How “fluent” is that? Very, but not necessarily with a considerable vocabulary or technical understanding.

Aspects of Fluency in Language

Fluency involves several key aspects of language use:

  1. Smoothness: Fluent speakers can express themselves without unnatural pauses, hesitations, or repetitions.
  2. Vocabulary: Fluent speakers (tend to) have a large vocabulary and can use words appropriately in context.
  3. Grammar: Fluent speakers have a strong command of the language’s grammar rules and can construct grammatically correct sentences.
  4. Pronunciation: Fluent speakers can pronounce words clearly and accurately, with proper intonation and stress patterns.
  5. Comprehension: Fluent speakers can understand the language when spoken or written at a natural pace by native speakers.

What is Fluency In Language Learning? Levels of Language Fluency

Infographic - CEFR Levels of Language Fluency
CEFR Levels of Language Fluency

While there are no formal levels defined for language fluency in receptive skills, nor for writing, the CEFR has levels for speaking fluency.2

Basic fluency

A1: Manages very short, isolated utterances with much pausing for expressions and repairs.

A2: Makes oneself understood in very short utterances with evident pauses, false starts, and reformulation.

Conversational fluency

B1: Keeps going comprehensibly despite evident pauses for planning and repair.

B2: Produces language with fairly even tempo, few long pauses, but with some hesitation.

Advanced fluency

C1: Speaks fluently and spontaneously, with effortless smooth flow, hindered only by conceptually difficult subjects.

C2: Expresses spontaneously at length with natural colloquial flow, smoothly avoiding difficulties.


Native-like fluency

When a native speaker cannot tell that a language learner did not grow up with the language, we use expressions like Native-like.

Image of an intonation waveform visual demonstrating what is Language fluency
Native language fluency occurs when a particular pattern of rhythm,
stress and intonation is evident.

“Native-like fluency” is not an officially recognized term, but it is often used to describe speakers who are highly proficient and can communicate effortlessly, even in challenging situations. These speakers have a strong command of idiomatic expressions, colloquialisms, and cultural references.

Native-like speech also features natural prosody (rhythm, stress, and intonation), accurate pronunciation, and a consistent accent that mirrors native speakers from a specific region. These elements enhance overall fluency, comprehensibility, and authenticity.


Fluency Across the Language Skills

Despite not being assessed, and therefore is difficult to measure across all levels of language proficiency, it is possible for fluency to be described in the four component language skills – reading, writing, speaking and listening.

Our fluency levels frequently vary across the skills, with listening comprehension often being the hardest skill to improve.

Speaking:

As discussed, fluent speakers can converse smoothly, using appropriate vocabulary and grammar. They can engage in discussions on a wide range of topics, from everyday conversations to more complex subjects.

Fluency at a basic or intermediate level still allows for effective communication, even if vocabulary and grammatical structures are simpler.

Listening:

Image of an ear listening to sound waves

Fluency involves understanding spoken language in different accents and speeds. You can follow conversations, comprehend media like movies and podcasts, and respond appropriately.

Even at a non-advanced level, being able to understand and engage in everyday conversations is a sign of fluency.

Reading:

A fluent reader can understand written texts of varying difficulty, from casual articles and emails to academic papers and literature. This includes recognizing idiomatic expressions and cultural references.

At a basic level, fluency means comfortably reading simple texts and comprehending main ideas.

Writing:

Fluency in writing means you can compose texts with correct grammar, vocabulary, and style. You can write essays, reports, emails, and even creative pieces like stories or poems.

Basic fluency involves writing clear, coherent messages suitable for daily communication.

Conclusion

Language fluency is a multifaceted concept that transcends mere accuracy and proficiency. It’s about the seamless ability to communicate, understand, and express ideas in real-time, flowing naturally like a native speaker, within one’s own level of knowledge and exposure.

Fluency involves smoothness, vocabulary, grammar, pronunciation, and comprehension, making it a holistic measure of effective language use.

Achieving fluency is a journey, not a destination. It’s about continuous practice, immersion, and exposure to the language in various contexts. Whether you’re at a basic level or striving for native-like fluency, the key is to keep engaging with the language and using it as much as possible.

Ultimately, fluency reflects your capacity to connect with others and convey your thoughts effortlessly, making it a crucial goal for any language learner. Embrace the process, celebrate your progress, and keep moving forward on your path to fluency.

FAQs About Language Fluency

How do you define fluency in a language?

Language fluency is defined as “being able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily“.

What are the 4 levels of language fluency?

While there are no formal levels defined for most aspects of language fluency, speech fluency is often described as Basic, Conversational, Advanced and Native-like.

How would you describe your language fluency?

If you have just begun learning a language and can string a sentence together after much practice, or learn an use a script (eg basic greetings and introductions) then you have a Basic level of fluency.

If you are able to carry on a conversation without thinking too much about your answers, you have a Conversational level of language fluency.

If you are able to discuss very specific topics with accurate vocabulary and grammar without pausing to think about how to express yourself, then you have an Advanced level of fluency. You most likely have a considerable level of language proficiency too.

If you are able to negotiate any situation, regardless of the level of language being used or topic being discussed, such that native speakers think you grew up with the language, then you have a Native-like fluency.

At what level are you fluent in a language?

Language learners can be ‘fluent’ in spoken expression at any level of language, as long as they can form coherent sentences and deliver them smoothly, even if rehearsal is first needed.

However, it is more usual to have at least a B2 level of proficiency in the language before others will describe you as fluent, or before you will have a level of familiarity with the language that allows you to converse or write with little forethought.

References

  1. Dictionary.com
  2. Qualitative aspects of spoken language use – Table 3 (CEFR 3.3): Common Reference levels

Cate is a language enthusiast sharing her language learning journey here. Apart from her native English (albeit 'Strine'*!), as an adult she has also learned Auslan (Australian Sign Language) to approximately a C1 level, Dutch to around B1/2, French to around A2, and has a smattering of other languages.

B.A. (Anthropology/Marketing), Grad. Dip. Arts (Linguistics), Grad. Cert. Entrepreneurship & Venture Development, (CELTA).

Auslan Interpreter (NAATI), and general Language Nut.

*For more information on 'Strine', visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strine