Defining Fluency

Last Friday with a half an  hour left before the end of the work day and no project I could complete in that time I scouted around the web for Turkish resources (there aren’t many) and took this Turkish test: I scored a 27 out of 40, which put me at the “Intermediate” or B1 Level.  Later that evening I had E take the English version of the test.  He got a 29.
And yet – we almost always speak in English. On ‘Turkish days’ we inevitably fall back into Turkish, or E just forgets to speak to me in Turkish in the first place, so used to speaking English together we are. In terms of speech and actual, daily use, E is light years ahead of me in fluency. I’m terribly unconfident in my Turkish speaking, mostly because I haven’t had much practice.  However, I have a pretty decent understanding of basic and intermediate grammar. I can write, I can read (a bit), and I can listen.  About a month ago I suddenly realized that I could understand the majority of E’s conversations.
I’ve gone through three textbooks, listen to podcasts, practice writing, and hear Turkish every day.  So my understanding of what’s going on and what suffix should go where is pretty high for a relative beginner (I began studying by myself a little under a year ago, and have never taken a course).  But that twenty-seven is deceptive, for I can’t spontaneously produce at that level, I can’t yet *engage* in deep conversation, even if I can pretty much follow what’s going on.  In other words, I have a near-Intermediate understanding, quasi-intermediate writing skills, and beginning conversational skills.
E’s 29 reflects something else.  He can pick up a topic and talk at length on almost any subject.  We banter, we joke, we discuss, we ponder, we inquire, we sometimes argue in English.  His language is more vivacious and his response time far quicker than many an American. In spoken English he has fluid fluency. And yet he consistently makes the same grammatical mistakes, and sometimes confuses completely the passive tense, different prepositions, and more complicated verb forms (like different forms of the past perfect and conditional).  For example, he completed the sentence, ‘Whenever someone came to visit, the dog…’ with ‘was running to the door’ (instead of ‘ran to the door’). And mistakes like this mean he will score comparatively low on a grammar-based test.
There are a few basic reasons why we would score almost the same on a grammar-based test, despite the great disparity between our relative proficiencies in speaking. The most basic is something I learned while teaching English: it’s far more difficult to unlearn practiced errors than it is to learn the correct way in the first place. Some of the seventh grade students I taught in impoverished rural Yunnan could write grammatically-flawless expositions on a variety of subjects at the end of *one year* of English classes. Not one of the third-year English major university students I taught in the far-more-prosperous city of Urumqi could boast the same, and they had all been studying English for over ten years.  In fact, when working with them I noticed the same errors coming up again and again – in some cases they had actually been taught incorrectly; in others they just didn’t understand the logic behind a certain grammatical structure; often, they knew the general rule but just forgot to put it in practice (like using the correct form of the ‘be’ verb in the simple present and past tenses, or adding ‘s’ onto verbs with third-person subjects).  Half of their mistakes were really simple; they’d just created a habit by doing it wrong a thousand-thousand times and (even if they recognized it was wrong when they went back and revised their work), those habits were really hard to break.
The second issue – sometimes English is really illogical.  We borrow common words and molt stems from over a half-a-dozen languages.  There aren’t distinct forms or endings that distinguish nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs (like there are in Russian, Latin, Turkish and many other languages).  One day E was trying to find the “intense” and it took me the longest time to figure out that he was looking for the incense sticks we keep in the bathroom.  Intense – adjective; incense – noun. And yet the forms are the same, which would never be the case in Turkish. In addition our failure to distinguish between adjectives and nouns, English verb forms change in weird ways between tenses and there are a plethora of irregular verbs, plural nouns, dative cases, and strange stem mutations. Even trying to explain the grammar behind some of the questions E got wrong on the test was difficult.  English has never been simplified and standardized in the same way Modern Turkish was engineered in the 1920’s and 30’s. All of which makes it very difficult to get everything correct 100% of the time.  And if a native speaker can follow the logic of a non-native speaker’s mistakes (sheeps, readed) it’s still perfectly possible to comprehend, if a little jarring.  (Writing this I’m starting to wish that Esperanto, and not English, had become the defacto international language).
So, to get back to my initial idea – fluency is a strange concept.  Following years of taking US language courses and cramming Chinese I’ve come to believe that learning everything isn’t actually important.  Learning everything isn’t fluency. Efficiently communicating is. Understanding everything you need to get from a text is fluency.  Being able to write a response paper is fluency.  Understanding a news broadcast is fluency.  Fluency is being able to use the language without hesitation in whatever capacity you need it.  Some people might not need spoken fluency; for others the rules of grammar might not be so important.  An engineer fluent in English for his purposes might know a thousand technical terms and yet be unable to name anything in the kitchen.  I probably didn’t have to spend so many painful hours memorizing rare chengyu in Chinese or archaic terms that popped up in our Pushkin texts in Russian.  Fluency is (simply, completely) being able to use the language as you need to use it.  No more, no less.  There is no one standard or one test that can tell you your level of fluency.

One thought on “Defining Fluency

  1. Fascinating foray into the meanings of fluency! You commented: “Half of their mistakes were really simple; they’d just created a habit by doing it wrong a thousand-thousand times … those habits were really hard to break.” In psychology the current focus is on neuroplasticity: the ability to make new pathways in the brain, especially by using mindfulness meditation techniques. I wonder if these would apply to learning languages?

    Date: Wed, 17 Dec 2014 08:57:00 +0000 To:


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