Ad nauseum: what is fluency?

Discussion in 'General Discussion' started by Peregrinus, Jun 5, 2014.

  1. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    The question of the definition of fluency has been beat to death over the years at HTLAL. But this is a new forum and it hasn't (yet) been flogged here. :) So let's have it!

    Three words stick out for me from the debates on the other forum: fluent, fluid and proficient. And then of course there are the 4+1 competencies: the active ones of speaking and writing, and the passive ones of listening and reading. Plus some researchers add another one that is an enhanced listening comprehension: the ability to follow the course of an ordinary conversation among native speakers.

    To me, fluency = fluidity + proficiency across all 4+1 competencies. Anything less requires at least one, and most likely more, modifiers. And by proficiency, at least for reading, I go by the lexical threshold which =15,000+ word vocabulary, at least for English.

    Those who advocate that one can be fluent with only 3K words, really only can claim one can in speaking fluidly use those words in highly constrained/ideal conditions, namely: the the conversation goes into no real depth, one uses frequent and often awkward circumlocutions, and one gets to guide the conversation. So they might be fluid, but lacking any degree of proficiency by educated standards, they are merely fluid across a restricted scope of the language.

    While it is true that virtually no one would claim that say a native speaker with only a grade school education is not fluent, in reality that person's use of his/her own language is constrained by a lack of full proficiency, despite the fact it may be perfectly adequate for customary daily needs and interactions.

    Too many course designers and language teachers have sought to advocate for a restricted definition of fluency to support their own financial interests. And all the anecdotal "evidence" stories in the world don't overcome research which supports the necessity of having a much larger vocabulary for both listening and reading comprehension. After all, if you can't comprehend native speakers and native written materials, then again you can only claim some modified level of fluency, regardless of how fluidly you might use the little vocabulary that you know.

    Anyway, that's my, perhaps not quite so humble, and likely contentious, opinion.
  2. Bob

    Bob Active Member VIP member

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    When people pick up a product that says "fluency guaranteed", they are probably thinking that means that they will be able to use this language like their own if they just tough it out. In reality you could probably put that phrase on every language product out there and never be successfully sued. What is fluency? A meaningless word.

    I find it much more useful to describe your actual abilities. "I understand it, but I can't speak it" , "I can speak it but don't understand it if you talk fast", "I can only read it". But hmmm maybe that could even be abused because someone could say "I speak x" when all they did is memorize a phrasebook and use a horrible accent.
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  3. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    I avoid the word. Etymologically, it means "flowingly", making it the same as your term "fluid". All the technical literature uses this sense of the word. In common speech, it has become useless, as no-one seems to be able to agree what it means. Why try to create a definition when you know that everyone's going to be thinking something different when you use the word?

    Abandon the word - it is a lost cause.
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  4. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    While I acknowledge that, the technical literature also uses "proficient" or other measures such as "lexical threshold" along with "fluid", at least from what I have read, i.e. they don't use "fluent" in isolation.


    I think I would dispute that assertion, because "common usage" to me means as pertaining to the common man/woman's usage. Among experienced language learners who have discussed this, then yes it has mostly become useless. But if you told the average man/woman on the street that you were fluent in language X, but with caveats such as you could not read a newspaper and get more than the bare gist, or hold a conversation at length where an issue was discussed in any depth (due to lack of vocabulary for the most part), then I think said person would laugh at your calling yourself fluent.


    While in practical terms that may be true, I would at least like a more proper definition of "fluent" to be held on this forum, if for no other reason that we can call B.S. on the exaggerated claims of courses and so-called (as opposed to actual) polyglots. To me this is a matter of intellectual honesty.
  5. tastyonions

    tastyonions Member VIP member

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    Fluency is what just about every native speaker beyond a pretty young age has and is a result of mastering the core (most common) grammar and vocabulary to the point where they are more or less completely automatic and can thus be used in a "flowing" manner. You can indeed be fluent but illiterate or fluent with a vocabulary of a few thousand words.

    Vocabulary, reading ability, and all the rest fall for me under the term "proficiency." For me it is the other way around from how you put it: any useful definition of proficiency will include some degree of fluency, because someone who is tiresome and inefficient to communicate with due to the amount and length of unrhythmic pauses and uhm-ing in his or her speech is not a very proficient speaker.
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  6. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Since the common person in the street regards the "fluent" as being both fluid and proficient, do you object to my definition above which requires both? Dictionary definitions also seem to support that. Also, while we would obviously regard children beyond a certain age as "fluent", should that standard/definition for native speakers, also be applied to L2 learners? Note that above where I talked about exaggerated definitions of fluency requires being able to direct the conversation (or read graded material). Isn't that also the case with children but in reverse, i.e. we grade our speech to their abilities? So again, is the standard for native speaker children applicable to L2 learners or descriptions of what most around here would regard as mere beginner courses?
  7. tastyonions

    tastyonions Member VIP member

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    Tell a person in the street that you are fluent in Russian but can't read it, and they might indeed laugh at you...until some of your Russian friends arrive and you start speaking the language with the same ease and flow that they have. I think that the person in the street's conception of fluency, if it is indeed what we are supposing it to be, has a lot to do with the conflation of "learning a language" and "learning a language by working through a textbook or school course." But if confronted with the case above, I think they might be willing to rethink their definition (or maybe not!).

    I think that using "fluency" in any description of an independent study course with no interactive component is misguided, since a necessary ingredient in the achievement of fluency (either in the sense of "full proficiency" or just "fluidity") is consistent practice producing spontaneous language in realtime. But then even when language materials do make reference to relatively precise, established standards, they come up with rather improbable-looking estimates, e.g. Assimil putting the goal as B2 for their beginner courses! Anyway, in the case of language courses I think that "fluency" is more a marketing buzzword than a term used with a clear definition and connection to the actual content of the course...it is not so much that they are using a "restricted" definition of the term, but rather that they are (I think) using it without a clear definition in mind in the first place.
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  8. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Learners learning a L2 without also learning to read is I imagine somewhat rare, and maybe restricted to Asian character languages where there is a Latinized phonetic script. But what happens when those people realize that after exhausting pleasantries and safe "language island" topics, I can't really follow the course of their conversation or discuss any topic to any degree of depth because my vocabulary is very limited? I suspect that though they might not then laugh, they might smirk, as well as be puzzled by the combination of good pronunciation and shallow understanding.

    Re language course providers, teachers and many youtube polyglots, I think that they actually are intentionally muddying the definitions to their own benefit. Clear definitions are purposefully avoided.
  9. Wise owl chick

    Wise owl chick Active Member

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    For me, fluency in a language is when you can understand and speak / respond at the others' speakers natural speed, or the speed you can do this in your native langauge. (The others = the native speakers of the standard dialect or the variety you have learned).

    Sometimes I can speak very quickly, this is my natural speed, but other times when I cant' concentrate I can respond only slowly. I mean in my native language. Therefore I think that fluency can depend of some different things, at different times, circumstances and also depend of the individual.

    then the accuracy, I think that if you can understand the natives talking then this is sufficient prove of fluent reception. If you can speak at the language's normal speed (approximately) and the natives can understand, then this is prove of fluent production.

    By this, I am fluent in Dutch and German. I make more mistakes in German, but my fluency is ok, generally.
  10. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    From this thread
  11. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    That's a different discussion though, isn't it?

    You started by discussing what it means to you, but really the important point is what it means to the uninformed, average man on the street. What do they assume it means when a course description uses it, and how do these descriptions fail to live up to it?

    Personally, I think that would make a good PhD research project, because a formal definition would allow us to sue crappy books into oblivion for false advertising.

    But for now, we could, if you wanted, reframe the question this way:
    What is the difference between the average buyer's understanding of the word "fluent" and what language learning products offer as "fluent"?
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  12. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    @Cainntear,

    Yes that is a different discussion. But the funny thing is that the definition, or at least connotation, of "fluent" held by the person on the street, appears to be more rigorous than that held by many language learners and those with a financial interest in promoting learning products. Perhaps that is changing though since one often reads stuff on the internet about "picking up" a language.

    Regarding defending some definition of fluency, one might think that the CEFR folks would do that and challenge course vendors who promote inflated estimates of the level one can reach. Course authors slide by with this because they take some but not all of the stuff one needs for B1, and then a little of the stuff one needs for B2, and then put out that combination as B2. This lack of defending their level descriptions from marketing abuse, along with the low bar of 50% for passing, would make me as an employer (assuming I were aware of these issues), take CEFR certificates much less seriously. But then there is a lot of subjectivity in CEFR descriptions, especially since they refuse to assign some level of vocabulary to each level (which would be different depending on the individual languages).
  13. Big_Dog

    Big_Dog Administrator Staff Member

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    I'm not so sure about that, because when people ask me if I'm fluent, I ask them what they mean by that. At that point, they almost always ask if I can hold a conversation with a native speaker. Sometimes they ask if I can read and write, but that's less common. Nobody has ever asked me if I can use it just like I use English.
  14. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    The question is, what kind of conversation, as in scope, how in depth. Ask them if they mean just casual conversation or something broader and longer. And I suspect that they think, erroneously or not, that if one can hold a conversation, one can also naturally read and write with ease.
  15. Iversen

    Iversen Member VIP member

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    As a result of the discussions at HTLAL I have adopted the distinction between fluency and correctness - partly because it to some extent match another of my pet distinctions, namely the one between extensive and intensive learning activities. Extensive activities like reading books or watching TV without looking words up all the time result in fluency, while intensive activities are supposed to give me the knowledge that is necessary for correctness. Both are necessary, and I try to keep them separate because I see them as complementary, bordering on irreconcilable. You can be fluent without actually knowing a lot of words or using rare morphological forms, but at a low level. To become fluent at a higher level you need to interrupt the quest for fluency and study, and studies are notoriously slow.

    One thing more: for me fluency isn' restricted to speech - you can also be a fluent writer and even a fluent reader. Fluency in listening means that you can keep listening with a reasonable level of understanding, but contrary to reading you can't listen in an unfluent way - either you keep up with the speed or you are lost. And now we are at it: I see thinking in a certain language as a separate active skill - which then would be no. 6 after eavesdropping, as mentioned by Peregrinus.

    So to summarize: fluency is simply the art of speaking (or writing, reading, maybe listening) at a decent speed without unnecessary stops or corrections, and correctness is the ability to say or write things that are in accordance with the way native speakers/writers use a certain language. I accept that some Anglophones use the word fluency in another way, but I don't have to adopt that usage as long as there is a more precise way of expressing yourself.
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2014
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  16. luke

    luke Member VIP member

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    I think the CEFR touting vendors who say, New French with Ease takes you to B2 are really saying, "the most advanced lessons in the course would be suitable for B2 examination material if they were presented under similar circumstances". E.G., the student has never heard or read the material before and the time constraints are the same as the test.

    Fluency is a marketing buzzword, although I agree with TastyOnions characterization of it. E.G., if one can respond quickly and basically correctly to a variety of input, one is "fluent". That can come at a low vocabulary threshold.
  17. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    I don't think they have any justification for it. Until and unless someone successfully sues, they'll continue to write whatever the hell they want.
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  18. Peregrinus

    Peregrinus Active Member

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    Iversen,

    You sum up the discussion well, but I am still unsure of something regarding your beliefs about what it means to be fluent. You mention being fluent on a low level, and also in other competencies than speech. But when just the bare word "fluent" is used, as in "I am fluent in [insert language]", what level of proficiency does that mean to you (or to the common person)? In other words, can one honestly make such a statement without some "average" ability/proficiency as to depth/scope without adding one or more modifiers?

    I often poke fun at what I call the "3000 word crowd", whom I regard as intellectual grifters. While I grant their speech could be more fluid than someone with a far higher vocabulary knowledge, there is no way to me that they can be considered proficient except on a very low level (but which is a great platform on which to build). So must the unmodified use of "fluent" be divorced from any consideration of proficiency across all the competencies (I like your inclusion of thinking)? Or must we concede the word to the grifters who have a vested interest in it applying only to fluid speech, no matter how low the level?

    I would not object to anyone, including course vendors, using the word "fluent", if it were appropriately (honestly) modified.
  19. Cainntear

    Cainntear Active Member VIP member

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    Your use of the word "proficiency" is a bit weird here, as most people would use proficiency to mean "good at" in a general sense -- ie synonymous with the way you use "fluency".

    In technical terms proficiency is defined as a combination of both fluency (in the original sense of "fluidly, with flow") and accuracy. The word "accuracy" is pretty uncontroversial , and pretty descriptive, so a safe option here.
  20. Iversen

    Iversen Member VIP member

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    To Peregrinus: the problem is what you can do with a small vocabulary. If you are in a setting where you just have to speak about a few themes you may do fine with just a 1000 words or so. For instance you may know just enough words to say where you come from and where you are going, tell your name and say that you are studying a certain language and you would like to buy a hamburger. But if you are asked about your age or your father's job you may not know what to say. And you can¨'t say that you would like your hamburger without those pesky cucumber slices. Some people are expert in wedging their way out of such problematic situations, while others go blank and their speech grinds to a screeching halt. The former are fluent, albeit on a low level, whereas those who can't deal efficiently with obstacles to their conversation can't be called fluent even though they sometimes suceeds in saying a few sentences without stops.

    This may be down to psylogical differences, and I suspect that these psychological differences continue all the way up to the advanced level, but your languages becomes more and more robust the more words and constructions you know and the more you train speaking and writing 'like a bulldozer'. Personally I'm not particularly good at faking my way out of situations where a limited vocabulary has got me in the soup so I prefer just thinking until I feel I'm on safe grounds - and then it may even become hard to stop me from speaking. But others start speaking much earlier, and of course they become fluent in the restricted sense long before me.

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