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When Does One Become Fluent?
What is English language fluency? The phrase is employed constantly to describe a very high standard of capability in learners of English as a foreign or second language, yet measuring such a standard and therefore knowing when one has reached it can be quite a challenge. The task of becoming fluent as an English language speaker is therefore twofold: One must know a precise definition of what fluency truly means as well as be aware of educational paths that lead to this prestigious goal.
The Oxford English Dictionary, one of the world’s most authoritative sources regarding definitions of English words, explains fluency as "the ability to speak or write a particular foreign language easily and accurately." One can broadly interpret such a term as essentially the ability to understand the language and be understood in an English speaking country with minimal misunderstandings.
Such a skill, of course, entails a significant grasp of English grammatical constructs, many of which are nuanced and filled with exceptions, as well as an accent that does not impede comprehension when communicating with native speakers. Achieving this goal of English language fluency takes a great deal of effort for students learning English as a foreign or second language, usually including extensive personal experience of living in an English-speaking country.
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Fluency Versus Mastery
One should not conflate the term fluency with mastery, which is something quite different altogether. Whereas English language fluency is a skill attainable to most if not all committed English language students, mastery requires a number of years of extensive language study and a phenomenally broad knowledge of vocabulary and the many exceptions to grammatical rules. There are indeed few English language learners whose skills have yet reached this level. The same dictionary definies mastery as "comprehensive knowledge or skill in a particular subject."  Mastery, one could therefore argue, is the pinnacle of the English language mountain, and one cannot climb to its great height without gaining fluency on the way. Fluency, then, can be considered as something like a stepping stone in the intrepid learner’s expedition to the summit of English language learning.
There are three core elements to fluency that students should spend significant time studying in order to consider themselves fluent. The first and most obvious is, of course, written proficiency, the ability to communicate effectively in formal or informal correspondence with English native speakers. Gaining a formal qualification in English studies is by far the most effective way of gaining a fluent proficiency in written English.
The other two core elements, spoken English and experience of the American culture, tend to go hand in hand. There is truly no substitute for seizing the opportunity to explore the real English-speaking world that exists outside of instructional videos and text books. Any form of study or employment in the U.S. will very quickly yield results; even a period as short as two or three weeks immersed in the target language will inevitably lead to improvements. Yet fluency is only one step closer to the English language learner’s ultimate goal: mastery of English’s nuances, exceptions, and enormous vocabulary.
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Transitioning From Fluency to Mastery
Gaining English language fluency is certainly a great challenge but by no means an impossible one. Knowing the precise definition of fluency is the first step in gaining fluency in and mastery of the language. English language learners then gain fluency by gaining written proficiency, proficiency in spoken English, and experiencing direct culture immersion.