A Post About the F Word – Fluency

What are we striving for? What is the goal? In other words, what does the nebulous word “fluency” actually mean?

Here’s my two cents worth, and two cents may be about all it’s worth, but you’re getting it for free, so that is a saving of at least two cents. You’re welcome.

English is my native language. As an adult, I learned Spanish (without the benefit of formal classes).

My ideal goal would be to speak a foreign language at the same level at which I speak English, but that isn’t fluency. (I don’t mean that I don’t speak English fluently, by the way. I mean that, as a voracious reader and a college educated adult, I probably speak English at a fairly high level. You don’t need that for fluency. That’s just for personal satisfaction.)

My basic goal would be able to communicate in everyday conversation. That isn’t fluency either, at least by my definition.

According to my own personal definition, a person becomes fluent when they being thinking in the new language.

Here’s what I mean: I know a Spanish speaker who speaks English. His vocabulary is very good, his grasp of grammar is very good, but his speaking is always a struggle because if you speak to him, he hears you in English, translates to Spanish in his head, forms his response in Spanish, translates that to English in his head and then says it. According to my own person Japanese Language Journey definition, he is highly functional but not fluent in English.

I know another guy who is fluent in both Spanish and English. When he is speaking Spanish, he is thinking in Spanish. When he is speaking English, he is thinking in English. There is no internal translation going on. That is my definition of fluency.

Maybe this doesn’t make sense to anyone but me, because it doesn’t really have that much to do with the size of your vocabulary or how pure or educated your speech sounds.  (I have never looked this up or consulted a linguist about it, so I’m not claiming that this how a linguist would look at it.  Two cents, remember?)

I know people who speak English. It is their mother tongue and the only language they speak. Their grammar is poor and their vocabulary perhaps not as large as another person’s might be. Are they still fluent in English? Of course! So that can’t be what fluency is about! That’s why I came up with my definition.

So, I want to learn Japanese well enough that I can speak it without translating anything in my head. How’s that for an ambitious goal?

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