Today I want to talk about the idea of being “fluent” in a language. For years, I’ve always put the word “fluent” in quotes, simply because I’ve come to realize that it means many different things to different people. At the very least, there seems to be a double standard that people use when they talk about being “fluent”. This double standard can pose a psychological barrier that hinders language learning.
It’s easy to think of language learning as a process with a set beginning and end. I had a similar idea when I began studying Russian in college: I was starting at the beginning, with no knowledge of Russian at all, then I would study for a long time—several years perhaps—after which I would then be “fluent”.
Well, as it turns out, it’s a bit more complicated than that. It is almost 10 years later, and my ideas about language learning have changed a lot. I definitely studied Russian for a long time, and in many different ways. I studied it in university courses and in a study-abroad program. I read articles and wrote essays in Russian. I traveled to Russian-speaking countries and spoke it with the people who lived there. I also sought out Russian speakers in the U.S.A., where I lived, and tried to speak it anytime I came across one of them. I had many friends and acquaintances with whom I spoke Russian.
So did I become “fluent”?
It depends. I can talk about politics, or history, or music, or anything I’m really passionate about for a very long time (like a good Russian). I can chat and tell stories from my life and listen to stories from other people’s lives in Russian. I can watch videos in Russian and only have to rewind occasionally (if I’m being stubborn about not using subtitles). However, I am certainly not at the end of the learning process for Russian. If I’m reading a news article or watching a video or film in Russian, there are almost always new words or phrases that I haven’t seen or heard. Sometimes I hear a word and I realize that I need to pronounce a certain sound a bit differently. I need a lot of jokes explained to me, and if I read a poem by Pushkin or Alexander Blok I often don’t understand some metaphors that they are using or an allusion to some aspect of Russian culture that I’m unfamiliar with. And, of course, there is always the slang, which is always changing faster than anybody can keep up with.
With all of these gaps in my knowledge, it certainly seems difficult for me to claim to be “fluent” in Russian. But let’s take another look at all of these areas: vocabulary, phonetics/phonology (a.k.a. sounds), humor, literary language, cultural references, and slang. These are all areas that can sometimes give me trouble even in English, my native language, especially when talking with somebody speaking a different dialect. I’ve had this happen when speaking with people from Scotland, Ireland, England, New Zealand, and other English-speaking countries.
Despite encountering some of the same communication issues in Russian and English, I respond to them in different ways. If I don’t know something in Russian, I (and others) sometimes take it as evidence that I am “not fluent” in Russian or “losing fluency” in Russian. Yet I (and others) would never think of myself as not being “fluent” or “losing fluency” in English. This is a double standard that can be discouraging to language learners, who might study for years and decades and still have these types of experiences.
The reasons for this double standard are complex, and I will talk about them in the next post. In large part, they have to do with the relationship between culture and language, and how for many people being “fluent” in a language really implies being “fluent” in the culture that uses that language. Another key idea is something that I’ll call accessible language skills vs. inaccessible language skills (until I look for more research on this). This explains why a language student (like me with Russian) might struggle after not speaking the language for a longer period of time, but will normally be speaking at their previous level after just a few days.
In this post, I’ve tried to give a few reasons why, in my opinion, the distinction between “fluent” and “non-fluent” isn’t particularly helpful to language learners, and may in fact be detrimental when people place unrealistic standards of fluency on themselves and others. In place of it, I would like to propose some other terms: non-communicative, partly communicative, fully communicative, native-like, and native. I’ll be discussing what these mean in future posts.
Language learning is a process without a set beginning and end
Similar communication issues and knowledge gaps occur in our native languages and the languages we are learning
We often have double standards when judging our own (and others’) fluency
Fluency is a matter of degree