Posted by: Jason | April 15, 2012

What Does It Mean to be Fluent?

I went to a seminar this weekend and the discussion focused around the idea of what exactly does fluency mean. It’s an interesting question when you get right down to it. After all, isn’t the goal of learning another language to be fully fluent in that language? Seems to make sense when you think about it. When you learn to play piano, the goal is to play that piano as well as you can.

But, stop and think about that for a second. If you’re learning piano, at what point are you “fluent”? How good do you have to be before you can say, “I can play piano”? Both my daughters learn piano and my younger daughter has just started. She can play a few simple songs on the piano. Does that mean she can “play the piano”? Well, no, probably not, because, aside from a few songs, she cannot really play anything else. She’s just started and, while the songs she can play, she can play well enough, she does not have the skills to be able to pick up other songs and play them on her own.

So, what does that mean for you, the English student? Well, if you’re reading this, you’re probably not someone who has just started to learn English. You’ve been studying for some time. You have skills. You can do some things really well, some other things well enough and you struggle with some other things. And that’s okay. There’s nothing wrong with not being perfect.

An interesting point was raised at the seminar about pauses. One way some people measure fluency is by how fast the speaker can speak. It makes some sense after all. If you can speak quickly, then you must be like one of those announcers on CNN and they’re obviously fluent. But, listen to a speech by US President Barak Obama. If you listen to him speak, you will hear all sorts of pauses and he speaks quite slowly. I don’t think too many people would question whether he is a fluent English speaker or not.

Really, speed is not that important. Speaking quickly or slowly will not result in someone thinking that your English is better or worse. Find a speed that is comfortable for you and that is perfectly fine. There is an English saying, “Perfect is the enemy of good.” What that means is that there is a point whereby constantly trying to make things perfect, we actually make things worse. By always correcting ourselves and constantly trying to make every sentence perfect, we won’t allow any mistakes and we wind up not talking at all.

Something to think about.

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