Fluency vs. Proficiency (And Why It Matters)

If you read this blog, you probably know I have been learning Spanish. It has been my first attempt to learn a foreign language in a functional, life-enhancing way, which would enable me to play, live, and do business comfortably in Latin America (among other things).

I’ve discovered some things that work, and some things that don’t. In fact, I would say I have a decent idea of what works in terms of teaching yourself a language. I actually haven’t taken a single, formal Spanish class, yet my Spanish level is pretty good.

Distracting Labels

I think one of the concepts that I distracted me in the beginning, was the word ‘fluency.’

For example, there are a bunch of blogs on the internet talking about ‘fluency’, even ones that talk about achieving it within a short period of time.

In addition, the word ‘fluent’ seems to be the principal label people use when discussing foreign languages. Like if you tell people you know Spanish, many of them will immediately ask, Are you fluent? It’s like it’s the main reference point people have in their conceptual architecture for language learning. There is no gradient, or levels of various skills– just fluent or not fluent.

The problem is that so many people really have no idea what they mean when they say ‘fluent.’ And, many people I have met who refer to ‘being ‘fluent’ are those that have not learned a foreign language, much less to a significant degree of proficiency. They may have taken a few classes in high school or college, but they really don’t know what’s involved in really knowing a language by living in a different culture that speaks the language.

The label ‘fluent’ is also like a tool people use to qualify themselves. I’m fluent in Spanish is a really cool thing to say. It’s sexy. And it’s even more sexy if you can say something like I’m fluent in 4 languages

But Let’s Talk About Reality

The reality is the word fluent comes from the Latin root meaning ‘flow.’ It means a natural, free-flowing motion or command of a language. The dictionary defines it as the ability to express oneself readily and effortlessly.

Interestingly, fluency thus understood doesn’t refer to listening and understanding. The essential idea is that it refers more to your speaking ability.

So… if you still can’t understand Spanish TV / movies / music, can you still call yourself ‘fluent’? Who knows!

We don’t know, or have a standard of reference for, what ‘fluency’ really is. This is why people can throw around the term as they want to, saying things like I’m fluent or I’m fluent in 4 languages or I became fluent in 2 months.

But this is also why, to me, it is not a very useful term.

What really matters is your proficiency levels in speaking, listening, reading, and writing– relative to your goals with the language.

So…

If you just want to say a few survival phrases, so be it. That won’t take long.

If you want to live in a place for a few months and gain a little bit of conversational ability, go for it. Might take a few months.

If you want to live in a place for an extended time, converse with the girls and really get to know the locals, more power to you. It’ll take some work over many months.

If you want to become fully proficient in the language, you’ve got the boss socks. It will take a significant amount of time, study, and practice… probably years.

Proficiency

‘Proficiency’, by the way, itself is a concept which has a certain degree of standardization to it, and thus a more objective reference where you can have an idea of where you stand.

The Common European Framework reference levels for proficiency are broken down like this (go to the link for enhanced descriptions):

  • A1: Breakthrough or Beginner
  • A2: Waystage or Elementary
  • B1: Independent User
  • B2: Vantage or Upper Intermediate
  • C1: Effective Operational Proficiency or Advanced
  • C2: Mastery or Proficiency

There are language exams which test for these levels of proficiency. So, with these reference levels and their descriptions, you can have some idea of where you stand, particularly if you take one of the proficiency exams.

Now, you don’t have to take a test or use this framework, but I think it gives you some objective feedback about your proficiency level– if that’s important to you.

It’s a similar thing with, say, a standardized algebra. If you know algebra, you’ll pass a test with flying colors. If you struggle with it, you’re not yet proficient at algebra, no matter how well you think you know it.

It’s the same with, say, golf. If you want to know how good you are relative to the professionals, just go out and play the same golf course from the same tees and you will have a better idea of what your skill level really is.

I think for most of us, though, we have an internal sense of how proficient we are in learning a foreign language. We know if we can understand TV / movies / music. We know if we can speak their mind on any topic. We know if we can read the newspaper or write an email regarding something important.

These levels are really they only thing that matter, and improving each one of them is your path to proficiency.

So, you can continue to call yourself ‘fluent’ out of habit, or out of pride, or out of assuring your blog readers that your language learning methods actually work… But in the end, learning a language relative to your goals is all that matters.

Where I’m At

For the record, as of this writing I would call myself very conversational in Spanish. I can express myself as needed. I can tell the ladies almost anything I want to. ;) I can read most of the newspaper. I still have difficulty understanding natives at their normal speed, but if they slow down a little bit, I can catch most things. I haven’t taken a proficiency test, but would estimate my level to be a high B2, almost C1 level.

I plan, of course, to eventually get all the way to C2 with Spanish… but this takes far more time than a few months ‘hacking’ it to ‘fluency.’ (It also doesn’t help to be lazy in your studies, like I am.)

What really matters, though, is the level at which you know yourself to be, relative to where you want to go… Just forget about the label ‘fluency’ and keep learning.




Published May 13, 2012

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  • http://www.thehairychef.com/ Thehairychef

    Hey Ryan,
    what you´re going through is commonly referred to as the (upper) intermediate plateau – something that almost anyone at B2+ will experience. The difference between a B2 and a C1 is the use and familiarity with idiomatic expressions and sensitivities to different styles of language….things that you would hear on the radio, but not in a newspaper, things friends would say to each other but not to their boss.
    One of the most productive ways to get over this is to listen and read as much as you can, and in particular pay attention to phrases…that means the way words collocate together in texts. You don´t need to keep a vocab list or anything like that, especially if you don´t have very well established study routines, but exposure to language, especially when you are already self-sufficient as you say, is essential for continual development.
    good luck with that!
    J

    • http://ryangoesabroad.com Ryan

      Thanks for the comments man! Definitely feeling the plateau lol

      • http://www.thehairychef.com/ Thehairychef

        Yeah no probs! you might like to try something like showtime spanish podcast….or check outwww.openculture.com/freelanguagelessons

  • Mariana Hernandez

    Hi Ryan! Mariana here from Puerto Rico. Loved this post as I have been trying to figure out how to classify my language skills in my resume and this really helped. In my case, I am proficient both iSpanish and English although Spanish is native to me. Being able to include this in my resume is important because eventually I would like to move to the States. Anyway, thanks for the post again. Sorry for any errors… I am definitely still not proficient with my tablet.

    BTW, you probaby know already that Spanish is a language that is different in every country it is spoken. Even native Spanish speakers will not understand everything when speaking with someone from another Spanish speaking country. If you want to practice some Puerto Rican Spanish, let me know.

    • http://ryangoesabroad.com Ryan

      Thanks for the comment, Mariana… would love to practice some PR Spanish! I am learning reggaeton, does that count? ;)