Levels of Language Proficiency: What Is Fluency?

Levels of Language Proficiency: What Is Fluency?

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?

 

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.

 

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.

19 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.

Pamela H Long

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.

Name *yuri

As I understand it, “being fluent” is to be able to communicate clearly and effortlessly with minimal grammatical/vocabulary mistakes in pretty much any situation, as well as understand virtually anything you hear. In other words, you need to be able to use your target language as flexibly as you would your mother tongue. As a rule of thumb, when I am learning a language, I’ll ask myself: “Do I know how to say this in my mother tongue?” If the answer is yes, I know that I’ll have to learn how to say it in my target language as well before I consider myself fluent. Anything less than that is just “speaking a foreign language”.

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