What is ‘fluency’? What does it mean to be ‘fluent’?

The difference between fluency and accuracy

There’s more to speaking a language than just ‘fluency’.

If you’ve ever learned another language to a reasonably high level, you’ve probably had people ask you if you’re ‘fluent’. Probably half of the conversations I have with new acquaintances take this form:

New Friend: How long have you been living in Japan?

Me: About five years.

New Friend: Oh, so you must be fluent in Japanese, then.

Me: Eh, well, hehe…

I know they aren’t trying to put me in an awkward spot, it’s just a kind of natural flow of conversation for non-Japanese living in Japan. Still, it’s a hard question to answer. The honest answer is that I figure I’m pretty danged good at it, but there are still a lot of things that I’m not so good at. The bit that troubles me, though, is defining that word: ‘fluent’.

When most people use the word ‘fluent’, they usually mean that a person’s second language is ‘hella good’ or ‘near-native’ or something like that. I don’t think that’s a very useful way to talk about a second language. Can you really define a binary distinction, fluent/non-fluent? Where would you place the cut-off point? And does it require the speaker to be good at everything in the language? By that definition, I’m not a fluent English speaker, since I can’t talk about Cricket, understand a speech about the genetics of ferns, or write a sonnet about Herman Melville’s sex life.

In the field of second language acquisition, fluency is one of three major dimensions of proficiency.1 There’s complexity, accuracy, and fluency. Complexity refers to things like variety of grammatical forms, vocabulary, and discourse strategies. Someone who can use the passive voice demonstrates greater grammatical complexity than someone who can’t use the passive voice.  Accuracy is the degree to which the speech adheres to some model, usually a native-speaker centered model (although that view is now quite passé within the field, it’s still the most prevalent in classrooms and learning materials). The more my pronunciation sounds like a Japanese person’s, the more accurate it is, at least if my goal is to try to sound like a Japanese person. Fluency refers to the speakers ability to produce or comprehend language quickly and without mistakes, without inserting a lot of pauses and ums and ahs. Mistakes, by the by, are accidental, while errors are systematic and more in the domain of ‘accuracy’.

It’s worth noting that these dimensions of proficiency are usually considered ‘domain specific’. I’ve got pretty good spoken fluency, accuracy and complexity in academic Japanese, especially when the topic is phonetics, phonology, or language acquisition, but my accuracy and fluency in the humble register of speech used by shop clerks is practically non-existent. I can read complex material and accurately understand its content, but I’m still not a very fluent (fast) reader, and I can read only very simple texts on math and science outside my field.

This framework, comparing complexity, accuracy, and fluency, is much more useful for building lesson plans and talking about learners’ skills. A teacher can have students do a task that targets one of those proficiencies over the others, since there’s usually some level of tradeoff involved. Take writing, for example. If you give students a time limit and ask them to write as much as they can in five minutes, that builds written fluency, but they won’t have time enough to make a text that’s accurate or complex. You can have them write a bunch of sentences following the same grammatical form, like writing 5 questions in the subjunctive. Without a time limit, there’s no pressure to build fluency, and sticking to a single form limits complexity. Or you can have them write an essay on a difficult topic, free to use dictionaries and other resources. They’ll produce more complex writing, slowly, and with a lot more mistakes.

This tradeoff effect is one reason that I don’t always want to give my students corrections. Sometimes we’re not working on accuracy, and I don’t want them to get too distracted by trying to figure out the proper form of a past perfect question. Recasts and prompts2  are great tools for working on accuracy, but they disrupt the flow of the conversation, limiting the amount of gain you can get in fluency and complexity.

You can feel free to keep using the word ‘fluent’ to mean ‘really good at a language’, if you want to. It’s not wrong. But for language teachers and learners, I think it’s probably more useful, and more motivating, to think of fluency as just one way that a person can be skilled in a language.


1 Housen, A., & Kuiken, F. (2009). Complexity, accuracy, and fluency in second language acquisition. Applied linguistics, amp048.

2 Recasts are a kind of feedback to help students be more aware of their errors. When a student says something like “I am have to go store yesterday morning,” the teacher says something like “Oh, you had to go to the store yesterday morning?” Prompts encourage students to correct their own mistakes, so the teacher says something like, “I am have to?

About

English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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One comment on “What is ‘fluency’? What does it mean to be ‘fluent’?
  1. locksleyu says:

    Great informative post!

    I never knew about the categorization into Fluency/Complexity/Accuracy, but they seem like logical categories. The definition of ‘fluency’ seems like it roughly matches with what my intuition regarding this word as it’s used in daily life, though I think for most people ‘fluency’ would include parts of the other two.

    For example, if I asked someone to talk about a topic that requires advanced vocabulary and sentence structure (say, computer networks), and they began with the following (at a fast speed with no pauses or awkward uhms) “Computers calculate things. Some are fast. Others are slow. You can link them together. There are many ways to do this. I’ll go over them now. “, I think most people would probably say that person isn’t fluent in that language (whether thats a fair judgement is another story). I feel that each domain requires a certain amount of complexity (and even accuracy for things like public speech).

    I totally understand where you are coming from regarding trying to describe foreign language ability, and have always run into trouble when trying to describe my Japanese abilities, since they are so ‘domain-specific’. It’s not black-and-white – I may be good at reading certain types of books and bad at speaking about other subjects.

    One of my personal requirements of being completely ‘fluent’ is that you can live and work in an environment which primarily uses that language. Whether you talk slow, make mistakes, or use complex grammar or not, as long as your ability is ‘good enough’ for each individual interaction so that you can communicate, overall you are doing fine. If a word doesn’t already exist which means this, I think it would be useful to have one.

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