Fluency. As a member of the language community, you’ve surely heard the term everywhere. People constantly ask you if you’re fluent in your target language yet, or claim fluency in their own. Famous polyglots write books or run blogs about hacking into fluency, and pop-ups on the web assure you that (only with their top secret! method, of course), can you reach fluency in two weeks.


You might dream of fluency in this or that language, and maybe you’ve already achieved fluency in a foreign language. But, in all the instances of fluency you encounter in your day to day life as a language enthusiast, have you ever considered what fluency really means? What does fluency mean?


Well, actually, I can’t tell you what fluency means. The only person who can tell you what fluency means is you. Fluency, like all abstract terms, has no universal meaning, and each individual must determine what the term means. Think about the subjectivity of the term the next time you encounter it “out in the wild.” Does fluency have the same meaning to the person that used it, the blogger or optimistic pop-up ad as it does to you? Why not? How does it differ? What is your definition of fluency?


Establishing your personal definition of fluency is an important step to achieving it. Blindly venturing forward without a concrete idea of what it is that you wish to achieve will get you somewhere. But, you won’t know where, and you may not feel like you’ve gotten very far, especially if you’re not yet a linguistic veteran. Setting a more defined goal will help you to structure your journey through your target language and help you to recognize the progress you make on your way there.


To assist you in determining what fluency is, I’ll describe a few different types of fluency.


Perfect Fluency


Perfect fluency is how many people who have little to no language experience tend to define “fluency.” Perfect fluency means knowing every word you encounter. It means speaking quickly, clearly and easily and never stumbling or having to search for words. It means having no accent, or only one that is faint and charming. It means never having any semblance of difficulty with the language anymore.


If this sounds like how you picture fluency, pay attention, because this article was mostly intended for you. Perfect fluency does not exist. Nobody is “perfectly fluent” in any language. You aren’t familiar with every word of your native language, and sometimes you have to search for the right word, even in your mother tongue.


Most languages have many regional accents and dialects, and you may sometimes even have trouble understanding someone with the same native language from the same country. And that’s not weird. You already knew that these things happen in one’s native language. Natives are able to take a few seconds to search for their next word, but when foreigners do the same thing, why is it assumed they’re simply not fluent? If imperfect fluency is good enough for native speakers, it’s good enough for you.


Quick Fluency


This is the type of fluency you see in advertisements, because “Master a Language in Two Months!” sounds way catchier than “Fluency in Twenty Years!” It sounds too good to be true, because, well, it mostly is. It is possible, of course, to achieve quick fluency, but the fluency achieved after such a short time frame will be a very thin, superficial fluency.


You’ll only know the most common words and you’ll probably have to make use of key words and context to figure out what natives are saying when they respond to you. However, if you are able to successfully utilize a foreign language to obtain relevant information, then you very well may be “fluent enough” for your purposes.


Quick fluency is good if you have some sort of deadline. Say, for example, that you’re visiting the country and you don’t want to flip through a phrasebook, butcher a foreign language, and not understand the response you receive. I would recommend drilling phrases and vocabulary that you determine to be important (and here’s a free, handy flashcard program to help you), and getting as much passive practice (reading, listening) in as possible. You can also use LingQ to read along with texts, read out loud and improve your listening comprehension.


Again, listening comprehension is extremely important if you actually want to understand the answers to your questions (which, let’s face it, is probably one of the main reasons you asked them). Of course, make sure to also arm yourself with the ever-important phrases, “Could you repeat that?”, “Could you speak more slowly?” and “Sorry, I didn’t understand that.”



Native-Like Fluency


Unlike perfect fluency, native-like fluency is a reasonable and attainable goal. Native-like fluency does not mean that you will be mistaken for a native; very few people ever reach that stage. However, it means that you generally know all the same words that a native knows and can speak at the same pace with the same amount of ease as a native speaker. You will likely have an accent, but as long your conversation partner can understand you without difficulty, it doesn’t matter. Tip: If people can’t figure out where you’re from, your accent is probably pretty good.


Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to live in the country to achieve native-like fluency. But, you do need connections to the country. Luckily, you have the internet, so that’s not much of an issue. Making friends with native speakers helps immensely. Try to find friends, and not just language partners; look for someone whom you’d still enjoy talking to even in your native language. You’ll get much more out of the relationship if it actually means something to you.


Friends will not only provide you with the opportunity to practice your writing or speaking skills, but they also provide real, casual native input and introduce you to an insider’s view of their culture. They can hook you up with native media and equip you with music and TV series in their language. If you have native friends and consume media made for natives by natives, then you are practically living in the country.


Okay, so there are certain aspects of the language that are pretty difficult to learn if you don’t live in the country, but these are also things that you generally don’t need unless you live in the country. Household vocabulary like “burner” or “whisk” doesn’t come up often on TV (unless you’re watching cooking shows, I guess), and they’re probably not the topic of discussion between you and your friends. You won’t learn childhood words either, like the names of the equipment on a playground, unless you’re around native children. However, the fact that these types of words are fairly difficult to learn outside the country also show how little you really need them in practice.


Literary Fluency


Literary fluency is like graduating from native-like to educated-native-like fluency. Now, all of a sudden, you know words that even natives might not know, and you can string sentences together more eloquently than some natives. If that sounds impossible, just keep in mind that as someone who frequents language learning websites in their spare time, you may be on an intellectually higher level than the average person, and many people really kind of suck at their native language.


Literary fluency focuses on the more intellectual side of a language: indulging in literature, attending university, composing song lyrics, etc. Native-like fluency is not a required prerequisite; it will just improve your feel for the language. You can, however, certainly master reading literature and writing poetry without the ability to converse casually with a native. Literary fluency calls for an almost exclusively passive input. Read novels and texts from specific fields until it all makes sense. Learn in the language instead of reading about the language in your own native language.


There are a ton of other things that fluency could potentially be, but that’s up to you to figure out. Considering why you started studying the language in the first place should help you determine what kind of fluency you should target. Once you’ve reached your desired fluency, that doesn’t mean you’re done; you can go for another type of fluency and round off your language skills quite a bit. In the very least, you’ll have to work to maintain what you’ve achieved.


The question you might have about all these fluencies is, “How long will it take me?” Well, that depends entirely on how you study, how much you study, how similar the language is to the one(s) you already speak, and your personal ability to absorb and retain information. Nobody can answer this for you. Just get studying and figure it out for yourself!


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Hero Image by Pedro Ribeiro Simões (CC by 2.0)