What does "fluency" really mean?

What does

What does "fluency" really mean?

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How many times have you heard someone say “I’m fluent in X language”? If you study a language you have also probably been asked if you are fluent in that language countless times. When it comes to these types of questions, people seem to equate language fluency with mastery, which surprisingly turn out not to be synonymous. The word fluent derives from the latin word fluentem, meaning to flow easily. A person who is fluent in a language has the ability to let the conversation flow freely without struggling to string words and thoughts together, allowing for a conversation wherein the fluent person is understood without effort by the listener. 


However, being fluent in a language does not necessarily imply that a person speaks accurately. A fluent individual, while speaking with fluidity and ease, might make many mistakes in vocabulary and grammar. Making these mistakes does not minimize a fluent person’s language ability because the person is still able to express themself and is, therefore, not blocked by a need to stop to think or translate from their native tongue to the other language. Being fluent in a language is an impressive feat that requires enough linguistic competency to play with words and work around any existing language gaps even though mistakes may be present.


Despite the fact that language fluency might not imply mastery, language fluency is a great goal to strive for. Many can argue that fluency also has a lot more to do with confidence and courage than it does the number of hours studying lists of vocabulary and grammatical structures. When someone is confident and unafraid to make mistakes, that person is much more likely to seek opportunities to speak, take risks, and experiment with the language, whereas a person who is too concerned with accuracy might not take as many opportunities to speak for fear of not wanting to say something unless he or she can say it with the correct grammar and vocabulary.


The million-dollar question is which is more important: fluency or accuracy? The ultimate goal for many would be to achieve a seamless blend of fluency and accuracy, much like a native speaker of the language. We know that a person who is fluent can easily navigate their way through various conversations, but a person who isn’t quite fluent but highly accurate can also get by. When someone is focused on being accurate (but not fluid) and has enough vocabulary and grammatical knowledge, they are able to express themself and might actually be speaking the language better than a “fluent” person - just slower. In certain cases, non-native speakers of a language even speak more accurately than native speakers due to having studied the language so intricately. The question of whether or not fluency or accuracy is more important depends on why a person needs the language. People who have moved or who are planning to move to another country will need to gain confidence in being fluent because they will mostly need the language for functional purposes within that society. Those who are fluent can also make friends and find work without perfect language precision. Conversely, someone who needs English for a presentation or to write work emails will need to focus more on accuracy and clarity than fluency. Often times, the focus on fluency vs. accuracy is a personal decision unique to each person.


As an English teacher, it is important that you do some investigation to find out what exactly your students need before designing a curriculum. In the case that your student has more general needs, design a curriculum that includes a balance of fluency and accuracy activities. Throughout any given lesson, there should be moments dedicated to each. Every skill you teach (reading, writing, speaking, grammar, and listening) can be adapted for fluency and accuracy. For example, a reading lesson can be focused on accuracy when correcting pronunciation or vocabulary usage, but it can also be focused on fluency by allowing students to freely express their thoughts and opinions about the reading passage. A grammar lesson can be focused on accuracy when it comes to getting the grammar itself correct, but fluency with all of the discussion surrounding the grammar. If you are too focused on accuracy, it will be hard to move forward quickly enough to make any real language progress and you run the risk of demotivating your students. If you are only focused on fluency then students will eventually hit a ceiling where it becomes harder to express more complex thoughts without having studied the grammar, such as with conditionals for hypothetical present and past situations.


In today’s world, both fluency and accuracy have a place, so teachers need to be able to appreciate both so they can help students reach their goals. The popularity of the communicative method in recent times has allowed the best teachers to create lessons which focus on accuracy while also allowing students to speak freely enough to build confidence and fluidity. At Via Lingua, TEFL certified teachers walk away with the skills to accomplish this in their classrooms, allowing students to meet any goal they set out for be it personal or professional. Whether you are setting out to hit your own language learning goals or to help others reach theirs, consider the importance of fluency and accuracy in the language learning journey and you will reach your goals quicker and more efficiently than you could have imagined.

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