When the topic of languages comes up the question: Are you fluent? comes up. But what is fluency? We throw the word around but have we defined the word thoroughly enough so that everyone can agree on the definition?

My personal definition of fluency is being able to talk about any topic in the target language with little to no difficulty. It is not applicable to something that needs some sort of specialty like talking about politics or economics or science. Fluency is being able to understand most of the material that comes your way (ie newspapers, conversations, many books*, tv show, etc) *the thing about books is that literature involves a higher level of language proficiency(novels). Even though I would consider myself close to fluent in English, when I read novels there are still MANY words I do not understand. Even in my language that I have a better handle of, English, there are many times when I read a book and I notice that I don’t understand an entire page because of the many words that I just don’t know. Don’t you think I get frustrated having to look in a dictionary when I’m reading a book in English? I would not consider myself fluent in Spanish although I grew up around it and I am pretty much forced to speak it with my family. They only speak Spanish. One of the annoying things about being ‘native’ but not fluent is that I forget words a lot even though I may know the word if someone said it to me. The other side of it is that I’m lacking vocabulary since I never went to a bilingual school/school in a Spanish-speaking country. I would never consider someone ‘native’-level but fluent would be a better term if they can express their ideas in that language clearly (even if there are some small mistakes). The thing about fluency is that by almost any definition of fluency, no one can ever be completely fluent.

Wikipedia states that fluency is:

Fluency is a speech language pathology term that means the smoothness or flow with which sounds, syllables, words and phrases are joined together when speaking quickly.

Language fluency is used informally to denote broadly a high level of language proficiency, most typically foreign language or another learned language, and more narrowly to denote fluid language use, as opposed to slow, halting use. In this narrow sense, fluency is necessary but not sufficient for language proficiency: fluent language users (particularly uneducated native speakers) may have narrow vocabularies, limited discourse strategies, and inaccurate word use. They may be illiterate, as well. Native language speakers are often incorrectly referred to as fluent.

One of the parts that reminds me exactly of me is, “fluent language users (particularly uneducated native speakers) may have narrow vocabularies, limited discourse strategies, and inaccurate word use”. This describes where my Spanish proficiency is at right now.

The way I am trying to improve my Spanish proficiency is by beginning to read more. I went to Barnes & Noble to buy “El Amor En Los Tiempos Del Cólera” by Gabriel García Márquez. After several chapters I’ll write summaries about the chapters and my thoughts about the passage that I have read.

Join in on the conversation:

After reading what I have to say and listening to what they have said, what is your definition of fluency?

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