I sometimes hear people say, in YouTube videos on language learning and elsewhere, that even with a few hundred words you can be fluent in a language, in other words that you can be fluent in a language even at a relatively low level of proficiency in the language. This doesn’t make sense to me.
What is fluency?
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’, this is usually interpreted to mean you are very fluent. It’s the same as saying I speak X 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.
I once saw a video which wanted to make the case that we can be fluent with just a few words, by showing someone walking around town in Prague with limited Czech. This was supposed to prove that one doesn’t need many words to exchange pleasantries with shopkeepers, and thus one can be fluent with few words. But is this fluency? I don’t think so. Do you?
To me fluency means that you can converse on a wide range of subjects, not without mistakes but comfortably. This means the person you are speaking with, who may be a native speaker with a large vocabulary, doesn’t need to make allowances for you. That person doesn’t need to restrict what they say, and the words they use, to what they think you will understand. It is almost more important to understand what is said, than to be able to respond fluently. Your fluency will improve with practice, but if you have poor comprehension you are lost.
The European Framework of Reference
There are different ways of measuring levels of proficiency in a language. Perhaps the best general reference point is the European Common Framework of Reference which divides proficiency into six levels from A1, A2, B1, B2, C1 and C2. In my view, B2 is the level where you are fluent. If you look at the summary description below you will see that this level, sort of advanced intermediate, is actually quite high. It means you understand most situations, and can express yourself on a wide variety of subjects, albeit with mistakes.
The key points of this level are as follows.
- Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialization.
- Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
- Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.
Reading and fluency
I think that to be fluent, you have to be able to do certain things. Of course, you need to speak in a way that is comfortable for you and for the person you are talking to. But reading is a big part of getting to that level. To be fluent, you usually 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 comfortably, enjoyably, without struggling.
In English, newspaper English corresponds to a grade seven or grade eight vocabulary level. The biggest limiting factor of any content is the vocabulary level. You need quite a large vocabulary to do many things, to understand newspapers, radio news, to converse on subjects of interest etc.. In fact you need a larger vocabulary than what is needed just to read newspapers in order to be really fluent, in my view. In order to be able to call yourself fluent, you should also be able to read books. Perhaps not literature, although that would be good, but certainly books of non-fiction on subjects of interest to you. If you have that level of vocabulary and good comprehension, you can build your ability to speak, just by speaking a lot.
Listening, and especially reading, were the most important components of my learning activities while learning Mandarin Chinese in 1968; where I spent most of my time and energy. If I had had a system like LingQ when I was learning Chinese, it would have been much much easier. The ability to translate words and phrases instantly, and not have to look them up, and the ability to hear these words instantly, all speed up the learning process immensely.
Anything you find online can be turned into a language lesson on LingQ, not only news articles. Create lessons with YouTube videos, audiobooks, blog posts, Netflix shows and more. Check out the complete guide to importing to find out more.
Faster learning means more intense learning. It took me nine months to reach a level where I could translate newspaper editorials from English to Chinese and from Chinese to English, read novels and interpret. I did this in the age of the open-reel tape recorder, long before the age of the internet, online dictionaries, language learning apps, MP3 files and YouTube. I would have been able to achieve more if I had the tools that are available today.
Fluency and vocabulary
A reliable indicator of fluency, or at least potential fluency, is the number of words you know. You still have to practice speaking, in fact you need to speak a lot in order to speak well. But to do that, to have meaningful conversations, you need a lot of words.
Some people want to claim it’s possible to be fluent with a limited vocabulary, that someone could be fluent with a grade three vocabulary level. That works if you are ten years old. 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– in their own language. Certainly, the people that I would like to communicate with in any language I am learning, have large active vocabularies. Therefore I have to have a fairly large passive vocabulary in order to understand what they’re saying, in order to engage with them in meaningful conversations. Fluency implies two-way communication. You can learn a few phrases using some memory technique and try 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, vocabulary and comprehension, as a key component of fluency, or at least potential fluency.
Fluency and your personal needs
Your language goals will depend on your needs. If you have a need to communicate right away because you’re in the country and you have to go to the stores to buy things etc. you will feel more pressure to speak early. In my case, far away from where the languages I’m learning are spoken, 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. However, these people would be even more inhibited if they had poor comprehension skills and a more limited vocabulary. Once people have acquired a good understanding of the language, they generally have the vocabulary and therefore the confidence they need so that they can start to develop the ability to speak well, in other words fluently.