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.
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?“