What is Fluency?

After living in France for a year and studying the language for nearly 20, a lot of English and French speakers ask me “are you fluent now?” I have to hold back incredulous laughter every time.

A 2006 moment of incomprehension.

The dictionary defines fluency as “using a language easily and accurately,” “masterfully,” or “effortless.” But the definition of fluency for people who speak any part of a second language is as wide as the Atlantic Ocean. I perch on the perfectionist end of the scale; defining fluency as complete comfort in the language in all settings, including slang, politesse and even political jokes. By that definition, I could become fluent in French and potentially lose it simply by moving out of the country, or becoming an old fogey in France.

Others define fluency as being able to get by on a day-to-day basis, or even say, like Mr. Erard of the New York Times, that you’re bilingual if you can have a conversation in a second language. I’m bilingual?! Who knew! That’s not what all the “bilingue” job postings I’ve been trying to apply for say.

The best way I can find to measure an almost completely intangible skill is how the government does: with the Interagency Roundtable Language scale.

This scale rates your skills (outside of bow-hunting and computer hacking) from 0 to 5. None, elementary, limited working, general professional, advanced professional and functionally native. It also divides the language skills into reading, speaking, listening, writing, translation and interpretation. Basically, this is a test I would not look forward to taking if I wanted to keep some pride. The Roundtable does offer some basic self-tests if you feel inclined.

That seems neat and clean, but I’m still not sure that something as fluid as language can be made into a pyramid. It leaves out items like the difference between book learning and street knowledge, such as people who know the grammar book front to back but can’t pronounce a word to save their life. I also think a scale implies that lower levels of language proficiency are less valuable.

To heck with that! If you can order a sandwich and get the bakery woman to smile, I think you’re golden.


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