What does it mean to be “fluent” in a language?
What is fluency? There are many different definitions of fluency, from
“the property of a person or of a system that delivers information quickly and with expertise”.
“the smoothness or flow with which sounds, syllables, words and phrases are joined together when speaking quickly” (Bruce Harrell, 2007)
Usually we consider someone fluent in a language when he/she has a high level of language proficiency. But what would be a high level, and what makes you say that someone is proficient in a language? When it comes to define the level of fluency of someone in a foreign language or a learned language, fluency seems to determine the language use, as opposed to slow, halting use. But is then fluency necessary or even sufficient to determine – or even define – ones language proficiency? A person can be a fluent language user (i.e. use the language in a quick, not-halting way) but with a narrow vocabulary, limited discourse strategies and an inaccurate word use. One may even be illiterate but a fluent speaker. In fact, native language speakers are often incorrectly referred to as fluent.
When one considers the term of fluency in correlation of bilinguals, fluency is the ability to be understood by both native and non-native listeners. And when one becomes native or nearly native in the other language, he/she can be considered bilingual; no matter if the two (or more) languages were learnt simultaneously or subsequently, i.e. one after the other.
In terms of proficiency, fluency encompasses some skills that can be related but also taken separatedly: reading, writing, comprehension, speaking, reading comprehension. These skills can be acquired simultaneously or separately. That after age 11 it is “impossible” to acquire a language (i.e. in the more natural way, using memory based processes), is a myth. Everyone can acquire another language also later in life, he/she will just need more effort to attain the same results, especially on a phonetic level. (more about this in another post)
On a continuum that goes from Basic Interpersonal Communicative Skills (BICS; Jim Cummins) or conversational language to Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) or academic language people try to find out if their linguistic competence is “passive understanding (also called receptive knowledge), a limited communicational fluency, an adequate communicational fluency, a confident communicational fluency or a native or bilingual fluency. – “Communicative competence is also sometimes referred to as pragmatic or sociolinguistic competence, especially when the emphasis is on how to interpret the speaker’s intended meaning in a particular utterance, apart from the literal meaning”.
When talking about the fluency or linguistic competence of bilinguals (and I refer also to multilinguals with this term!) it becomes even more complicated as “bilingual” is, in itself not a very clear-cut term. In defining a bilingual, “the pronunciation, morphology and syntax used by the speaker in the language are key criteria used in the assessment”. Also the mastery of the vocabulary is taken into consideration, but the lexicon can be easily learnt without knowing the proper use of it. – This would require a more in-depth study of the semantics. Fact is, that testing or assessing the grammatical competence of a speaker is much easier than communicational competence. In order to have a clearer picture of ones comunicational competence, he/she should be assessed through the use of appropriate utterances in different settings.
This short film can give you an idea about the concept of fluency in languages: