By Sage Panter from EIGLOBE
What does it mean to be “fluent” in a language? Throughout my time studying other languages, I’ve given this question a lot of thought.
Can a person consider themselves fluent if they pass a certain test?
Can a person consider themselves fluent if they can simply communicate effectively with others in the language?
Can a person consider themselves fluent if they build a big enough vocabulary?
The truth is, no one has a perfect answer. There are many people, and even many language experts, who differ in opinion on what it means to be truly fluent. So, I have developed my own opinion on what fluency means to me.
Before I explain my opinion in depth, let’s look at the word, “fluent”, itself according to the Merriam Webster English Dictionary:
The basic root of the word comes from “fluid”. This means water and other liquids but it can also be used to describe non-liquids that remind us of liquids, like movement and concepts.
For an example of movement; A ballerina moves smoothly and gracefully through her dance. You can also say, A ballerina moves fluently through her dance.
For an example of a concept, He is very skilled and accurate in English. You can also say, He is very fluent in English.
When using the word fluent to describe something that is not a liquid, there is usually a nuance that suggests the person you are describing is not only smooth and effective but very skilled at what they do overall. The example sentences imply that the ballerina is a very good ballerina and the person who speaks English is very good at speaking English.
If we simply look at the definition, it is easy to say a person is fluent if they can have a smooth conversation. However, anyone who has studied languages can say that it is not that simple. I have three points that are, in my opinion, the most important to achieving fluency in a language.
My first point is exposure
As the root of the word suggests, fluency is, in many ways, a fluid. It ebbs and flows, it comes and goes. A large amount of exposure and practice can lift a person up to a fluency level but any absence from exposure or negligence with practice can pull a person away. A lift to fluency takes effort and consistency while a pull away is more like a plummet, it can happen shockingly fast. A person just needs to be away from the language for a short while, and the fluency level falls. I have noticed that this can happen even when a person has a good grasp of a language. This is the cruel reality of learning languages.
My native language is English, so I have a very good grasp of it. However, if I spend a whole day away from any exposure to English, I notice my English becomes a little strange. This strangeness doesn’t last long because of how familiar I am with English, but I have to warm up a bit before I can start to speak it fluently again. With languages I don’t know as well, like Japanese, it takes a lot longer for me to warm up if I’ve gone a while without exposure to it. A person can get amazing scores on a language test one week but when confronted with the same questions the following week it may seem like they never took the test at all. This is a language learner’s worst nightmare but it is a very real possibility if you don’t keep up constant exposure.
My second point is subject matter
It is possible and very common, to dwell on certain subjects and become very good at discussing them. However, when a less familiar subject comes up, the whole conversation can suddenly become unfamiliar. After getting a good grasp of certain subjects, it is easy to stay in that comfort zone and avoid branching out and learning how to talk about new subjects. In my experience, I am very good at explaining why I am here in Japan, how long I’ve been here, when I first started studying Japanese est.
I have had a lot of practice talking about all of this because every time I meet a new person, they tend to ask me the same set of questions. I like to stay within this subject because the conversation goes very smoothly and I feel I am fluently delivering it. But, as soon as someone starts talking about politics or taxes, I’ll get lost. I’ll catch some words and familiar grammar points as they talk, but I won’t understand the overall meaning and I won’t be able to accurately respond. This is an example of my own short comings in my Japanese learning process. I need to expose myself to these more challenging subjects. You will be stunted in your journey towards fluency if you only know how to discuss a small handful of subjects, you have to force yourself to be exposed to a wide variety.
My third point is the inseparability of language and culture
Languages change and grow with the times. Vocabulary, idioms, phrases, references, all continuously change. Two people who share the same language may misunderstand each other if one references something the other is unaware of. For a simple example, a common slang word in American English in the 1990s was the word “sick”. The “sick” most people are familiar with means “to be ill”, it is a word used in negative contexts. However, the 1990’s slang word, “sick”, was used in a positive context. For example, if someone draws a beautiful picture, you can describe their picture as a “sick picture” which has the same meaning as a “really good picture”. Of course, non-native English speakers are understandably confused by this, but intergenerational native English speakers can also be confused by this. Unless a young person happens to watch a lot of 1990’s movies made for teenagers. This happens between generations, and, because English speakers are so wide spread across the world, it happens between different regions and countries as well.
People in America, England, Australia and India est. all have their own unique versions of English and it can be difficult to understand one another at times. Not only because of differing accents, but also because of culturally influenced vocabulary, phrases, and references. For instance, I am American but I lived in New Zealand for a short time when I was in High School. While I was there, people kept referring to fizzy drinks. I had no idea what a fizzy drink was for a long time. Finally, I realized it meant soda pop. These confusing moments can also happen closer to home. For example, I went back to America recently to visit family. Of course, for the most part, I had no problem communicating with people but there were some references that were new to me. These references were referring to things like pop culture and politics, but I had to stop a few conversations so they could explain it. These references were obvious to everyone in the room but me, because I hadn’t been exposed to American T.V all year like they had.
If you are learning English, be kind to yourself if you don’t understand every phrase or reference and ask people to explain what they mean. It takes a long time to build up a sufficient knowledge of these phrases and references and they are constantly changing for the native speakers as well. In my opinion, this is the most challenging aspect of becoming fluent.