World's premier FREE site for learners + teachers of English

What does Fluency Actually Mean?

What is Fluency?

One of the first things I get my students to do is to set out their language learning goals. This step is so crucial to language learning success, and the majority of students don’t even do it. When we talk about their goals the biggest problem they face is not being specific enough. The majority of them tell me “I want to become fluent in English.” That’s fantastic! I want that too! However, not only is that goal way too vague, it’s also hard to define. What actually is fluency? Not even linguistic scholars have reached an agreement about what it means. When I ask my students to define what they think fluency is, we encounter some issues with their definition that can actually damage their chances of becoming fluent. 

I did a survey on instagram asking my followers what “fluency” meant to them. Nobody came up with the same answer. What every answer did have in common, though, was that vagueness. One person said: “fluency means meeting requirements regarding coherence and cohesion, secondly it means having advanced vocabulary and using it without any physical intervention in speaking and writing.”

Let’s analyse this. My first issue is with “meeting requirements regarding coherence and cohesion”. Whose requirements? Which requirements? How is coherence and cohesion measured? Requirements stated like this isn’t specific enough, it doesn’t refer to a concrete schema so it’s essentially useless.

Next we have “advanced vocabulary” which is better, but still not enough. Many people, including natives, don’t have advanced vocabulary but are still fluent. Advanced vocabulary isn’t the same as a wide vocabulary range. For example, a word like “solipsistic” is advanced vocabulary and only people with a certain level of education would use this word. However, many native speakers wouldn’t know this word, but they are still fluent in their own language. 

Finally, the term “without physical intervention” is probably more of a mistranslation. The person essentially means that the speaker has a good, quick recall ability and doesn’t have to ask for help in recalling words.

I still have an issue with this. 

I speak Spanish fluently yet from time to time I will forget a word mid-sentence and have to ask someone how to say it. I even do it in English which is my mother tongue. You know those, “oh, what do you call that again? You know…that thingy?!” moments. We experience that even in our own mother tongue.

Let’s look at another person’s definition which I like better: “to speak a language without hesitating.” It’s short, it’s simple, it’s concrete and to a degree I totally agree. However, imagine this situation: you know absolutely nothing about quantum physics. Literally zero, but your friends all love quantum physics and are talking about it one evening at a dinner party. You’re not paying much attention and one of your friends asks you: “What is the meaning of the angular frequency ω and wave number k of waves?” 

Umm…what? 

You get nervous and try to recall any type of high school physics class that may be of use. But…you draw a total blank. 

“I have no idea!” you say “I don’t know anything about this!” And then your friends politely change the topic of conversation… 

You would hesitate in that situation, no? However, it wouldn’t mean that you weren’t fluent in your language, just that you don’t happen to possess the language or knowledge needed to engage in that situation. This is one of the reasons that I hate ESL speaking exams. They have a limited range of topics on the day of the exam (“choose to speak either about the environment or the dangers of social media…”) and perhaps the student can’t even converse about those topics with great confidence in their own language because the topic doesn’t interest them or they know little about it. 

So while the “speaking without hesitation” definition is certainly closer to a better understanding of fluency, it’s certainly not without its flaws. The reasons behind the hesitation are more important than the actual hesitation itself. If you find yourself hesitating a lot because you’re translating in your mind and are having trouble recalling specific words or grammatical structures of English, then you are experiencing a problem with fluency. If, however, you don’t know what to say, neither in English nor in your mother tongue, it isn’t a problem with fluency, it’s a problem with knowledge and/or interest. The difference is very important. 

Do you want to know the one thing nobody mentioned? How fluent your interactions are. Let me explain what I mean by that. 

At the minute I’m bridging the gap between intermediate-advanced in French. It’s that horrible stage where you feel like your progress is slow and fluency seems a million miles away. I can monologue quite well in French, I have problems with dialogue. This is because fluency isn’t just about your ability to produce language, it’s also your ability to react quickly and with confidence with people in your target language. 

In Spanish I basically don’t have to think when someone asks me a question and if I want to respond to them my mouth does all the work without me having to actively think. However, in French I find a greater lag or hesitation when I have to respond to someone. I have to ask people to repeat the question, I have to focus harder on understanding them when they speak, and I take longer to recall and organize my thoughts before I speak. 

All of that means I am not as fluent in French as I am in Spanish. It’s why I wouldn’t say I’m fluent in French but I can say with confidence that I’m fluent in Spanish. So, what is fluency then? As there is no set agreement on the term among linguists we have to come up with our own definitions that mean something to us. 

Mine for instance is: interacting in my target language coherently at a comfortable speed with a good deal of confidence using a wide range of vocabulary with few hesitations or problems regarding vocabulary recall and usage of correct grammatical structures.

It isn’t just speaking without hesitation: we can all hesitate from time to time. It isn’t about dropping words like “solipsistic” into casual conversation, and it’s not about speaking completely error-free either.   

So as we’ve seen fluency isn’t so black-and-white; but the main takeaway is that it isn’t just about your ability to produce language—it’s also about your ability to interact with it and respond to it in an organic, natural way. 

Do you like my definition of fluency? Do you have your own definition of fluency that helps you in your English language journey? Please share in the comments and get in touch with me to share your thoughts.

Written by Kerry Campion for EnglishClub September 2019
Kerry is an English teacher from Ireland who runs Clover English, a podcast and website dedicated to helping students improve their English with fresh, authentic content.

6 Comments

Leave a comment