A former Mayor of Vancouver has launched a program called “greeting fluency” in which he wants to encourage people in Vancouver to learn to greet one another in different languages. Being able to say “hello” and “how are you”, without any chance of understanding the response, and without really knowing how you sound, strikes me as a gimmick, that has nothing to do with fluency.

In my view, the most important aspect of fluency is being able to understand what is being said. I have worked with, and done business with, people who spoke English as a foreign language. I would far rather deal with someone who stumbled in expressing him or herself, but obviously understood exactly what I wanted to say. Similarly,I am far more uncomfortable when I don’t understand someone in a foreign language than when I make mistakes or struggle to find the best words or phrases.

Fluency is comfort in the language. There is no fluency without strong comprehension skills. “Greeting fluency” is largely meaningless from a language learning perspective. It might, however, inititiate someone into the world of language learning, generate an interest in a different language and culture, in getting to know people from a different milieu through language. So it might still have some benefits. However, mostly it just seems like the kind of thing that politicians do.