Can We Ditch the Myth of Language Fluency?

Imagine someone taking their friends out in Japan, comfortably conversing and joking with the waiter before ordering for everyone. Are they ‘fluent’? Their friends think so, and perhaps they are until they walk outside to the street and realise, they don’t know how to ask for directions.

When I first began learning a language, I had a vague picture of what fluency meant. But when you learn a language, you gain comfort in very particular scenarios, and a general ability to fumble your way through unfamiliar ones. For example, I’m I might be comfortable telling someone a weird octopus fact in Spanish, but if they ask me about soccer I’ll be fumbling around. So, I guess you’re fluent sometimes but not other times, and you gradually get more fluent-er in more contexts. This is a completely different idea of fluency than most people have.

“Ah fluency… I hate that word”

– Gabriel Wyner, Creator of the Fluent Forever Method

Perhaps as I get better, I will slowly begin to fumble less. Perhaps, true fluency is a possibility… I’m not so sure. The main barrier is that I just don’t care about everything, and I likely never will. I’m happy talking about cool ideas I heard about in a podcast, and unhappy talking about the cricket. Will I ever have the vocabulary to talk about the cricket in another language? Probably not.

There are a few upshots to this new understanding. The first is that you can feel comfortable well before you reach a level of general fluency, because you can be familiar with a topic. As you reach a comfortable level in more and more situations, you will begin to appear fluent from the outside, as long as no one sees you in one of those uncomfortable situations. For people starting out, this gives you an amazing opportunity to think about your goals. What are the core situations that you want to be fluent in? Focus on those.

It’s also an opportunity to discard goals you ‘should have’. Maybe you think you ought to learn to read in french so you can appreciate French literature, but if you don’t really deep down enjoy reading literature, and just want to flirt with cute French people, you could focus on that. On the other hand, if your only motivation to learn speaking skills are that they make you “well rounded”, you can skip all that and just start learning the vocabulary of Harry Potter.

Any route you choose will also help your general ability (provided you can pronounce the words you’re reading, if you choose a reading focussed path), and make it easier to pick up new abilities in the language later. If you can fluently read French, and pronounce all the words, then you could easily spend a week binging TV and chatting to a few people and become pretty conversational. So don’t worry too much if you abandon a goal that everyone else says is important, if it really is you’ll be able to pick it up later!

El pulpo tiene nueve cerebros, los tenticulos tenian nuestro propio cerebro. El cerebro central es en la forma de un donut, rodea el estomago, entonces si le comia una cosa muy grande, puede dar dueno daño cerebral!  

(“comfortable” is maybe an overstatement, there’s a bunch of grammar mistakes – I’m still learning).

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