Defining Language Fluency: It Isn't Perfection

avatarMille Larsen
4 mins read

I see a lot of people talk about "redefining fluency". The irony is, however, that the ones doing the complaining are, in fact, the ones doing the redefining. When pressed to describe fluency, they will often admit to expectations that a fluent speaker have a native-like accent, or a vocabulary of countless thousands of words, or some ability to pass some arbitrary exam.

In reality, none of these things are fluency. I will refer you now to the actual definition of fluency, so that we can all be clear:

flu·ent –adjective

  1. spoken or written with ease: fluent french.
  2. able to speak or write smoothly, easily, or readily: a fluent speaker; fluent in six languages.
  3. easy; graceful: fluent motion; fluent curves.

Fluency does not mean that you have perfect grammar. It does not mean perfect spelling. It doesn't even mean having a huge vocabulary, or passing some arbitrary exam, or satisfying someone else's demands.

Fluency is not perfection

The word fluency literally means fluid, or flowing. It means you're able to comfortably use a language without long, painful pauses while you try to think of a word. It means you can say what you need to say, and do so in a reasonably uninterrupted and natural manner.

In fact, a person can be fluent and still say everything wrong! (I'm not suggesting that you should try for that, of course.) The fact is, with good body language and lot of confidence, a vocabulary of just a few hundred words would be enough to speak most languages fluently.

Is it possible to be fluent in one year, as I claim on my web site? Yes, without a doubt. Is it possible to do it in even much less time? Definitely. With the right circumstances and a good attitude, fluency could likely be reached in a matter of months.

In fact, I see no reason why a person couldn't exploit certain situations (such as a language that is similar to one he or she already knows) to reach fluency in just a few weeks. Sure, they probably won't have a great vocabulary... and yes, it would only work for a handful of languages that are "easy" for that person... but I absolutely do believe it is possible.

Setting a target

I define the level of fluency I intend to reach at the beginning of each year. (Notice that I am not redefining fluency — rather, I am explicitly defining the level of fluency I intend to reach.) I did it last year with Italian, and I did it again this year with Turkish. And while the definitions are mostly the same, they do also have some differences. Of course there are differences — they should be different! — because the two languages will have difference uses in my life.

Your measure of fluency — the target you set for your language learning goal — should reflect your goals with the language. If you want to spend a month traveling around a country and learning about its cities, people, history, and culture, your goals will be somewhat different from those of a person who intends to live in one city for three months. And both of those will be far different from someone who plans to move to that country for work, or someone who wants to teach there, or immigrate there, or run for political office there.

But all of that is something much different from fluency. Never let the critics scare you off... it is they who are redefining fluency. And they do this because they don't want to see you succeed. They like knowing something you don't. But I'm not letting that stop me, and I hope you won't let it stop you either.