An American friend recently told me of a reunion with the son of the German family whose home he had lived in for a year as an exchange student. My friend had spent the year acquiring fluent German, which he spoke to the family.
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The reunion, several decades later, took place among a crowd who were speaking English. Afterwards, the German son said to my friend: “I never realised you were witty.” Because in German, he never was. It was too hard to joke in a foreign tongue.
Fluency. As a member of the language community, you’ve surely heard the term everywhere. People constantly ask you if you’re fluent in your target language yet, or claim fluency in their own. Famous polyglots write books or run blogs about hacking into fluency, and pop-ups on the web assure you that (only with their top secret88bifa必发唯一官网，! method, of course), can you reach fluency in two weeks.
You might dream of fluency in this or that language, and maybe you’ve already achieved fluency in a foreign language. But, in all the instances of fluency you encounter in your day to day life as a language enthusiast, have you ever considered what fluency really means? What does fluency mean?
Well, actually, I can’t tell you what fluency means. The only person who can tell you what fluency means is you. Fluency, like all abstract terms, has no universal meaning, and each individual must determine what the term means. Think about the subjectivity of the term the next time you encounter it “out in the wild.” Does fluency have the same meaning to the person that used it, the blogger or optimistic pop-up ad as it does to you? Why not? How does it differ? What is your definition of fluency?
Establishing your personal definition of fluency is an important step to achieving it. Blindly venturing forward without a concrete idea of what it is that you wish to achieve will get you somewhere. But, you won’t know where, and you may not feel like you’ve gotten very far, especially if you’re not yet a linguistic veteran. Setting a more defined goal will help you to structure your journey through your target language and help you to recognize the progress you make on your way there.
To assist you in determining what fluency is, I’ll describe a few different types of fluency.
Perfect fluency is how many people who have little to no language experience tend to define “fluency.” Perfect fluency means knowing every word you encounter. It means speaking quickly, clearly and easily and never stumbling or having to search for words. It means having no accent, or only one that is faint and charming. It means never having any semblance of difficulty with the language anymore.
If this sounds like how you picture fluency, pay attention, because this article was mostly intended for you. Perfect fluency does not exist. Nobody is “perfectly fluent” in any language. You aren’t familiar with every word of your native language, and sometimes you have to search for the right word, even in your mother tongue.
Most languages have many regional accents and dialects, and you may sometimes even have trouble understanding someone with the same native language from the same country. And that’s not weird. You already knew that these things happen in one’s native language. Natives are able to take a few seconds to search for their next word, but when foreigners do the same thing, why is it assumed they’re simply not fluent? If imperfect fluency is good enough for native speakers, it’s good enough for you.
This is the type of fluency you see in advertisements, because “Master a Language in Two Months!” sounds way catchier than “Fluency in Twenty Years!” It sounds too good to be true, because, well, it mostly is. It is possible, of course, to achieve quick fluency, but the fluency achieved after such a short time frame will be a very thin, superficial fluency.
You’ll only know the most common words and you’ll probably have to make use of key words and context to figure out what natives are saying when they respond to you. However, if you are able to successfully utilize a foreign language to obtain relevant information, then you very well may be “fluent enough” for your purposes.
Quick fluency is good if you have some sort of deadline. Say, for example, that you’re visiting the country and you don’t want to flip through a phrasebook, butcher a foreign language, and not understand the response you receive. I would recommend drilling phrases and vocabulary that you determine to be important (and here’s a free, handy flashcard program to help you), and getting as much passive practice (reading, listening) in as possible. You can also use LingQ to read along with texts, read out loud and improve your listening comprehension.
Again, listening comprehension is extremely important if you actually want to understand the answers to your questions (which, let’s face it, is probably one of the main reasons you asked them). Of course, make sure to also arm yourself with the ever-important phrases, “Could you repeat that?”, “Could you speak more slowly?” and “Sorry, I didn’t understand that.”
Unlike perfect fluency, native-like fluency is a reasonable and attainable goal. Native-like fluency does not mean that you will be mistaken for a native; very few people ever reach that stage. However, it means that you generally know all the same words that a native knows and can speak at the same pace with the same amount of ease as a native speaker. You will likely have an accent, but as long your conversation partner can understand you without difficulty, it doesn’t matter. Tip: If people can’t figure out where you’re from, your accent is probably pretty good.
Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to live in the country to achieve native-like fluency. But, you do need connections to the country. Luckily, you have the internet, so that’s not much of an issue. Making friends with native speakers helps immensely. Try to find friends, and not just language partners; look for someone whom you’d still enjoy talking to even in your native language. You’ll get much more out of the relationship if it actually means something to you.
Friends will not only provide you with the opportunity to practice your writing or speaking skills, but they also provide real, casual native input and introduce you to an insider’s view of their culture. They can hook you up with native media and equip you with music and TV series in their language. If you have native friends and consume media made for natives by natives, then you are practically living in the country.
Okay, so there are certain aspects of the language that are pretty difficult to learn if you don’t live in the country, but these are also things that you generally don’t need unless you live in the country. Household vocabulary like “burner” or “whisk” doesn’t come up often on TV (unless you’re watching cooking shows, I guess), and they’re probably not the topic of discussion between you and your friends. You won’t learn childhood words either, like the names of the equipment on a playground, unless you’re around native children. However, the fact that these types of words are fairly difficult to learn outside the country also show how little you really need them in practice.
Literary fluency is like graduating from native-like to educated-native-like fluency. Now, all of a sudden, you know words that even natives might not know, and you can string sentences together more eloquently than some natives. If that sounds impossible, just keep in mind that as someone who frequents language learning websites in their spare time, you may be on an intellectually higher level than the average person, and many people really kind of suck at their native language.
Literary fluency focuses on the more intellectual side of a language: indulging in literature, attending university, composing song lyrics, etc. Native-like fluency is not a required prerequisite; it will just improve your feel for the language. You can, however, certainly master reading literature and writing poetry without the ability to converse casually with a native. Literary fluency calls for an almost exclusively passive input. Read novels and texts from specific fields until it all makes sense. Learn in the language instead of reading about the language in your own native language.
There are a ton of other things that fluency could potentially be, but that’s up to you to figure out. Considering why you started studying the language in the first place should help you determine what kind of fluency you should target. Once you’ve reached your desired fluency, that doesn’t mean you’re done; you can go for another type of fluency and round off your language skills quite a bit. In the very least, you’ll have to work to maintain what you’ve achieved.
The question you might have about all these fluencies is, “How long will it take me?” Well, that depends entirely on how you study, how much you study, how similar the language is to the one(s) you already speak, and your personal ability to absorb and retain information. Nobody can answer this for you. Just get studying and figure it out for yourself!
Anyone who has learnt another language will be familiar with this. We are more ponderous in our acquired language. We are slower on the uptake, having to construct each riposte in advance. But is it also possible that we make more dispassionate decisions when thinking in a foreign language? Academics at the University of Chicago think we do.
In an article published in the Guardian, young learners were asked what motivated them to study languages. Interestingly, only a small number considered school a fundamental drive behind their language learning. Exchanges in foreign countries, conversations with native speakers, watching foreign films and new methods of learning via online games and mobile apps proved much more significant. Here are a few tricks on how to learn once you’ve escaped from the confines of your school walls.
Writing in the journal Cognition, they describe a well-known moral dilemma. You are watching a runaway carriage hurtling down a railway. In its path you see five people tied to the track. On your left is a large man. If you push him into the carriage’s path, you will kill him but save the five. Do you do it?
The Chicago academics put the dilemma to a group of 800 native German speakers. About half considered the dilemma in German and half in English. Those answering in their second language were more likely to favour pushing the man on to the track.
1. Throw yourself in at the deep end
The question the Chicago team tried to answer in the Cognition study was why the change happens when people decide in another language. Their hypothesis was that we visualise people and objects more sharply in our native tongue and this affects our decision-making. In particular, when thinking in our own language, we can clearly picture the large man and are reluctant to push him to his death.
To test this, the 800 German speakers were asked to rate the vividness of their images of the large man and the five people on the tracks. Those doing the experiment in German reported having a clearer picture of the man than those doing it in English. There was no difference between the vividness of the images of the five other people on the track.
Many people will look you in the eye and tell you with utter conviction that the only way to learn is to move to the country of your target language. This isn’t strictly true, but it obviously makes immersion more likely. You still have to seek out opportunities for the lengthy and laborious conversations that really affect the rate at which you progress. Don’t forget your original imperatives and slip nonchalantly into groups of fellow countrymen。
Why should this be? The Chicago study argues that the images we form in our minds are based on the memories we have of people and objects. Because we have more experience of people in our native language, we find it easier to picture them.
The authors concede that “other potential explanations are possible”. However, they did argue in an earlier paper that “a foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking”.
2.Speaking with natives for one hour is more useful than studying for weeks at school
How seriously should we take this? An increasing number of people are now working in organisations that operate in English, mixing native and second-language speakers. It is certainly worth thinking about whether people seem more considered, and make more dispassionate decisions, in English than the native speakers do. The non-native speakers may seem less witty, but pay more attention to their opinions.
When you’re just starting out, equip yourself with questions. As you stumble through your first exchanges, you may sometimes perceive yourself as a tedious conversation partner. Remember that people love to talk about themselves. Expand the range of questions you ask when you meet people and prepare your own answers. If your counterpart is vaguely practiced in the art of conversation, your questions will be duly returned. It is through these exchanges that you will begin to mimic your counterparts, develop and even construct a personality in your new language。
3. Bur the lines between your free time and your learning time
Different countries tell stories differently, and they often have a whole cast of acting royalty that is barely known beyond their borders. At the age of 18, I never would have thought that some of my favourite films 10 years down the line would be in Spanish, German, Portuguese or Italian. I didn’t think a German sentence would move me to tears, or a single scene in a Mexican film would jolt me into the immediate purchase of a ticket to la ciudad. I gained so much by watching films in their original, unadulterated versions。
4. Travel as much as you possibly can
If you travel, you will enjoy the enormous utility of languages first-hand. Your languages will facilitate your movements, ensure a richer diversity of more authentic experiences, and may well even reduce the cost of your trip。