Defining fluency in order to achieve fluency!

Defining fluency in order to achieve fluency!

Benny

fluently presenting information

Continuing from my previous two posts about focussing on specifying your motivations and minigoals, it’s important to have a clear idea of the end-goal. i.e. FLUENCY (for many people). You will find this hard to achieve if you don’t know what you are aiming for, so today I am going to attempt to define this concept. In doing so, and having something concrete to aim for, it is so much easier to achieve it!

What is “fluency”?

Speaking perfectly? Indistinguishable from a native? Being able to participate in intense philosophical debates in the language? Not quite! Here’s what the Oxford English dictionary has to say about the word:

1 speaking or writing in an articulate and natural manner. 2 (of a language) used easily and accurately.

Do you see anything like my previous sentence in this? Of course not; “accurately” and “natural manner” do not necessarily mean perfect, just that you do indeed speak very well. 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”. The domain name of this site isn’t “speaklikeanativein3months.com” or “absolutelyperfectlanguagexin3months.com” for a good reason! I have a very clear idea of what fluency means to me. It may be considered an abstract quality (like “big” or “beautiful”) so it can mean more or less to you, but whatever it is, picture it very clearly in your mind and aim for that rather than for some mystical word that you can blame for being too high of a standard.

I’m not saying that you can use semantics to belittle the concept of fluency into nothing; just that it is an achievable goal for us mere mortals! I still have high standards for fluency. When I have truly reached fluency in other languages (such as I have in Spanish, for example) I can say that I speak without hesitating (no ums and uhs; this is the actually closer to the core meaning of the word “fluent” as in flowing), making very few mistakes (maybe a couple every minute of consistent talking), being very easy to understand for others (still with an accent, but not a strong one) and understanding the majority of what is said to me in normal and casual contexts.

Normally a non-native will actually think that I speak it excellently (simply because it sounds pretty good to those unfamiliar with it), whereas those who do speak it will recognise my level as “very good” and will likely be surprised if I tell them I’ve reached that level in just a few months. Even that is vague enough, but my own understanding of the precision of it makes it easier to reach my goal. I’ve done this before (granted, with a longer timeframe) and have a good idea what I’m aiming for; my other languages are definitely not perfect, but in each one I can have a full social life entirely in that language without making it uncomfortable for those around me when I’m part of a conversation. It is not that hard! You can all do it too :)

Is fluency really possible in a short time?

Definitely! The question is better phrased as is it possible for you in your current situation and mental state. There are plenty of “geniuses” that have learned languages in no time (one British guy for example, learned Icelandic in just one week to prove that he could in a Channel 4 documentary). I am not a genius; I am documenting my experience for all to examine and criticise and showing how I am taking logical and simple steps that anyone can apply to reach this goal. Having learned other languages unrelated to Czech will only help me in such a way as having shown myself that it is possible, and having learned some techniques to achieve that (all of which I’m sharing of course). But I otherwise have very few advantages over anyone else with the same goal.

Although I am 100% sure that it is possible in a short time, I am not sure if I can do it in this particular experiment. Time will tell!! :) I will be trying my best, and if I don’t reach fluency then I will analyse why and try again perhaps with another language and see if it can be achieved when I’ve ironed out my mistakes :) Having said that, I am otherwise continuing with the presumption that I will succeed. This is an important mental state; you are welcome to call it arrogance (and some already have :P ), but this positive attitude is my fuel for continuing and would easily work for so many people if they could combine good study techniques with confidence and the right attitude.

OK, so if fluency is so “easy” then why isn’t everone fluent in a second/third language?

Challenges along the way

There are a lot of reasons why you may not be able to achieve fluency in a short time. The general excuse of “not being talented with languages” is frankly invalid. If you are reading this page and are a generally articulate person then you are already talented with languages; you have presumably learned English (or another mother tongue) to near perfection, and English is a language. You may find studies “proving” that after a certain age you can’t learn another language to native level, but these studies are likely applied to adults with the wrong learning method (no matter how motivated they may be), and the same studies are used as an excuse by others that it isn’t even worth trying. Limitations to your learning capacity are mostly purely psychological. I have met people who have been studying for years and I am writing these posts for those kinds of people; they are learning the wrong way and maybe my way can help! (Although, as others have pointed out, my way isn’t the only way and is not necessarily the “best” way). ;)

But there are some excuses that are more valid. Maybe you can’t afford to pay for expensive courses, or you cannot travel to the country that speaks the language, or you never have enough time to study, or you are afraid that everyone will laugh at you if you try. All of these have solutions (although the last one is another part of the purely psychological problem), which I will be discussing in later posts. I also have some of my own challenges on my current mission! Time each day for studying and practicing is indeed an issue, since I work full-time, and have several other projects this summer, and have chosen to live in a touristy city with a generally good level of English instead of a smaller town that would give me much more motivations to learn the language (I have a good reason for chosing Prague for my language projects! I will reveal these other [language relevant] projects of mine soon enough ;) ).

My own personal challenges ahead

Despite believing that I have found a good method to learn languages, I certainly have my own weaknesses that may prevent me from reaching my goal in time. I am very easily distracted and absolutely cannot sit down at a desk for hours studying tables of rules and repeating lists of words off to myself to drill vocabulary into my head. I’ll tell you how I get around this, but the traditional focussed study method is definitely effective and important and it’s a pity that I cannot use it. My other projects that I’ll be discussing are taking away time and focus from specifically learning Czech, and sometimes I don’t apply my own methods very well and get lazy and may even occasionally just prefer to speak English (although in my case this is less common). This whole experiment is somewhat of a fun game to me, and not taking it 100% seriously is possibly going to come back and bite me in the ass soon enough!

So, I have to find a way around these obstacles and ensure that I give my full available energy to this project and prove that it is possible!! The way I see it, the worst case scenario is that I won’t reach my own definition of fluency, but I will speak “OK” Czech, having discovered my own limits and weaknesses and shared some (hopefully) good tips along the way :) Also, I only don’t take it “100% seriously” because having fun is very important to me (I would be a lot less motivated otherwise), but I still plan to passionately give a pretty good attempt at reaching fluency! I do have an even greater challenge planned (already!) after this one so I will definitely be better prepared for that once I have learned from my mistakes in this one! Please continue sharing your comments, encouragement and doubts!! (Unlike with most people, discouragement is hugely beneficial to me, since I love proving people wrong :P )

So, what are your definitions of fluency? Is this time limit achievable, or are we all truly limited in our learning capacities? Share your thoughts in the comments :) If you like this post, don’t forget to “stumbleupon” it, or share it on facebook and twitter!! Thanks :D

Continuing from my previous two posts about focussing on specifying your motivations and minigoals, it’s important to have a clear idea of the end-goal. i.e. FLUENCY (for many people). You will find this hard to achieve if you don’t know what you are aiming for, so today I am going to attempt to define this […]

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