Levels of Language Proficiency

Levels of Language Proficiency: What Is Fluency?

I recently watched a video featuring polyglots Luca Lampariello and Anthony Lauder. In it they talk about levels of language proficiency and make the point that you don’t need to have a large vocabulary in order to be fluent. Anthony has said in the past that even with a few hundred words you can be fluent, or you can be fluent at a relatively low level of proficiency in a language. I don’t agree at all.

First of all, let’s look at this word ‘fluency’. Fluency is a bit like the word ‘good’ or ‘well’. If you say ‘I’m fluent in a language’, that actually means you are very fluent. If you say ‘I speak a language well’, it means that you speak it well. If you say ‘I speak the language quite well’ or ‘I’m quite fluent’, that actually suggests something less than fluency. You might even suggest ‘I’m fairly fluent in the language’. To my mind, that’s less than fluent. In the video, Anthony and Luca talk about how Anthony can go around town in Prague and doesn’t need many words to exchange pleasantries with shopkeepers or whatever, but is this really fluency? I don’t think so.

There are different ways of measuring levels of proficiency in a language. There’s the European Common Framework of Reference which divides proficiency into six levels from A1 A2, B1 B2, C1 C2. In my view, B2 is where you are fluent, so that’s actually fairly far along. In order to be fluent, you have to be able to do certain things. I think you have to be able to read a newspaper. Now, in Chinese that might cause some difficulty because the writing system isn’t phonetic. So, conceivably, you could be fluent and not be able to read a newspaper, but in most situations someone who is fluent in a language should be able to read a newspaper.

Levels of Language ProficiencyI know in English the difficulty level of the average newspaper is roughly grade seven, grade eight and that the biggest factor in the difficulty level of any content is the vocabulary level. Granted, you could have complex sentences and complex structures, but I think the main difference, particularly if we’re talking about levels of fluency, is how many relatively less frequent words are used. In order to be able to call yourself fluent, you needn’t be able to read esoteric literature or scientific papers. You should, however, be able to read the newspaper and to do that you do need at least the vocabulary of someone in grade seven. That’s a fair number of words; it’s got to be 7,000 to 10,000 words in English.

Of course if we’re talking about levels of proficiency in a foreign language or levels of fluency, then I also think the biggest indicator is the number of words you know. So if you are very fluent, I mean if you are at university level, you are going to know a lot more words than someone who can only read at a grade three level. Now, you could argue that someone could be fluent with a limited vocabulary. It’s possible that someone could be fluent with a grade three level of vocabulary, but if you are an adult and you can only communicate with children, to my mind you’re less than fluent. If you can only talk about the weather and very basic things, even if you do so fluently, to my mind you’re not fluent.

Most adult native speakers have a large vocabulary–a large active vocabulary. Certainly, the people that I would like to communicate with have large active vocabularies; therefore, I have to have a fairly large passive vocabulary in order to understand what they’re saying. I think that fluency implies two-way communication. You can learn a bunch of sentences, you can use Anki or whatever to express yourself fairly quickly, but the trick is to understand what other people are saying. That is why I put so much emphasis on listening and reading.

Levels of Language ProficiencyMuch of this issue of fluency also depends on what your needs are. If you have a need to communicate right away because you’re in the country and you’re going to the stores, there’s going to be more pressure on you to speak. In my case, as let’s call it a “dilettante language learner”, I’m quite content to let my vocabulary accumulate and my ability to understand develop until I have a need or opportunity to speak a lot, and then my speaking develops quite quickly.

Now, there are people who understand well and who are too shy or inhibited to speak. I think those people are the minority. Once people have acquired a good understanding of the language, they generally have the vocabulary and therefore the confidence that they can start to develop the ability to speak.

So that’s my view on Luca and Anthony’s video. I don’t agree with them. I think if we’re talking about not quite or somewhat fluent, if we’re talking about really fluent, then that requires a large vocabulary. What do you think?

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17 comments on “Levels of Language Proficiency: What Is Fluency?

Yes and no. You can be fluent in a magazine with the limited vocabulary and grammar. With a limited vocabulary and ideas you can even be a successful politician in your native country.
Yet, your fluency will probably not reach this of James Joyce. Or in another language of Leo Tolstoi.

    Steffan Webb

    yes and no again.
    There are lots of people who do not talk even though they know lots of words and grammar. Many people are afraid to talk, afraid to make mistakes and therefore never learn from making mistakes. Reading and getting a large vocab does help build confidence though and I am a great fan of reading out loud to combine learning new vocab and getting used to making the correct sounds.

    Sharon Hellmann

    I think “fluent” means many things to many people. What it has come to mean to me over time is that one can understand most speakers in a daily setting and be understood by most listeners in a daily setting. With that understanding, “fluent” is about kindergarten age. From that basic level of understanding and understandability, we build vocabulary and content knowledge to reach higher levels of proficiency. Having an educated adult level, native-like vocabulary is far beyond fluency. This holds true for first language and additionally acquired languages. How many native speakers of English do we know who have a command of English far lower than a college educated speaker? And yet, those with the lesser developed English are still fluent. They can understand and be understood.

Andrea

To me fluency has less to do with the size of your vocabulary or even being able to read the newspaper. I consider myself fluent if I can have a conversation without needing time to think. This obviously depends on the topic to a point but basically sharing an opinion or a viewpoint in everyday conversations is what I aim for. This of course does require a pretty good sized vocabulary and good listening comprehension skills. I would put fluency at C1 personally. I suppose I kind of take it literally, fluency is reached when I can have a fluent conversation.
I also don’t think that fluency is necessarily what people should aim for. To be fluency is very close to actually mastering a language. Depending why someone is studying a language that may not be the goal. Nonetheless even if you’re happy with a tourist level somewhere between B1 and B2, you shouldn’t claim to be fluent, you’re functional. Anyways just my two cents

    Andy Barker

    Sorr Andrea I have to disagree here. To call a level between B1 and B2 a ‘tourist’ level is wrong at best, it could be considered insulting. I believe most tourists never reach a strong A2. When I reached B2 in Spanish I had to be able to watch films with ease, read novels, not just newspapers, have hour long conversations on challenging themes, write essay length texts and understand ‘with ease’ normal conversations. It took me a long time and hours of hard work yet you would say I have achieved a tourist level? To gain C1 took almost as long again and I learnt a lot but honestly what I learned after B2 has contributed almost nothing to my ability to have conversations about every day terms. My 6 year old son is perfectly fluent in English, he can communicate with anyone and you could never ever say he has a tourist level of English. Would he pass a C1 exam or even a B2 exam? Never in a million years.

    Just my two cents.

Cristina

Hello. it is such an interesting article! I definitely agree with you on everything but the last part. I belong to that minority of people who have a large passive vocabulary but cannot use it actively for fear of embarrassing themselves. Yes, I know it is unusual,but I am a teacher and therefore hate to know I might make a fool of myself mispronouncing a word or using a wrong one. Thus, I can say my level of understanding French is C1 for reading since I can read any novel, B1 for understanding natives speaking at a normal level and only A2 for speaking it.
Funny,though,when I simply had to speak Italian ( as none of the Italian teachers could understand English or French) I had no problem, though I could barely utter simple sentences. But this was because I had never studied Italian and I had no high expectations from my speaking skills.
Does this make any sense to you?

I am agree with your disagreeing! Without the vocabulary you will hit so many roadblocks. Sure as a simple tourist this will not be a problem and you will feel “fluent”, but you are not unless you can make friends with someone in the language. And that surely will not involve a few hundred words.

K Venzke

I would say that “fluent” is unhelpful (or sets a really high bar) as a description of general proficiency in a language. I try not to use it. I’m not sure this is what Luca is talking about though. In my experience there is a skill of just being able to fluently spit out well-constructed, grammatical sentences, and this doesn’t require much vocabulary. For example, I became pretty fluent (in this limited sense) in Spanish when I worked in food service. (I had a background in French, a Spanish dictionary with a grammar reference, and coworkers who mostly spoke Spanish.) I had a small vocabulary, and couldn’t understand a lot that was said back to me, and I had no clear path to obtaining more vocabulary simply by being fluent in the grammar. But people understood me, I had fun (even just speaking to myself!), and it’s a skill I would have needed eventually (if mastering Spanish had been a goal of mine).

Gustavo

I’am a Brazilian Guy, I have been listening a lot during 7 months…Totally agree, i study with Anki, and today i have seen series like “how i met your mother” with 60% to 90% of compreehnsion. I have 4800 setences on anki.

This post assumes that fluency and proficiency are synonymous. They are not. Fluency means the amount of language coming out of your mouth (or pen), not the amount that helps you accomplish your communicative goals. Proficiency is a better term. It is a measure of the skills you have in each of the categories of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and it’s related to the task and the context. I can be quite proficient reading and writing in French, but I suck at speaking and I struggle to understand speech. So my proficiency levels are different in the different skills. I am highly proficient in speaking and listening in Spanish, and EVEN higher in reading and writing. And I’m most proficient in Spanish in an academic or cultural context, somewhat less so in certain social contexts. So “fluency” is an almost useless term–it doesn’t tell us anything about how your language skills work for you and how successful your language performance is. (I’m wondering about those videos too–a lot of language is coming out, but is it accomplishing for him what he wants to accomplish?)

    ‘I am fluent in French’ and ‘I am proficient in French are’, from a practical point of view, synonymous. No one refers to fluency in terms of the amount of language flowing out of a person’s mouth, but rather in terms of how competent the person is in using the language. Yes there are differences in implication, but it is not possible to be proficient in a language without being able to speak it comfortably. Fluency is far from a useless term, since it is the one most widely used, and generally most widely understood to mean proficiency. Of course you could specify that you are a proficient reader but not a proficient or fluent speaker but that is beside the point. When we talk about proficiency in a language or fluency in a language not otherwise specified, we mean the same thing.

Bataa

I agree with Steve. For example, I can read many things (Jane Austen, Mark Twain, George Eliot …etc). But I can’t understand when people are talking. The language is said to have four rooms. Understandig,speaking,reading and writing. Person may be in one or two rooms.

iAnonGuy

I quit French because:

1. I visited France. The people are awful. I would never go again.

However, when I went to Spain… It almost felt like home. The people were so hospitable. They volunteered to go with us around the city and show us good tourist spots. They’d use us to help them with their English, and they’d point to things and tell us Spanish words, help us with pronunciation for phrases, and even tell us phrases and urge us to go ask Native for directions so that we got Practice. I had no will or want to learn Spanish, but the difference in social culture there as opposed to France was so staggeringly large… It was surprising and refreshing all the same.

I would never turn down a trip to Spain, ever, after that experience.

I can hold basic conversation in French. My grammar is probably better than my vocabulary at this point, TBH, since classroom learning drills that more than vocabulary. I can read French text and pretty much (through deduction, context clues, and some guesswork) understand what I’m reading at a relatively decent pace considering my level – again, probably due to classroom study, since we barely spoke French but had to read a lot of it to do the work. The biggest issue is…

2. Pronunciation. Really, I don’t think my pronunciation is horrible by any means, but French pronunciation is literally painful to practice.

3. Language Learning materials are too expensive.

4. While many of these companies (and many people) sing the praises and benefits of learning a second language, it simply isn’t a priority here and there really isn’t a need. That sounds selfish, but it’s the reality in the world at this point.

a. English is the lingua franca of business.
b. I have no relatives outside of the USA.
c. The Time and Expense that it takes to learn a language can be better spend learning things that are more… rewarding; like software development, a new sport or athletic activity, going to the gym (and actually socializing instead of having earbuds with foreign language material blasting in your ears, etc.).

That being said, Spanish is more useful and I actually regret taking French instead of Spanish when I was in school, as I’d be able to get immersion with that language due to the amount of Native Spanish speakers everywhere I’ve lived in this country (and I’ve lived in quite a few places), as well as those that I’ve worked with or attended school/college with.

The problem I have now, is that everything else is magnified in difficulty because I am Native English and I spent so much time studying and practicing French. German sound completely foreign. I remember going through books and it just made sense where to put verbs but that’s all lost now (all I have is memories of the experience, not the application of the knowledge acquired). I couldn’t even pick a verb out of a German sentence these days. It almost feels like English is my first language, French is my second language (to a degree) and everything else literally sounds like noise.

Maybe I’ll try Spanish again in the future, due to its usefulness and proliferation throughout this country. But for now, I’m enjoying “not caring” about this stuff.

Constantly trying to find resources, podcasts and movies that didn’t have awful audio. Wasting money on the cheaper learning material that turned out to be utterly useless, etc. I’m over that 😛

I admire what people who learned languages have endured to get to where they are, even more, because I got at least a taste of the struggles that come with the journey!

Brenda

The OED defines fluency as “1.1 The ability to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately: 1.2
The ability to express oneself easily and articulately.” Note the emphasis on speaking and writing. And both definitions stress the ease at which you can do this. To me, this means the ability to speak and write about the same things you can speak and write about in your native language or languages. You should be able to carry on a conversation with friends and colleagues without pausing to mentally look up words. Bad grammar in the language just feels wrong. You don’t necessarily know why. You may have an accent, but your pronunciation is good enough that native speakers understand what you say. Your CEFR level is between C1 and C2.

Julio

Hi Steve,

I agree fluency means a fairly high level of proficiency (B2+) and it requires a broad vocabulary.

However, this was not the core message I got from the video. The message I got from the video is that you can have basic conversations in a language without having a large vocabulary and that is very exciting and motivating. So if you have the opportunity you should keep doing it and this will keep you motivated while you continue to develop your language skills. And this is much better than traditional language classes.

This is not necessarily the way I would approach language learning. I am very much aligned with you on how I am learning languages. But some people seem to find it very rewarding to have basic conversations with people and if that gives them the motivation to keep having exposure to the language, then it should help them eventually reach a higher level of fluency.

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