The Fluency Myth

Fluency is a myth.  There, I said it! Clients always come to me with their primary goal being “fluency,” but fluency is not a fixed state. Fluency means different things to different people. Fluency is different depending on the linguistic situation, the language skill and the social goals you want to accomplish through the language. Two main ideas are at the heart of this misunderstanding : (1) language is an unchanging monolith with fixed rules and one correct usage and (2) language fluency means you have mastered all the vocabulary and all the grammar of this unchanging language structure. However, language is always organically evolving. Many times language evolves through popular rule breaking! Native speakers do not know every word of their native language, nor are they masters of prescriptive grammar rules that say how they should speak. Even native speakers, in this sense, are not fluent. 

So what is fluency then, if even native speakers don’t live up to this grammatically correct ideal? For some learners, it is disappointing to hear that fluency as they imagine it doesn’t exist. For others, it is a liberation from feeling that their language skills aren’t good enough. They no longer feel like they have to meet an impossible goal and they feel like they can focus on their more immediate needs. I hope my clients all are able to take some of the pressure off of their language learning process and realize that fluency is relative to their needs and goals. Do you need to order food or ask for directions while on vacation? Or do you need to write academic papers for scientific journals? What about leading meetings with an international team? Fluency will look different for each of these different profiles. The language skills each needs are different. By focusing on what learners are already able to do with the language and building on their strengths, I hope they are able to gain confidence in their ability to speak (read, write, listen) in English or in any language they are learning. 

We learn from school that language is a subject that we need to perfect our knowledge in so that we can get good grades. Perfection is the goal. Correctly completing drills is the goal. Memorizing factual information is the goal. Memorizing dialogues is the goal. When we start learning languages outside of a school setting, we realize language learning is about using language creatively to communicate clearly in order to accomplish social and emotional goals. What does this mean? It means we use language to convey information, sure, but we also use it to persuade, to argue, to express love or sympathy, to make requests or to give thanks. There is no one right way to say things. Some ways of communicating will be more effective and intelligible than others, some will be closer to the mainstream language rules. If you are able to maintain a conversation, even with difficulty, you are fluent(ish).

People are all natural language learners. We all are born with the innate ability to learn language. Language learning is a skill that can be developed, but it is not a talent that only a lucky few are blessed with. As a language coach, I want to help you identify challenges, set appropriate goals, and make a plan so we can meet those goals together.

Remember, you don’t have to be perfect, you just have to be fluentish.