Language Learning

What is fluency?

When people hear that I studied German at university, they always ask “Are you fluent in German then?”
I always find it a difficult question to answer.

Miriam Webster defines fluency as ” the ability to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately.”
When I’m asked if I’m fluent, I feel I have to say “yes” even though it’s not always how I feel about my language ability.

Going by that definition,I am fluent in English (my native language) and German (my second language). I learned German for a total of 11 years. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t still make mistakes with gender and case agreement.

I’m hesitant to use the word fluent because I think it’s a very loaded term – my levels of language are vastly different between German and English. But maybe my problem is that they’re not meant to be compared. English is not a foreign language to me, and comparing my ability in both is doing my German a disservice.

I can write in German easily and accurately but that doesn’t mean it’s perfect, and I think non language learners find the concept of fluency hard to understand.

I think levels of language are so complicated, they’re hard to equate. Each country has their own exam levels and official European equivalence levels. Then add in the terms beginner, intermediate and advanced and suddenly everything is a lot trickier.

At university, a beginner’s course of Spanish was anyone who had never studied it before (like me) to people with a GCSE. To me, those levels of “fluency” cannot be equated. I was way behind those who had studied it before. Now that I’m going to take a GCSE myself this year, I can really understand now, how behind I was.

After two years of intensive Spanish, ex-beginners would sit the same exam as those who had gained an A level before joining university. No other language did this to their students. In two years I in no way felt equivalent fluency in German and Spanish.

After many years of language learning, I’ve realised that it’s all very subjective and personal, and constant comparisons and labels are off-putting. No two peoples language skills and abilities are the same, even if they sit the same exam and get the same marks.

Although these labels are helpful to employers, it’s hard to explain to a non language learner what you can and can’t say. It’s impossible to know every single word in German or Spanish.

Maybe now my friends will understand why I can talk about politics in German, but don’t know the word for dishwasher tablet!

What is your opinion of fluency and language labels? Let me know in the comments below or tweet me at @amjscorr.



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