Like what the hell is fluency anyway man?


Fluency in another language is something that I’d thought to be much more definable before actually trying to achieve it.

Before I went to Italy, my sister and I thought it would be when you could convey ideas effortlessly. Yet thinking upon it now, often I can’t even do this in English.

So I suppose then we could say it’s when you can convey and understand things in that language as easily as you can in English.

However my English could always be better, and in fact over the last five years, my ability to express myself in English has become better. My native language is not some static force, but one that improves every year I speak it. So if I couldn’t convey things in English five years ago as well as I can now, by the above definition was I not fluent in it then?

My English is not just my native tongue, but the result of 24 years of practice, further compounded by 13 years of school and 3 years of university. Comparing my Italian to this will always be futile until similar amounts of practice have been put into it.

I live with a six year old Italian boy who speaks Italian all day competently, and one would probably have to consider fluent. However I actually use more complicated verb tenses than he does, and also can convey much more complex ideas more effortlessly (in Italian)(YES SUCK ON THAT KID).

So perhaps in terms of speaking Italian, I am fluent. Hence perhaps it’s only in reference to my own language that I am not fluent. Perhaps if I didn’t know English, I’d feel like I spoke Italian much better than I do now. Foreigners always see me having long conversations in Italian, then not only assume that I’m fluent, but are surprised when I even reveal I’m not actually from here.

So to an outsider’s perspective I’m fluent. In comparison to a six year old I’m fluent. Some Italians think I’m fluent. So why don’t I feel like I am?

Because I’m just not. There is still a ton I don’t understand and if I sit with a group of Italians, listening to the conversation is definitely not effortless. While some simple things every now and then I find relatively difficult to express.

There’s a website called fluent in 3 months where the guy proclaims to be fluent in 8 languages, which he’s learned in 7 years. He’s been a big inspiration, and I remember his definition of fluency being something like just being able to speak and understand the language easily. I thought this was a good definition, and I like how he stated that too many other people were trying to achieve these unrealistic aims of fluency, like being able to read the Shakespeare of their target language effortlessly, things that they can’t even do in their own. I vowed that I wouldn’t be so scrupulous, that I would just say I was fluent when the language stopped being hard.

Well it’s stopped being hard, but unfortunately it seems I can’t help but be that scrupulous man and feel that to call myself fluent would really be scraping at the barrel. Although it’s probably not wise to compare the language that you’re learning to your native one, unfortunately the gulf between the two in ability to express myself and understand others, for now is just far too much a thing for me to ignore. I think any meaningful definition of fluency would require them to be closer. However if this is the case, then at what point have they sudden reached a point of closeness that you can now label it fluent?

Perhaps just like you did with your native language, you shouldn’t even think in terms of fluency, and instead just treat it as a learning process like any other. Does Steven Hawkins say he is fluent in physics? Or does he just be happy with what he knows, while accepting that there is always more and continuing to go out there and discover it? Perhaps speaking a language just spans from not being able to do it, to doing it quite well, to then doing it really, really super-well, and the word ‘fluency’ doesn’t actually have any place within this spectrum.

However, at the same time I do also understand why mr ‘fluent in 3 months’ would just say he’s fluent.

If anything it’s just to avoid having to start talking about Steven Hawkins every time someone simply asks, ‘ah, so how’s your Italian?’.

About Sam

Hi I'm Sam and I write here exclusively at Samuel's Travels. Exclusively as by and large no-one wants me writing anywhere else. Please enjoy yourself while reading.
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2 Responses to Like what the hell is fluency anyway man?

  1. Great article, Sam. When I set up shop as a language tutor earlier this year, I had a really long think about what I wanted to call the whole thing. I discarded quite a few killer options for Fluent, because I just thought people will always connect with that word in the language learning sense. Plus, it’s what people aim for isn’t it! I’ve lived so long in England and wouldn’t even think about whether I’m fluent in English anymore – the language has become second nature to me so I think I’m almost past the fluent bit. But my French, that’s a different story. I can express all concepts, but I would hesitate to call myself fluent simply because I cannot speak it effortlessly – I stop and look for words, I simplify my messages, it doesn’t come as natural to me. Funnily enough, I’m not even fluent in my native language German at all times anymore (in that sense) – of course I can communicate, but I do stop and struggle to express things I only ever encountered in English (like what’s “office politics” in German?).

    So anyway, when I printed my first business cards I looked up fluent in the OED. It says: “able to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately”. Now, what the hell is easy?

  2. Pingback: Benny Lewis and Fluent in 3 months… possible, scam or what? | Samuel's Travels

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