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What Does “Fluency” Mean? When Can You Claim to Be Fluent in a Language?

One of the great language-learning debates that never seems to go away is the question of how well you have to know a language before you can claim to be “fluent”. Everybody wants to be “fluent” in the language they`re studying; language courses promise to make you “fluent” in the blink of an eye; and after you`ve been studying a language for a few weeks all your monolingual friends start asking “Are you fluent yet?”  And then there arepolyglots who claim to be fluent in dozens of languages and we all stand jaws agape.

I find it impressive that people use the word so much without even defining it. So I`ll give my own two cents about what “fluent” means.



  • Does it mean that you speak the language perfectly?

It definitely doesn` t mean that, because not even native speakers can use their own language perfectly. Some native speakers spit out a constant stream of mistakes, yet they`re clearly native speakers and I doubt anyone would claim they`re not fluent.

  • Does it mean that you know the language as well as a native speaker?

We can`t define it this way, because as I said before, there are varying levels of ability among native speakers, so it`s hard to determine which native speaker to measure against. Do you have to speak like an erudite intellectual  with polished communication skills and a rich vocabulary? Like a highschool dropout who talks like he don`t give a f@ck? There is no clear answer to those questions.

  • Does it mean that you have to be able to easily understand and make yourself understood in all possible situations?

It doesn`t mean this either, because there is no native speaker who can function in their native language in all possible situations. We all learn how to communicate and accomplish tasks in the situations that are relevant to our lives.

A couple of years ago I was working with an engineering professor at Osaka University, helping him prepare presentations in English for international conferences. Believe me, I learned just as much English as he did during our time together! We spent some time roleplaying Q and A sessions, and I was only able to function in that situation by putting him in the coaching role and letting him walk me through it. That was a great learning experience that increased his confidence with English, so it wasn`t a bad thing.

But the point is, I am a fluent native speaker and I was lost at first because I simply don`t know anything about engineering. So fluency can`t be defined as being able to easily function in all situations.

  • Does it mean that you can easily understand and make yourself understood in all situations that are a common part of your life or that you are likely to encounter?

I would say that this is getting closer to a good definition of fluency. If you can use the language easily for your needs in all daily situations that are likely to take place, and if you can converse on a similar range of topics to a native speaker with a comparable amount of depth and detail, I`d say you`re basically fluent in the language.

Fluent for business purposesFor a long time I used to deny it when people referred to me as fluent in Japanese, because I wouldn`t feel confident working in a Japanese corporate environment and accomplishing business tasks in Japanese. But then one day a wise friend of mine pointed out the obvious when he said  “But you don`t work in a Japanese corporate environment”.

“That`s true,” I replied.

“So who cares if you can accomplish business tasks in Japanese?”

“Fair point.”

It doesn`t matter that I`m not currently confident accomplishing such tasks in Japanese, because if I ever work in that kind of environment I can learn the specialized language and functions that I need and integrate those into my existing Japanese ability. For now, I have all the necessary bases covered.

Does “fluency” include literacy?

Can you claim to be fluent in a language that you can speak and understand well, but can`t read and write? This is a tough one, because during my travels I`ve met some amazing polyglots who were completely illiterate. They could rattle off a number of different languages with ease and freely switch between them, but had never learned to read or write.

People often say that functional literacy is a part of the definition of fluency, because the person is likely to need to read and write to deal with everyday situations. But we need to remember that there are native speakers who are completely illiterate in their own language, and it seems unreasonable to say that they`re not fluent. It`s therefore necessary to distinguish between fluency and literacy and treat them as two separate issues.

“I`m fluent in Chinese but I can`t read or write it” sounds like a reasonable statement to me, and not necessarily contradictory.

Once Fluent, Always Fluent?

When polyglots claim to be able to speak dozens of languages, that normally includes every language they have ever learned to speak, even if they haven`t used it in 20 years and it has receded far into the background and is basically dormant.

Can someone claim to be fluent in a language that they haven`t spoken in ages and probably couldn`t speak on command? I don`t have a definite answer to this, but I would say yes with a condition attached: that they can reactivate the language at a fully functional level in a fairly short period of time, say a week or two. Being able to reactivate a dormant language is usually doable, if the person was truly fluent in the language at one point. If they were never genuinely fluent in the language, then they likely won`t be able to reactivate it so easily.

Reactivating a language is usually a matter of intensive studying for a few days to rebuild some of the old neural pathways that have been left dormant, taking you back into the “mode” of that language.

Set More Specific Goals

In this blog post I`ve shared with you my personal ideas about what it means to be “fluent”, but it really is such a vague word that it`s quite meaningless when you use it as a goal for your studies. “I want to be fluent in Portuguese” is not a measurable goal that you can achieve with any certainty.

It`s better to set a different, more specific goal that can clearly be achieved. Lots of expats in Japan base their goals around the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test). If your goal is to pass the N1 test (the highest level) or the N2 test (an upper intermediate level that is sufficient for non-professional life in Japan) then you will always know whether you have achieved your goal or not, and if you haven`t succeeded yet it`s easy to look at what skill areas you are weakest in and focus on improving them.

Maybe you don`t like the kind of textbook study required for a written proficiency and you`d prefer to choose some milestone tasks as your goals. Maybe your goal is watch a movie in French and to understand the whole plot and most of the dialogue. Or maybe your goal is to give a presentation for Toastmasters in French. Goals like these are a little less measurable than taking a test, because you may not be quite sure how well you performed. But they`re more measurable than being “fluent”.

“Fluency” is something that seems to remain elusive when you chase it. But when you focus on your enjoyment of the language, and your enjoyment of the learning process, one day down the road you`ll start to hear people referring to you as “fluent”, and you`ll realize how far you`ve come.