Posted in Reading

What Does “Fluency” Even Mean?

Fluency.  Every language learner strives for it — at least every language learner that I’ve ever encountered.

I’m no different.  I want to be fluent.  But at the same time, if you asked me what it means to be fluent, I probably wouldn’t be able to give you an answer.

The thing is, I don’t think “fluency” is a concrete thing.  It’s just an abstract concept that sounds totally awesome.

A lot of people would say fluency means “knowing a language”.  What does that even mean?  There is no finish line to learning a language.  I encounter English words all the time that I’ve never seen before, and I have a fairly good vocabulary.  No one ever masters a language 100%, not even the most educated native speakers.  There’s always more to learn.

Others would say being fluent means that you’ve reached the “conversational” level.  Again, this is such a fuzzy concept.  What kind of conversations?  I could stutter off a few sentences about my name, how I feel, and how great the weather is by the time I had studied for just a few weeks.  But even intermediate/advanced language learners might struggle to have a conversation about politics.

Honestly, I don’t really have any definite theories about what exactly fluency is.  This post is really just a rambling summary of the thoughts I’ve had recently.  After thinking about the idea of “fluency” for a few days, I’ve realized that I tend to view my own studying as working towards two main “types” of fluency — fluency in grammar and fluency in vocabulary.

Grammatical fluency is the part that I’m good at — I’m a math person, and I think that translates over into my logic and grammar skills.  I like dissecting sentences down to their structure.  I think this is why I like TTMIK so much — it’s mostly focused on adding new grammar patterns to my Korean language toolbox.

Vocabulary fluency is the part that I’m horrid at.  It’s also a much more daunting task — you can get by with only a few basic grammar patterns, but the conversations you have are pretty much limited by how many words you know — and there are thousands of “common” words.  I have the hardest time getting vocab to stick in my brain.  I recognize the words when I encounter them, but typically I just end up thinking “Dang it, I’ve seen this word before.  What does it mean?  What does it meeeeeaaan??“.  Then I give up and look it up on Naver.  Again.  For the 40th time.

I think this is why it’s so hard for me to classify myself as a Korean learner.  Am I still in the “beginner” category?  After 5 years of on-and-off studying, I sure hope not.  I’m probably intermediate, but my grammatical fluency is more on the “advanced” side of intermediate, while my vocab fluency is definitely more on the “beginner” side of intermediate.  [The concept of beginner/intermediate/advanced stages is also a very abstract concept.  Who decides where one category stops and the other begins?]

The bottom line is, I’m trying to work more on my vocabulary fluency.  Instead of just listening to TTMIK’s lessons or studying my Korean Grammar in Use textbook, I’m trying to do more outside reading and listening to bolster up my vocabulary fluency.

Whatever fluency means, I doubt I’ll ever reach a point where I’ll say “Okay, I’m fluent enough now.  I can stop studying.”  I’ll just keep trudging onwards towards that hazy abstract  goal of being more fluent, of speaking more naturally.

But really, that’s what makes this journey fun.  Always having something to strive for.


2 thoughts on “What Does “Fluency” Even Mean?

  1. Fluency is such a personal measure. I guess to me it means not feeling restricted in the types of conversations I would have in my mother tongue when I am having a similar conversation in a different language. Maybe it’s easier to define in terms of things you think you “ought to know”, but don’t know yet?
    To me it would be a pretty significant step to be able to have conversations about law, for others it would be completely irrelevant to the extent that they just know what’s going on if they ever get arrested. I don’t know a thing about quantum physics in any other language so I’m not going to spend my time learning Korean vocabulary related to it, but for someone else that’s a really crucial point to “not feel restricted”, and they might also need a few different grammatical patterns to go with that vocabulary.

    For others, in order to be”fluent”, all you need is “one more beer?”.

    When people say they are “fluent”, you basically have to know the level of their native language to know which standard they hold themselves to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Fluency by topic is an interesting concept. It’s a lot easier to measure how well you can talk about one subject (compared to how well you can talk about everything in general).
      There’s no real point in becoming fluent in topics like politics, chemistry, or law unless you’re going to actually be using that fluency in your everyday life. On the other hand, as a math teacher, maybe I should work towards my fluency in math, since I’ll be much more likely to encounter those conversations in my daily life.


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