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What is Fluency?

Language Proficiency

There does not seem to be a universally agreed-upon definition of fluency in the general public. I have heard it described as anything from being able to order food to the language ability of a native speaker. The following table is my version of the closest thing there is to an official definition: what linguists and teachers tend to agree are the basic levels of language aptitude.

Novice (Beginning)

A novice has extremely limited vocabulary and grammar, understands very little of the language when spoken normally, has difficulty making self understood by native speakers, and thus has serious problems in an immersion situation. A novice may be able to order food in a restaurant, buy a train ticket, and find lodging for the night, but only with great difficulty.

Survivor (Intermediate)

A survivor converses using basic vocabulary (time, date, weather, family, clothes); uses the present, past, and future tenses more or less correctly; and is aware of difficult grammar topics (e.g., subjunctive, relative pronouns), but either uses them incorrectly or awkwardly rearranges sentences in order to avoid them. Still needs to tote a dictionary and/or phrase book around, but can survive in an immersion situation: order food, give and receive directions, take a taxi, etc.

Conversationalist (Advanced)
A conversationalist has the ability to converse about fairly abstract ideas, state opinions, read newspapers, understand the language when spoken normally (on TV, radio, film, etc.) with slight-to-moderate difficulty. Still has some trouble with specialized vocabulary and complicated grammar, but can reorganize sentences in order to communicate and figure out the majority of new vocabulary within the context.
Debater (Fluent)

A fluent speaker can participate in extended conversations, understand the language when spoken normally (on TV, radio, film, etc.), figure out meaning of words within context, debate, and use/understand complicated grammatical structures with little or no difficulty. Has good accent and understands dialects with slight-to-moderate difficulty.

Native speaker (Mother tongue)

Someone who has spoken the language from at least the age of 5 (this age limit is subject to some debate: I've heard theories that a native speaker can have started learning the language as late as any time up to puberty). In theory, understands essentially everything in the language: all vocabulary, complicated grammatical structures, cultural references, and dialects. Has a native (i.e., invisible, "normal" in his/her region) accent.

Continue reading about fluency...

1. Introduction
  2. What is fluency?
  3. Am I fluent?
  4. Where should I learn?
  5. How should I study?
  6. When will I be fluent?
  7. LKL's fluency history


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