Navigating Fluency: 

Am I Fluent?

Have you thought about the idea of becoming fluent? What does fluency sound like? How do I achieve fluency? Am I fluent? 

 

When thinking about your language progress, these are just some questions starting to swim in your head as a language learner. However, we won’t deep-dive into this linguistic ocean just yet. First, we have to test the waters with a very important question:

 

What does fluency mean?

There are multiple definitions and linguistic understandings of what “being fluent” means. By Merriam-Webster’s definition, fluent, or fluency, is the capability of using a language easily and accurately (2024). This is true, but it does not capture the nuances and technicalities of language. Languages are like sea fish. They are alive, constantly changing and evolving. Let’s take a look at this definition from the International Center for Language Studies (ICLS 2024). 

 

“Language fluency is like a spectrum…the extent to which someone can speak smoothly and effectively on a range of topics in a second language…”

 

We find this definition to align more accurately to what fluency feels like. If the language learner has more vocabulary and comfortability in certain topics, then it can be said they are fluent in that language. However, you are limited to those topics until you expand your language immersion. In other words, keep swimming! 

 

There are two notes we would like to add to this definition to reference the realistic aspects of language. 

 

  1. It’s common that the speaker has little vocabulary in new topics, but if the speaker has the ability to create probing questions allowing them to understand, this demonstrates high control of the target language.
  2. It’s important to note that people will make grammar and pronunciation mistakes in real life. As long as these mistakes do not inhibit communication, then it shouldn’t be penalized. It is part of the learning process.

 

Let’s dive deeper into this language spectrum ideology!

 

How many levels?

There is a language scale called the CEFR Levels that is used world wide. It was organized by the Common European Framework of Reference for Language (CEFR) and it divides language proficiency into three groups and 6 sub-groups (we won’t count A0 as a level). Similar to the three zones of the ocean, what a coincidence!

 

Basic User – Sunlight Zone

A0 – Pre-A1 (Absolute Beginner)

A1 – Breakthrough (Beginner)

A2 – Waystage (Elementary)

Independent User – Twilight Zone

 

B1 – Threshold (Intermediate)

B2 – Vantage (Independent User) – Considered Fluent!

 

Proficient User – Abyssal Zone

C1 – Effective Operational Proficiency (Advanced)

C2 – Mastery (Full Competence)

 

As we mentioned before, fluency begins when you have the basics down and confidence in a handful of topics. Looking at the levels, a language learner can begin feeling fluent around the B1-B2 level.  Not too bad for a fish fry. 

 

But wait! 

 

There is more than one way to communicate in a language. This is where things can get tricky. Let’s just say, someone can be partially fluent. 

 

What is partial fluency?

So you set sail on your language journey, but had some riptides and bumpy waters along the way. These challenges build your skills in different areas. You speak really fast with a B1 level, you write and read at an A2 level, and can listen at a B2 level. Are you fluent?

 

When we look at language skills, there are four that we talk about. 

 

Most language learners tend to build their reading and listening skills before their speaking and writing. This is because it’s often easier to understand a language than to produce it. 

 

Although this is not true for all languages, due to different writing and speaking styles, along with each person’s individual learning style, it is commonly seen when learning a language similar to your native language. 

 

Let’s look at two examples of how fluency works. These two cases have similar circumstances with slight differences to show how impactful an experience can be. 

 

Example 1:

A child is born in London to one immigrant parent from Bolivia and one parent from the United States. The parents speak Spanish and English at home so the child grows up bilingual in English and Spanish. However, the child is raised in an English speaking environment (school, neighborhood, friends, restaurants, etc.), so Spanish becomes only necessary at home and with family. Thus, the level of Spanish fluency the child has is mostly related to home life. 

 

On the other hand, if we look at the next example…

 

Example 2:

A child is born in London to two immigrant parents from Bolivia. The parents only speak Spanish at home, but the child is raised in an English speaking environment so the child grows up bilingual. In this case, the child spends every summer working in Spain with their aunt. This gives them more opportunities to use Spanish. Thus, the level of Spanish fluency this child has is much higher. 

 

In both examples, if we ask both children if they are fluent in Spanish, they would most likely say yes. And they are both correct. 

 

 

 

As we can see, both children use Spanish everyday in their lives, but in different capacities. The child from example 2 speaks more Spanish in their day than the child from example 1. This shows that the more exposure you have to a language, the more you will expand your knowledge and understanding. 

 

Fish Food for Thought

Language is like the ocean. Depending on your need for it, whether it is a source of food, where you work, or for doctoral studies, the deeper you go, the more understanding, skill, and practice it requires. A snorkeling instructor can’t be expected to drive a submarine to the Abyssal Zone, but he can teach about sea life in the Sunlight zone. 

 

Fluency works the same way. Depending on your need for the language, you can be fluent in your level. But if you continue studying, master all four of the communication styles (speaking, listening, reading, and writing) and achieve a level C1 or C2, you can reach True Language Fluency. Now that’s a feat!

So next time you’re speaking your target language with a native and they say “you speak perfect”, don’t get too presumptuous, but you probably have reached the open waters of fluent-sea! Relax and catch the waves!