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Oral Fluency in English

This page deals with oral fluency in English language learning. You'll find a brief description of oral fluency, and discover tips for developing your oral communication skills. Note that in other contexts “fluency” may also refer to written fluency (the ability to read and write easily).

What is fluency?

oral fluency (noun): the ability to speak a foreign language easily and effectively, combined with the ability to effortlessly understand others who use this spoken language

Is fluency desirable?

Most English learners want to become fluent English speakers. In fact, many identify fluency as their #1 goal. Learning a foreign language can and should feel like a never-ending journey. Unfortunately, many English learners give up along the way, because they feel that they will never achieve their goal of becoming “fluent” in spoken English.

To some learners, fluency means having perfect pronunciation. They are surprised to hear that accent reduction is not a key component of fluency. English speakers all over the world have different accents yet understand each other quite easily. Pronunciation is a key component of oral fluency, however. Fluent speakers are easily understood, because they can clearly produce the individual and joined sounds of English. They have also mastered rhythm, intonation, linking and stress, so they sound natural when they speak.

Some English learners don’t require oral fluency, but do need to achieve a high level of written English for the purpose of standardized testing. These students may need to focus on grammar rules and vocabulary building to get into a certain school or program.

Is becoming fluent a realistic goal?

Becoming fluent in English is a realistic goal for many English learners, especially those who live, work or study in an English-speaking country. Immersion speeds up the process, as does motivation. Those who have a strong need to use English are more likely to become fluent in it. For example, if your romantic partner only speaks English, you will learn the language quite quickly. If you need a high level of English to do your job effectively, and if you need your job to pay the rent, you can’t help but become fluent!

Those who want to learn English because they have been told they might get a better job or because they want to travel once in a while, may be less likely to become fluent. Becoming familiar with survival English may be a more realistic goal in cases like these.

Because of how the human brain develops, it is also more realistic for children and young people to become fluent in a foreign language than for adults who begin learning later in life. Having a child who is learning the language at school, especially a child who develops a preference for the foreign language, makes it more likely that the parent will become fluent too.

Is fluency necessary?

For some English learners who use English for work, fluency is necessary for the safe and/or effective performance of a job. International pilots, for example, must achieve a certain level of English in order to work on international routes. In many countries, taxi drivers must be fluent in English in order to do their jobs effectively. For those whose goal is to become a citizen in an English-speaking country, fluency may be a requirement. Citizens may have to prove that they can carry on an English conversation effortlessly. On the other hand, fluency is not something that can be easily measured. Any establishment that requires a person to be fluent in spoken English may simply interview you to see if you meet their requirements.

Ways to move towards fluency

If your goal is to speak English fluently, you will have to put in the effort required of any expert. Just as professional hockey players must practise their skills in the off season, language learners must practise outside the classroom. Here are a few tips that will help you develop your fluency over time.

Am I fluent in English?

For most language learners, fluency occurs after many years of exposure to the language. Becoming fluent in English does not mean that you never make mistakes or errors when you use it. You may already be fluent in English without realizing it. In general, English learners have a strong tendency to underestimate their speaking skills. Test your oral fluency by answering YES or NO to the following questions:

  1. You can engage in small talk with native English speakers (weather, sports, current events).
  2. You can respond to basic questions without asking English speakers to repeat themselves.
  3. You can speak clearly enough that native English speakers don’t often misunderstand you or ask you to repeat yourself.
  4. You can describe things easily in English without looking up words, even if you forget a word once in a while (this happens to native speakers too).
  5. You can easily have conversations in English over the telephone.
  6. You can follow AND give basic instructions and directions easily in English (ordering pizza, giving street directions etc).
  7. You can understand and sometimes use sarcasm, jokes and idioms in English (you don’t take everything literally).
  8. You can express your personal opinions, emotions and concerns in English (about politics, religion, relationships etc.).
  9. You can understand an English television program or movie and paraphrase what you saw in English.
  10. You can understand English conversations that you overhear without relying on facial expressions or gestures.

Did you answer YES to all 10 questions? Congratulations! Consider yourself fluent in oral English. If you answered NO to some of these questions, and you want to become fluent in English, use some of the tips above. Practise English every day, and never lose sight of your goal.

Written for EnglishClub by: Tara Benwell