I’m writing this post based on reading through various forums where people often ask, “Can I be fluent in Japanese?” to which a myriad of people respond, “That depends on your definition of fluency.”
Whenever I read through these forums, my head tends to hurt, primarily because the opinions always seem to be the same across the board. There are two camps primarily. There are those who believe that unless you sound exactly like a native in your target language, then you are not “fluent”. Then there are those who say that once you can communicate reasonably well in your target language, then you are fluent. I always find that reading through these posts doesn’t expose true ideas behind fluency, but relative to who posts, it is their idea of what fluency is, versus the general definition of fluency.
Most definitions of fluent say something like: “Capable of using a language easily and accurately.”
This is how I see it as well. But in the online forums, people often talk about “native level speech” as the ultimate measure of one’s language learning ability. I don’t really agree with this, for one primary reason.
Whenever I speak to a person who speaks fluent English (who isn’t a native speaker) they will usually understand 99.9% of everything I say with the main exception of only TWO things.
1. Dense vocabulary
2. Idiomatic expressions
So a “native” speaker generally is just aware of little esoteric idioms and stylistic patterns of speech that you as a learner may never use. In English, we don’t speak anything like the people in Spartacus, but most of us took a few lessons in reading old English plays, so we are familiar with that sort of 17th century Victorian speech that we do not use. Sure I could sit here and type:
“For those who doth think it pertinent that man should rapaciously attack the pursuit of langauges, I say to thee, do so without a frown upon your countenance, and no murky disposition.”
But who speaks like this? In fact, i’m sure a lot of “native” English speakers can’t even speak like this either, and they are pretty “fluent” aren’t they? Likewise if I was a Japanese kid and I grew up watching old Samurai films (where they speak a certain way) or if I read certain kinds of comic books (with comic book speech patterns) I would have a very good idiomatic understanding of the language across different cultural media-based situations.
So where does the language learner come in, and where does “fluency” become a reality?
I believe that our future speech patterns and knowledge base in a language are initially relative to our interests. So if I like Film, Writing, Art, Music, Anime and Sports. Let’s say when I’m learning Japanese, I focus on these areas which I am learning about grammar, vocabulary and so on. So let’s say in these six areas, I get a sense of a few idiomatic expressions and so on.
After a while this expands and for the most part you can speak freely on almost any topic. I think this is relative fluency. I think that sometimes people get bogged down with what I’m calling “Academic fluency” which basically means you can speak about anything and any topic in Japanese, which is silly.
Can I sit here and go on and on about Thermonuclear dynamics? Can I talk in long discourses about human psychology? Can I even say ten sentences about weather patterns on planet earth? No. Does this mean I am not fluent? Of course not. Does this mean I don’t have a “native level” understanding of English. Of course not! But I could talk all day about films, or about certain kinds of novels, my home country and whatever else I have a heavy interest in.
The fact is, that in most languages, most of the time, people talk about the same things. This is why study books almost always have the same format:
A. Person in train station, B. Person asking time, C. Person in common social situation ask a question, and on and on and on.
Because the fact is, people do not always sit down and begin speaking about the history of Economics in their country. Nor do people constantly sit and talk about Politics. Most of the time its just social matters, stuff about family and friends, how you feel, the movie you saw recently, something funny that happened over the weekend, something in sports, more funny anecdotes, etc, etc.
Basically for everyone in every language, once you hit a certain vocabulary and grammar points you can technically speak about almost anything. This is why little kids after 4 years can start expressing themselves in a different way from when they were 2 years old. They learn more grammar and they can tell you why they hate one cartoon and love the other. Are 4 year old kids “Natively fluent?” or just “fluent?
In languages our ultimate goal is to be able to express our opinions. For some people this means being able to argue in their target language, for some it is giving soft opinions, for some its just being able to get around.
But at the end of the day after all the speculation and cross discussion, what i’ve observed from people that I consider pretty fluent in Japanese. They just talk WAY more than anybody else, so they get in situations where they have to learn new vocab, new expression patterns and new idioms. In the same way you went to the playground as a child and you heard kids around you saying things you didn’t know and had to learn quickly to adapt, so are adult situations.
You see these people have already developed fluency of expression, now they have fluency of opinion.
So if your exposure to complex speaking situations is frequent, you will be able to speak on complex things better over time, if your exposure to other things is frequent, that is what you’ll adapt to.
So my final view is that, everyone builds a “base” of vocabulary, grammatical knowledge and expressions that allow you to function normally. Then as you enter various situations you add on to this. This is the development of relative fluency. It’s not knowing everything, its being able to navigate everything. By navigation I mean not getting lost in the sea of the language you don’t understand.
So let’s say you don’t know the word in Japanese for “machine”, maybe you can describe a machine. Or you don’t know how to say “entryway”, but you can describe what that is and then get the word from a “native” speaker (or high level speaker) who would know what that is. If you can somewhat describe a feeling, a thought, or at least what you are trying to say and people understand, I feel that is when you have reached some level of fluency. You are able to “navigate”. So fluency of expression and fluency of opinion can stand alone or be mixed, but either way you look at it, when you are there you are there.