What is Fluency?

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

That’s it.

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.

About marcusbird

Writer, Designer, Filmmaker
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6 Responses to What is Fluency?

  1. Paul Nogas says:

    I like take “fluent” to mean a level on par with an average native speaking highschool graduate. This includes idioms, cultural knowledge (eg: knowing “the boy who cried wolf” story), etc…
    I use “proficient” to mean the ability to get your point across or the ability to understand anything spoken or written to you if you are allowed to ask further questions or clarification. (eg: you could handle a conversation on physics or politics but you’d be asking the person to explain / translate words). I believe that’s why they call it “JLPT” not “JLFT”

  2. marcusbird says:

    I’m not sure if I fully agree. If you are talking to a Japanese child about politics and explaining words and expressions to them they don’t understand, would you say the child is proficient or fluent in Japanese?

    This is my main point. I think once you reach that point where you don’t get “lost” like I said and you can keep going, that’s basically fluency. Idiomatic knowledge comes over time in any language, but a specific knowledge of cultural idioms usually isn’t a huge key to “initial fluency” I think. Maybe if you want to add that label of “native fluency”, which I find extremely relative.

    I say this mainly because i’ve spoken to so many people who aren’t native speakers who speak Fluent English that might not be aware of some random idiom that we native speakers know because we used to read certain kid’s fairy tales or because I did a semester or two of Shakespeare in high school, but can talk about any topic they want to at length.

    I think because the definition of fluency (the ability to communicate easily and effectively) is mixed up with the term “native speaker” which really means “person with very high idiomatic knowledge” people tend to merge the two which to me technically doesn’t make sense.

    We’ve both taught English, so you know that in all these classes the kids are learning different things (some heavily idiomatic, some not). We as adults will never get this complete idiomatic exposure at the rate these kids do, so we probably won’t know the name of some famous General from the Edo period (unless we are specifically gung-ho about that subject) but if I can ask who the guy is, go and research him myself and then later chit-chat about him, I think that plants the hypothetical me firmly in a place of reasonable fluency.

    I think “native-level speech” really means “native level idiomatic knowledge”, so maybe people could start making Anki decks with thousands of random (but culturally relevant) facts about Japan and its idioms, and see what happens with the way new learners start speaking but it is so much information to absorb on top of what you are doing anyways, which is why there are “natives” in the first place 🙂 If you live somewhere your entire life you will learn thousands of thing a person who has only lived there for a year or two will not. You will learn these things consciously or unconsciously (news, popular events, etc) and I don’t expect a person who is not a native who speaks fluent Japanese to know 15-20 years worth of idioms that most people know. But I do expect them to be able to ask about it, research it and absorb it for themselves if they have the ability to do so.

  3. Paul Nogas says:

    I still prefer my use of the terms (ie: I would call the kid proficent). But in the end who really cares what it’s called. Your result is more important than the title I think.

  4. marcusbird says:

    Haha if you say so. I think this is clear cut case where it isn’t the term used, but the viewpoint of what fluency is, versus idiomatic knowledge. I’m not sure why people seem to think knowing idioms is weighed more heavily that being able to actually speak the language. I’ve never heard of say, an English kid who is “proficient” in English after 4 years. They are fluent… just not mature, or interested in topics an adult would be. Same with any country. And a 4 or 5 year old is often a better “native” speaker than a foreign adult learning the language for a while, so the circle comes around again. I’m only reiterating this because the logic is so simple with a touch of paradox. A person needs relative fluency to navigate the language to be exposed to idioms and cultural expressions. A person cannot learn idioms without the ability to ask about, research and dissect an idiom or expression in the first place.
    It’s like when you are a kid and an older person tells you not to watch a certain kind of movie. Because you are fluent in the language, you will be able to understand most or all of what is being said on screen, but the subject matter might be of an adult nature (which of course might not be appropriate). But if you can watch and understand everything which is going on without much reference (or any at all), that again brings the circle back around. I get where you are coming from with “proficiency”, but I think sometimes people don’t think about the lowest common denominator regarding these things. I always think of kids because they are the ultimate template for assessing language learning in a simple manner. An 8 year old and a 16 year old are separated by time, exposure to complex social situations and development of interests and so on, but they all start speaking the language the same way, at around the same age, with around the same ability of expression that allows them to gain knowledge. If a 6 year old isn’t fluent in his native language then I have no idea who is : p

  5. . says:

    Nice post. I like how you defined fluency and I think it is an excellent way of approaching the topic. The whole proficiency concept with those exams just look at ability in specific grammar skills and doesn’t assess fluency per se. One could have a level of proficiency in a test and not have ease of communication as in fluency. Also when others mention the idea of near native ability, I think it deals with accent and exposure but not necessarily just fluency as you say, dealing with idioms and that ability to manipulate language. Like how we sometimes ‘make up’ new words which often builds on knowledge of word parts and usage, idioms and nuance, built over years of exposure.

    As mentioned, there are native speakers with less than academic understanding and vocabulary but who are fluent with very low vocab or reading proficiency. I think sometimes socioeconomics, age and field of work plays into it this idea of high level vocab/idiom as being “near native fluent” because one is selecting attributes of a certain kind of “native”.

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