Fluency: An Unobtainable Goal
You would think that after living in the United States for 16 years and growing up in a monolingual English speaking family, I would be fluent in English. But if I really sit down and think about it, I’m not so sure that I am.
There is this sort of opinion in the world, or at least in the educational community, that the ultimate goal of language learning is fluency. But fluency is a vague idea, and it is very difficult to define. Some people say that to be truly fluent in a language, you need to be able to speak, write, read, and understand what is being said in that target language with a level of security and comfort that what you are saying is clear and comprehensible.
If this is the case, then I suppose I am fluent in English and probably French as well, but when I think about myself communicating day to day, I doubt whether or not I would be able to express all of my ideas in both languages. Obviously, as I am a native English speaker, there is little that I cannot discuss in English, however certain topics in French would be nearly impossible for me to talk about. Then again, those incomprehensible topics exist in English as well.
Say, for example, that you are talking to me about astrophysics. I know that you’re speaking a language that I understand, I recognize the sounds of the words and the inflection in your voice, but I have no idea what you’re talking about. God forbid I try to contribute to the conversation. Astrophysics is a language in itself, and I am certainly not fluent.
If I don’t recognize half of the words in a sentence and the topic of the conversation is completely foreign to me, then I am not an effective communicator. If I am not an effective communicator, than I cannot truly define myself as fluent. Language is the broad umbrella under which we group the words that we use to speak a language and to understand the thoughts of others. Language is a tool we use to communicate effectively, a tool that we wield so that we can understand subjects like astrophysics, l’astrophysique, or астрофи́зика. Astrophysics is a language all on its own, and it can be expressed in many different tongues.
Most avid language learners will all agree that fluency is not a concrete objective, and it is certainly difficult to determine when exactly you qualify as fluent. There is no official fluency test that you need to pass to declare yourself a fluent speaker, and since language is constantly advancing and evolving, it isn’t possible to know every word or phrase. Understanding a language grammatically is completely different than knowing a language culturally, as many words have different connotations depending on the region where they are spoken.
Some of my personal role models in the polyglot/language learning community have great ideas about what it means to really speak a language, and constantly ask the question; “At what point can we truly consider ourselves masters of a second language?” Nearly all of them are tagged with labels like “Teenage Genius speaks 20 languages!” and “Twin brothers speak 10 languages a piece!” however, most of these people only consider themselves truly fluent in a few of those dozens they have studied.
I find it extremely curious and fascinating that it is the people who have not actually learned any languages that categorize these levels of fluency, and they tend to always over exaggerate the abilities of others. Many monolingual people tend to give very simple definitions when it comes to fluency, normally citing “speaking another language” as the main criteria for bilingualism. Anyone who has studied numerous languages at a relatively high level will be able to tell you anyone can speak another language, but it is their ability to understand what they are saying in that second language that makes them bilingual.
Overall, I would define fluency as the ability to effectively communicate with others about a wide variety of topics, and to understand the cultural context of the language in which you are speaking. I think that as language learners, effective communication is our true, obtainable goal. Fluency, on the other hand, is more of the asymptote for our ability equation. We will forever inch closer and closer to the illusive idea, but we will never quite reach it. Try as we might, there will always be more words to learn, more dialects to explore, and more people to enlighten us.
Here are a view video’s of some of my favorite polyglots describing fluency in their own terms.