A lot of my students tell me that they want to be fluent in English, but most of them don’t really know what that means. 

That is the topic of this week’s podcast where we will look at what it means to be fluent in a foreign language.

Listen to the podcast:

What does “fluent” actually mean?

Listening is a great way to improve your listening skills and your English in general because it will help you naturally pick up new language and grammar in context. It is a very important skill to develop and listening to podcasts is a great way to do that.

That’s one of the main reasons I started this podcast. I want to give English learners a chance to listen to a podcast that is designed for them and that is interesting and fun. No one wants to listen to a podcast about grammar, right?

In this episode, I talk about what fluency really means.

What my students think it means

When my students tell me they want to speak English fluently, I usually ask them…

What do you mean when you say “fluently”?

The answers that they give me are often pretty shocking. Here are some common things that they say:

  • I can perfectly use English grammar
  • I never forget a word in English
  • I can understand everything other people say to me in English
  • I can talk about every possible topic
  • I can communicate just like a native speaker
  • I can speak English perfectly

If this is what fluent means, then somedays I am not fluent in English either. This list of things is almost impossible to achieve and it is definitely not what fluency means to me.

What I think fluency means

My idea of fluency is quite different to what my students think…

In my opinion, fluency can be different things for different people, but this is what I think fluency is:

  • You can talk about things that interest you
  • You are able to survive in that language (e.g. Go to the doctor, ask for directions)
  • You are able to get the meaning across without too much work from you or the listener.
  • You don’t have huge pauses in communication.
  • You are able to talk around not knowing a word.
  • You sometimes make mistakes but the other person can understand what you mean.

This seems to surprise a lot of my students. Maybe it surprised you too. However, when I look at this list, it seems a lot more realistic that the student’s list above.

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What do the pros think?

I looked into some famous polyglots and what they think about it:

  • Shannon Kennedy (Eurolinguiste)- In my opinion, “fluency” is when you’re able to speak and understand a language enough that it doesn’t hinder your ability to communicate.
  • Zackery Ngai (HelloTalk)- One has attained language fluency, when he or she can communicate clearly and effectively with other people in that language.
  • Steve Kauffman (LingQ) – The meaning of fluency in a foreign language is clear. It refers to the ability to converse with a native speaker, on a wide variety of subjects, without much strain on either side
  • Simon Ager (Omniglot) – You may make mistakes, forget or not know words, and your pronunciation may not be perfect, but you can communicate your meaning well enough to be understood by native speakers.

In conclusion

  • Fluency isn’t perfection. Perfection is not possible.
  • Fluency is closer to B2 on CEFR than C2. 
  • It has different meanings to different people – It depends on what you want to do with the language.
  • Anyone that tells you that you can be fluent in 2 weeks is a liar – It takes a lot of time and a lot of practice.

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