How many languages do you speak/know/etc? Acquaintancy vs. Competency vs. Proficiency vs. Fluency

It’s not infrequently that I get asked a version of the first question. It happened a week or so ago, a girl in my research office casually started conversation with, “So, how many language do you speak?”

My reaction varies a little based on the question, or more precisely the verb chosen in the question. Generally speaking, I don’t like to launch into a discourse on the difference between knowing/speaking/acquisition/etc.. That’s what this place is for!

I think one of the difficulties is that we have a Native Language concept that interfers or influences how we think about L2s. That is, we generally think we ‘know’ our L1(s), and treat them as a singular entity that is “known”. Even though, of course, Native speakers often don’t ‘know’ some things about their language, or make errors, or any number of things. Let’s not even get into the idea of idiolects and each language as an idealisation. We tend to think of Languages as Idealised Units, and knowledge as binary: you take a course of instruction and then you “know” TL. Even when we know this is wrong, we still have this tendency. We, ironically, need better vocabularies for talking about knowing Languages!

I like the term “Acquaintance” to mark any general knowledge about a language and an ability up through the beginner stages. It’s a useful tag for saying, “I’ve come into contact with TL (target Language), know a little bit about it and know a little bit of it.” It’s vague enough and humble enough to cover a wide range of levels below the rest. I would say that I’m acquainted with German, French, Italian, Spanish, and ‘well-acquainted’ with Biblical Hebrew.

Let’s skip forward to “fluency”. This is probably the most difficult term. It’s used for such a broad range of abilities. Bennie Lewis of Fi3M fame pins it as low as B2 (in his “Fluent in 3 Months, kindle loc. 674). I suspect most people think of it as higher than this, C1 at least. For most people, fluent means something close to Native-like: an ability to speak about a broad range of topics, in depth, without any errors that hinder communication. It’s, frankly, difficult to reach such a level for an L2, primarily because the sheer time to go from B2 to C1 and then to C2 is really quite vast, and requires a lot of time functioning in the L2. I rarely say I’m fluent in a language (except English!)

What’s between the two? I like to use the terms “competent” and “proficient”. Recently I’ve been reading Alice Omaggio’s Teaching Language in Context: Proficiency-Oriented Instruction, which is an interesting book for all sorts of reasons. Although these terms could be used interchangeably, or with various nuance, I treat ‘competent’ as lower than ‘proficient’; “competent” in my mind is someone who can understand the language without frequent miscommunication, and can manipulate the language to express what they want. It’s a lower-intermediate level. “Proficient” in my view is more what Bennie thinks of as “fluent” – they speaker has a mastery of competency, so to speak. They are able to discourse about a range of topics, and have socio-communicative strategies for managing when they are out of their depth. They are not near-Native, but they can function and survive in a wide array of TL settings, without needing to resort to their L1s.

Generally I would say I am competent in Gaelic. I would say I (was) proficient in Mongolian, though it’s probably slipping. Depending on audience I am usually happy to say I’m proficient in Ancient Greek and Latin. Primarily because, although my conversational skills are low, I am rarely called upon to speak in these languages, and my high level reading abilities mean I am equipped for what I do in them.

Of course, in an ideal language-learning world we would have unlocked all secrets and have a fast-track method for moving students rapidly from A1 to C2, from acquaintance to ‘fluency’. But we don’t, we just make up these labels to try and categorise a range of phenomena, our raw data on those times when we succeed or fail in communication, whether transmitting or receiving. What’s more important, in my view, is the simple principle of Language learning momentum, to keep moving forward rather than backward in one’s L2s.


Sometimes I just say 5 and move along with my day.

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