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What Does "Fluent" in a Second Language Mean?

written by: Eric W. Vogt • edited by: Rebecca Scudder • updated: 8/2/2012

It can be impressive when you hear that a person is fluent in a foreign language. It can be just as disappointing to find out that they aren't really fluent. This article presents some observations about the complexities of learning and mastering a foreign language.

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    If you’ve ever heard a conversation similar to the one below and were just a little annoyed, you might enjoy this article about the myths and facts surrounding the notion of fluency.

    “Oh, my! I had no idea you spoke French so fluently!"

    Well, yes. I picked it up in my junior year of college during my semester in Paris."

    No matter how this exchange is delivered or who is speaking, regardless of the sincerity, sarcasm, humility (real or feigned) with which it is intoned, there is a mass of misunderstanding on the part of both speakers about what it means to be fluent in a second language, how it is, or can be measured and how one attains such a status.

    The first problem most readers probably see immediately is the vagueness of the term “fluent." We all seem to know what it is when we think we’re hearing someone speak fluently, but the truth is, unless we also speak that language, how are we to judge the speaker?

    First of all, for a monolingual person, the subject of judging someone’s fluency is a dead end. No matter how intelligent or successful they may be in other ways, monolingual people have no ability to judge firsthand the fluency, sophistication or language skills someone purports to have or is purported to have in another language. They are as limited in this area as a color-blind person in a paint store. And, analogously, they depend on those who can see color to tell them what is what when it comes to color.

    That means that when a speaker of another language, whether it is a teacher or a translator, says that something must be said in a certain way in the language they teach, translate or interpret into or from, or that what one wants to say simply can’t be said in the target language as it is in English, it is sometimes difficult to convince them that it is so. The fact is, many monolingual people exhibit lingua-centric attitudes that, when pointed out, cause them a moment of confusion. For instance, I knew a man who was puzzled when he met someone who told him, through an interpreter, that he was a Russian/Korean interpreter. My acquaintance expressed his puzzlement out loud by asking “why would anyone need to do that?"

    The more subtle phrase that many people use either glibly in feigned humility or unthinkingly, perhaps to shift attention from themselves, is that one “picks up" a language. People pick up a cold riding in la garre, but they will not pick up a language that way, nor that quickly.

    From the learner’s emotional and mental perspective, language acquisition beyond puberty is exhausting. The more one learns, the more must be retained. The weight one carries gets greater exponentially and yet their own idealistic expectation is that they should be moving just as quickly, as spontaneously as learning in their native language. The road to fluency is one of fits and starts, plateaus and brick walls.

    Measuring fluency is complex, but the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has developed rubrics for the various levels of oral proficiency, using an exam known as the Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI). This exam usually is conducted on the phone and is administered by interviewers who are highly trained in the procedure. The interview is taped and evaluated in a blind procedure by two evaluators (one of them being the interviewer). The ratings of the OPI are nationally recognized and are the private sector equivalent of the exam administered by the Foreign Service Institute. Other methods exist for determining fluency, but they are not officially, or at least not nationally, recognized and often depend on self-reported data.

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