What is fluency in a foreign language?

Updated: April 27, 2020
Fact-Check & Editorial Responsibility: Kris Broholm

To me, the question: “what is fluency?” has always been quite interesting. Before I can even begin to try and obtain ‘fluency' in ANY language, it is important to define exactly what that means to me.

For some people, fluency is defined as being able to have a normal conversation with a native of a language. For others, fluency is dependant on almost school-like certification in some kind of standardised test environment. Like the European ABC system.

In this page I will try to give my personal definition, which has a huge amount of importance for me, when I decide to learn all these new languages.

I will also include the opinions of a few internet linguists and polyglots, where they fit into the discussion. Hopefully you will read this and get motivation to how you can come up with your own definition to aim for.

Because that is why we do it, for Actual fluency right?

What is fluency in my opinion?

For me, the answer is not too difficult.

Fluency to me means that you have a good grasp of the language, so that communication is not hindered or delayed too much. I don't believe fluency is a total mastery of the language, but rather somewhere around the intermediate stages.

A good indicator for me is my German. I tested around the B1-B2 level, but I can definitely conduct lengthy conversations in German and understand almost any written text or spoken word.

The key though is that I can explain myself around shortcomings in my abilities without resorting to English.

Also, keeping in spirit with the other meanings of the word fluent (like a river) my interactions should be natural and free from unnatural pauses.

This is also the level I want to reach in all of my languages. That highly useful, but not quite advanced level.

The stages of fluency

The CEFR levels can sometimes be a little academic and hard to put into perspective, so I made my own stages in a little more down-to-earth way.

Stage 1 – Total ignorance of the language, Learnt a few useful words or short phrases from the tourist guide book.

“Where bank?”

“How much?”

Stage 2 – Some familiarity along with a basic level of comprehension but generally short sentences and incompetent in following native language movies, audio and so on.

“Can I have two beers please”

“My name is x, I live in y”

Stage 3 – Basic conversational ability, can maintain conversation for a limited amount of time and will understand the meaning of a lot of what is said through context.

Stage 4 – Fluency, the speaker now exhibits full control over sentences and does not stumble, search unnaturally long for words or in any way disrupt a conversation.

Stage 5 – Advanced Level. At this stage the learner has built up such a comprehensive knowledge of a language that he or she can be fooled for a native speaker. This level though, is not worth the effort unless you can actually stay for a considerable period of time where the language is spoken.

The advanced level is the last 5% of vocabulary that is RARELY used in most languages. Should you make it here, you can be very proud of yourself.

The one, often overlooked problem, with defining fluency

Language skills can be broken down into 4 areas. Reading, writing, speaking, and listening.

It's perfectly possible to be completely illiterate but speak and listen in the language perfectly. This is often the case in rural China I've been told.

Does this mean that the Chinese rice-farmer who cannot read or write is not fluent in Chinese?

I doubt it.

He would not be able to pass the Chinese language certification exams, but I would struggle not to call him fluent.

So that implies, to me, that fluency is primarily something I use to describe people's ability to speak and listen in the language.

But even here you have a problem. Often people are much better at listening, that is to say understanding, than they are at speaking.

So where do we draw the line?

I don't know. But it's worth keeping in mind that most tests evaluating language ability will add all the skills together and essentially mark you down to your weakest link.

That's not a huge problem, but it does make answering the question of “what is fluency? an interesting task.

For instance I consider myself quite fluent in German, but I could definitely not write to the level I speak and understand.

What do other bloggers have to say?

Benny Lewis, Fluent in 3 Months

“My own definition of fluency is something along the lines of not hesitating when speaking, getting your point across with very few mistakes and understanding when spoken to, without slowing down the conversation when with a group of otherwise native speakers. I consider fluency to be about 90-95% “perfect”.” Source

Alex Rawlings, Rawlangs

“This leads me back to the question of what fluency actually is, and when you can claim to have it. I think it means the ability to understand and speak spontaneously, without much hesitation or be phased too much by grammar. I think fluency is a measure of how confident you feel, how far you would want to negotiate a situation in a foreign language without resorting to “Do you speak English?”” Source

Emily Liedel, The Babel Times

“I think of fluency as comfort. If you are comfortable calling the cable company to complain about a problem with your internet connection or participating in a professional conference in your target language, you are fluent. The less mistakes you make, and the more native-like your accent is, the better. But you don’t have to “pass” for a native speaker in order to be fluent, as long as your use of language doesn’t get in the way of having a natural conversation (not that conversations with the cable company ever seem natural, but you know what I mean). Source

What is your definition of fluency?

Kris Broholm

Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.

Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.