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What does it mean to be fluent?

Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint

The term ‘fluency’ in the world of EFL refers to the measurement of the ability one has to speak smoothly and freely without the need to pause and think about the grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation one needs to communicate.

The concept of ‘fluency’ is often used in conjunction with ‘accuracy’. One could speak fluently (smoothly without pauses) but be extremely inaccurate, making lots of grammatical or lexical mistakes throughout. 

According to the British Council ‘Learn English’ webpage, being fluent means you speak easily, quickly, and with no pauses. 

Text by: Helen Papadopoulou

It is perhaps a little odd to suggest that a person who speaks a language well does so without pausing. After all, natural pauses occur in our daily conversations for several reasons: the speaker is thinking about what they are saying; the speaker is thinking about how they are saying it in order to best achieve their communicative aims; the speaker is using an intended pause to create an effect (a dramatic beat, an emotional moment, a moment of suspense, etc.).

So, when evaluating foreign language learners, we shouldn’t penalise pauses that are taken to formulate an accurate sentence. The reasons behind a speaker’s pauses may vary. Was it a dramatic beat or did the speaker pause to formulate the present perfect in that sentence? Or perhaps the speaker paused to formulate the present perfect but was cleverly disguising it as a dramatic beat? 

The use of the current definition of ‘fluency’ as a yardstick for proficiency thus seems vague, unreliable, and possibly unscientific.

A fluent speaker never translates or needs to recall memorized rules or vocabulary when producing English (or any language).

When we learn English as a second language, we almost always study by memorizing grammar rules and vocabulary, and we translate from our native language into English. That locks our minds into operating consciously. Natural language is never conscious; it is always subconscious. To become fluent, you have to shift from consciously producing English to subconsciously producing it. But we’ve never been trained to use our subconscious and most of us have no idea how to do it.

Speaking like a native: Here’s the thing; no two native speakers use English in the same way. We all have a peculiar idiolect, one that is so particular that forensic linguists can identify who produced a text (either spoken or written) by comparing it to other known samples. That’s how Ted Kazinsky, aka the Unibomber, the American terrorist, was identified and eventually arrested. So, when you say ‘like a native speaker’, we really have to ask ‘which native speaker’? Also, native speakers have native accents - and accents are very hard to get rid of, and really this is completely unnecessary unless you’re an actor or a spy.

From C1 to C2: The CEFR levels do not mention fluency; they only describe capabilities. C1 is very advanced, highly intellectual English, and, fluent or not, most native speakers never reach this level. Proficiency requires knowledge and a lot of relevant practice.

The best practice I know of for developing natural fluency is reading aloud with full comprehension. Study a passage of text until you understand it completely, then read it aloud (as if someone was listening) several times in a row, then again on the following day. Then repeat the process with a new passage. Select materials that are written at or below your current speaking level. Maintain this practice as a discipline and you will achieve your goal but stick with it - development is slow but steady. You may need to do this for 2–3 weeks before you begin to notice an improvement in your speaking ability. Be patient - it will happen.

Informal speech is more natural when you use figures of speech, idioms, or phrasal verbs. Are you better with long turns or short turns during a conversation? What about tone? Some speakers rely heavily on tone changes for their message while others use words more. Do you like to be brief or use long sentences? Do what you are best at.

In all cases study both collocations and the weak forms that apply to the words you use and the subjects you are familiar with.

C2 Level

This is what is needed to achieve the C2 level according to the CEFR framework:

Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in more complex situations.

It implies a high level of understanding, not only of the words but the concepts too. Students who take a test at this level may fail because of their inability to understand and express complex ideas. They need to be able to read and summarise academic/scientific texts, they need a broad vocabulary and the capacity to use it clearly and coherently.

This is probably why some people say that native speakers are at C2 level if they are educated. A well-educated native English speaker is technically at C2 level. Many native speakers simply lack the educational background to attain it and relatively few English learners reach this level.

How to improve your English

I think there isn’t a ‘best’ way to improve your English since everyone is different so the efficiency of each technique will vary from person to person. What worked for me was reading native books, listening to podcasts and watching YouTube videos.

I don’t know how other people like to read but for me understanding around 95% of what I read is ideal. Because there is a difference between understanding enough to enjoy the book and struggling enough to improve my English.

With regard to listening, I’d advise you to download an app like Spotify or Audible and listen to podcasts or audiobooks.

However, at the end of the day what really matters is time; that’s why it is very important to find some material that you thoroughly enjoy in order to keep yourself motivated. Because, remember, language learning is a marathon, not a sprint so you have to be in for the long haul.

Encouraging automaticity 

Applied linguists tend to use the term ‘fluency’ to refer to achieving automaticity in language use but it is quite difficult to break down the cognitive mechanisms that lead from controlled processing to automatic processing. (Schmidt, 1992)

The best way to encourage such automaticity in language use could perhaps be to:

  • Allow for as much language use and language practice as possible.
  • Make use of pair work and group work whenever possible to maximize student speaking time.
  • Allow for opportunities for meaningful communication. This can be done by providing motivating group tasks (that are not necessarily language-related).
  • Ensure that language is learnt and used in context.
  • Encourage the learning of lexical chunks. Make learners aware of common collocations and colligations.
  • Use drilling to help learners to get their tongues (and heads) around new phrases and sentences (not just single words).
  • Expose learners to authentic material in the forms of magazine articles, YouTube clips, TED talks, films and TV programmes, songs, etc. Get students to notice the chunks of language that are used.
  • Build your learners’ confidence by highlighting their new abilities and the things they can do with the language.

And then one day, they might suddenly realise that they are no longer thinking of how they are saying something but focused on what they actually want to communicate. 

Then maybe we know that automaticity has been achieved.