There are so many different meanings to being fluent in a language. Each person has their own understanding of what fluency means. However, in the language world, fluency has a specific meaning. I also have my opinion on the matter and what type of fluency an ESL learner should focus on.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the word fluent has three meanings:
1) capable of using a language easily and accurately (fluent in Spanish) (a fluent writer),
2) effortlessly smooth and flowing; polished (a fluent performance) (spoke in fluent English), and
3) having or showing mastery of a subject or skill (fluent in mathematics).
I really like the three meanings of the word. They capture all three goals that you should focus on when speaking English.
For example, the first meaning points to an individual’s ability to use the language easily and accurately, whether in spoke or written form. However, the word easy is one thing I disagree with. Communicating accurately can be very difficult, even for a native speaker. Don’t worry if speaking fluently is difficult or not, as long as you are doing it, that is all that matters.
The second meaning of the word as it relates to language, points to a person’s ability to carry on a conversation without any error or sounding awkward.
The third meaning speaks to a person’s knowledge on the subject despite his/her ability to speak or write fluidly and without error. As an English learner, you should focus on those three categories of the meaning fluent.
Even at times, I do not sound fluent in English when I have to speak on a subject I am not comfortable with. For example, while hanging out with some of my colleagues, the subject of psychology comes up. When I’m asked to participate in the conversation, I would stumble through my words, almost sounding like an idiot. Why? Because I do not know much on the subject.
So what is important about determining your fluency? It is your knowledge on the subject and your ability to communicate your thoughts clearly, concisely, and fluidly, without error.
When someone asks me if I am fluent in Korean, I answer “Yes…but I can’t say everything I want. Just as in English, I cannot talk about psychology, in Korean, there are certain subjects I am not familiar with. I do not know the vocabulary and style of speaking on those certain topics, so I cannot speak fluently in those areas.”
It is far better to be really fluent in a few areas than so-so in a bunch of areas. Why? Because being really fluent in a few areas shows that you have the capability to communicate effectively. Once you have mastered one subject, you can apply the lessons learned from that subject, and use them to learn a second, and third, and so on – they build upon themselves.
Learning English as a foreign language is like building a pyramid. You want to build a solid foundation first and then build up from there, rather than quickly piling on a bunch of rocks, hoping you can later glue all the pieces together to form the pyramid.
Master all the basics first before moving on to more advanced material. If you don’t, you can quickly confuse yourself and it can become overwhelming. Don’t chew more than you can swallow, which means don’t take on too much work all at once.
Take it slowly, little by little. This doesn’t mean if you can’t comprehend something that you quit and give up. If that happens, ask questions and keep practicing until you get it.
What I don’t want you to do is set unrealistic goals and expectations for yourself. For example, trying to master 10 grammar rules in 1 week. It might be possible to learn 10 grammar rules in a week, but your ability to remember them, and least of all, master them, will be slim to none. Focus on one item at a time. Seek to first understand, then comprehend, later grasp how to use it, next use it fluently in sentences, and then finally master it. These are the steps you need to follow
So after all this talk, what does it mean to be fluent in English? It means that you can accurately and concisely communicate your message or thoughts fluidly. It doesn’t have to be on every subject, but it has to be at least one.