What is fluency? | Collective identity as a tool to step up your fluency
Often the word "fluency" is used as a benchmark of one’s knowledge in a foreign language. For some, "fluent" is synonymous to "native"; indeed, how many of us, language learners, would not want to attain a high “close to native” level with at least one foreign language? None. But despite the fuss existing around the word, the language field is brimmed with misconceptions about what fluency really is?
What does fluency mean?
Fluency is defined as
“being able to express oneself easily and accurately in speaking and writing, and to read at a conversational rate with appropriate prosody or expression in a given language.”
If you are an experienced learner, this definition might spring a range of questions in your head. Like, is fluency a guarantee of deep knowledge in a language? Is fluency related to how many words and expressions you know? Does it involve slang and cultural re-adaptation? Is fluency the final destination a language learner should strive for?
Throughout the years, I have been meeting different fluent speakers and here is what they taught me.
Fluency is like a twelve-story building—we all might be in but all on different floors.
So, from this symbolic perspective, to understand what fluency is, think of your native language. How do you feel when speaking it? You feel comfortable because speaking your native language is what you have been doing your whole life. You probably also feel safe because you have been trained and well taught how, most of the time fully intuitively, to use your native language in various scenarios of life. For example, how to ask for direction or deliver your point of view on almost any topic.
You also have an unconstrained access to different language packages that allow you to stay relevant (in terms of language etiquette) in various situations whether it be talking to a friend, a stranger, or a boss.
I invite you to look at fluency as "having a general idea at everything." This "everything" might be scary but try to apply it to your native language. Even in the language you grew up with, you do not know every single word, term or expression, nevertheless, the foundation of what you know helps you to get a general idea at everything you read or hear. You don’t need to be a scientist to read scientific papers and get a general idea of what they are about. You do not need a literature degree to read fiction books or classics loaded with words and expressions long gone from daily use. You do not need a geek brain to read a car manual to extract the needed information.
But again, fluency is a twelve-story building—even if you get inside it, the question is on which floor you are.
Some might be struggling with their accent but be really good with grammar and vocabulary. Some are great at reading but are not that comfortable with speaking. Some might know over twenty thousand vocabulary words that help them to read and understand texts on any topic but they might still struggle to use all this abundance of words in their speech and writing.
Language is a living organism used by other living organisms and there are so many external and internal factors that play a part in how each individual a) comprehends it b) uses it.
Even the way people use their native language varies and may depend on age, environment, life experience, degree, interests, field of work, ethnicity, etc.
How to improve your fluency?
I often hear that in order to learn a language you have to live at least for some time in the country where the given language is spoken. And this advice is hard to argue against. But why?
What is even more interesting is that those language learners who have made their way into this "fluency building" on their own quite often admit that even though they are proficient in the language and feel confident with it, they feel like there is some puzzle in their fluency that is missing. Something that can be found only in the native culture and among native speakers.
There is a significant connection between language and identity formation but I want to pay your attention to how media, environment, social pressure and traditions affect our sense of belonging; how lack of this sense of belonging leaves blind spots in fluency and what to do about it?
We all come from childhood, so let’s start from there. That’s where the first bricks of our collective identity are put in foundation. You have probably heard people saying that they grew up watching certain TV shows, cartoons, or playing certain toys and video games, or eating certain sweets that might not be popular or in production anymore. Trending TV shows in 90’s would vary from country to country. For example, as someone born in 90’s I have never watched the TV series "Friends" (I know!) whereas most of english-speaking people certainly did. But every Russian-speaking person born in 90’s has watched or at least knows about "Hedgehog in the fog." It’s legit to say that this cartoon has formed a whole generation of Russian-speaking people.
TV shows we watch, toys we play, schools we go, food we eat, books we read, jokes we find funny, social problems and pressure we face, traditions and festivals we celebrate, social norms that we learn, things we rebel against; all of these forms collective identity and roots up in how we communicate and use language.
A language is not just words. It’s a culture, a tradition, a unification of a community, a whole history that creates what a community is. It’s all embodied in a language.
Language is an echo of everything we (and our ancestors) have learned, seen, heard, loved, hated, worried about in our past, and when we have something in common, a common memory, a common past, we become closer.
So when you are learning a language, you’re not just learning words and expressions, you learn a new world with its own history.
We all have different school and college experiences depending on which country we are living in. In Russia, for example, we do not have a high school homecoming tradition whereas in America it’s a big deal. Social problems and norms are also different from country to country. And I’m not even mentioning that what is 2 am in English is 2 at night in Russian (laughing emoji here).
All these things add up forming in us a collective identity that, in its turn, helps us to develop a) sense of belonging b) language intuition (when to say what and how to say it in terms of etiquette) c) chisel your language comprehension d) find your voice in the language e) build connection with the culture and people.
How to find the missing puzzle in your fluency when you do not have an opportunity to go and live abroad?
Pay attention to the historical facts about the country the language of which you are learning.
Do not be indifferent to the social problems people in the country language of which you’re learning are facing these days. I quite often see people showing indifference to the social problems of the people living in other countries. You might be speaking their language well but your indifference to their problems will create a huge gap between you and them.
Try to get a clearer understanding of how people in that country are getting education. What is their school experience? How the education system is working there and see how it's different from how it works in your country.
If you like politics, learn as much as you can about it. How does it work in that country?
Learn unofficial norms existing in that country to not get in awkward situations or accidentally offend someone which I see happening a lot on social media where non-speakers, just because they do not know social norms existing among people that live in other countries, say things that sound offending and incorrect in the native-speaking community.
And just keep in mind that language is way more than just words and expressions, and your genuine interest in people and their culture will show you the way