I’m not fluent!

It’s a common question, “Are you fluent?” or “How many languages are you fluent in?”

But it’s not a very helpful question, because ‘fluency’ is a very difficult to define concept. Many people have the idea that you ‘learn a language’ and once you have learnt it you are a native-like speaker, with perfect pronunciation and complete mastery. This almost never happens for an L2 speaker.


Benny Lewis, of “Fluent in 3 months” fame, in his book of the same name, treats it as basically B2 on the CEFR and above. And he quotes “can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party”. It doesn’t help that ‘fluency’ is part of this criterion! Personally, I think B2 might peg what most people mean by ‘fluency’ a little too low, I think C1 might match most people’s perceptions a little better.


I’m not fluent in Latin or Greek. I don’t even pretend to be. I have far too little experience in speaking and listening, and conversation, to make any claims like this. I can read very competently, I can write moderately well, and I can buy my theoretical groceries (i.e. I have had and can have routine conversations about things I am familiar with). I wasn’t taught Latin or Greek communicatively, so it’s no wonder I’m not very communicative in them. Instead, I studied both in very traditional philological styles, grammar + translation + analysis. So I’m very good at grammar, translation, analysis.


However, I think this was a mistake; I think analysis is better achieved by learning communicatively. So in this regard I think of myself as a journeyman, someone who has at least done their apprenticeship and is on the way. One day, perhaps, I will be a master. And I take it that those of us interested in this kind of learning are on a journey together. We’re none of us perfect, but to quote a WAYK aphorism/technique, “We’ll all get there together.” Speaking a language isn’t an individualistic enterprise, it’s about a community of speakers. I’ll help you get further on that journey, and you’ll help me, even if we’re not in the same place to start with, and don’t end in the same place, we’ll both get a little further along the journey, which means the community will grow a little bit too.


Fluency is not a point. There’s no end goal where one arrives and says, “okay, I have learnt language X”. Acquisition of a language is not a binary Yes/No state of being. A much better approach is to ask:


* Did communication occur?

* Was the communicative event successful? (or was it failed communication? or miscommunication?)

* How successful?

* How ‘fluid’ was the communicative act? (Yes, we could use the word ‘fluent’, but it will only distract us; we are asking whether it flowed or whether it was halting, segmented, disrupted)

* How ‘comfortable’ was the communicative act on both sides? (Was it uncomfortable? Did it feel strained?)

* How much accomodating behaviour was necessary by one party or the other? (i.e. adjustment of language in order to facilitate communication, say, when more precise or fitting terms or structures would be more appropriate but would be less successful)


When we start to evaluate communicative actsevents, and discourses, we realise that the same speaker may perform and communicate outstandingly well at one time, but dreadfully at another. Are they a ‘fluent’ speaker? Fluency tries to raise the bar and say, “you need to be competent in all situations and communicative events”. I’m saying, junk that, let’s just work out how to learn from every communicative event that falls short, and work on how to improve not only an individual’s skills, but a language communities’ whole system of communication.

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