We all learn languages in different ways. We learn them at different times in our lives. And crucially, we all learn them for different reasons. However, all language learners are united by one common goal; something everybody knows awaits them as a reward when they put in that hard work: the thought of fluency. The big problem, though, is that in actual fact nobody knows what it really is.
Fluency is a goal with no goalposts. It’s a mirage on the horizon that shimmers promisingly in the heat, taunting you, luring you forwards towards the oasis. We all think we have a clear idea of what fluency is, but for some reason next to nobody would ever claim to have got there.
We are all fluent in at least one language (our mother tongue), and that is half the problem. When we learn a second language we think it’ll just be a matter of time before speaking it will be just as intuitive, rich and fulfilling an experience as with speaking our first. Looking around your home town you have no problem understanding road signs and adverts, you can tune in and out of conversations going on around you and follow every word, you always know exactly what to say to whom. What’s most striking though is that you never think any of this is out of the ordinary, because this is the reality of speaking a language fluently. So why is this experience so elusive with languages that we learn in later life?
One crucial factor is time. Logically speaking, our later languages will never be able to catch up with our mother tongue. We’re first exposed to our native language before we are even born, and then every moment of every day subsequently, so that by the age of 20 the native speaker has a vocabulary of around 20,000 words. We simply don’t live long enough to be able to repeat that process with many other languages. So if we make native-like fluency our aim, inevitably we are setting ourselves up for failure.
Our non-native languages will probably never surpass our native language. But make peace with that idea, and things start to change. Whether or not you’ll ever sound native is not really that important, because what you can do instead is get extremely close.
Fluency for me is not about accuracy of grammar, breadth of vocabulary or flair of idiom. To me fluency simply means being able to open your mouth and communicate successfully and with relative ease. Fluency is being able to navigate lots of different scenarios in spite of the limitations of your vocabulary, and having the confidence to pull it off. And as far as I’m concerned, that can happen at any stage of the language learning process.
We divide the stages of learning a new language into three surprisingly convenient groups: elementary, intermediate and advanced (A, B and C in the European framework). At each of these stages the learner is expected to be able to do different things, ranging from simple communication to producing spectacular prose. I teach different languages to all three levels, and in my experience fluency can occur at any stage. I have elementary students with small vocabularies who have no idea how to form the past continuous, but are so confident when they speak that we can have conversations (with a bit of rephrasing) just about anything. Despite their level they can be described as fluent without any doubt. On the other hand though I even have students in the late intermediate stages with good vocabulary, but whose language is so stilted and uncertain that they would easily be mistaken for a complete beginner.
As for my own learning, I’ve studied languages up to a pre-intermediate level and felt that was probably enough for my needs. Pre-intermediate knowledge allowed me to travel, get by in all situations, have basic conversations with people, form friendships, and really enjoy the hard work I’d put in to studying it all. On the other hand I’ve then taken languages further up to a respectable advanced level, and suddenly felt overwhelmed when confronted with how much I still didn’t know. I would begin to feel so unsure about speaking them that I would think twice about saying I spoke it. It took lots of practice and confidence building to finally be able to claim fluency again.
Setting out to achieve native-like fluency is more of a distraction than anything else, and a particularly unhelpful one like that. Instead try to concentrate on reaching each of those big milestones on your language learning journey, and enjoy the different challenges and rewards that each one brings. Personally I love scrabbling around trying to make sense with the little I do know in the elementary stages, and then watching it all speed up and fall into place as we move into intermediate. Advanced fluency (when you get there) has a real majesty about it, as you find yourself reading and writing with more confidence and finally expressing yourself much more as you would have wanted to in your mother tongue.
So are you fluent yet? Well you’ll have to answer that one yourself! Take a look around the room, can you talk about things? Can you describe things in sentences? Can you start formulating thoughts in your new language? Give it a go, and see what you can do.