Defining fluency in order to achieve fluency!

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Defining fluency in order to achieve fluency!

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

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 very simply that I'm socially equivalent, i.e. I can function in social situations pretty much the same in my target language as I would in my native one.

I consider fluency to be about 90-95% “perfect”. The domain name of this site isn't “” or “” 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 too much (very few 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.

With all of this in mind, it's also extremely important to understand what fluency isn't. Far too high standards can become ridiculous to the point of you not being able to speak your mother tongue “fluently”.

Even that is vague enough, but my own understanding of the precision of it makes it easier to reach my goal. I've gone further and found that the European Common Framework actually defines its language levels, and I would place what I understand to be “fluent” as at the B2 point.

Is fluency really possible in a short time?

fluently presenting information

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.

OK, so if fluency is so “easy” then why isn't everyone 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.

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). 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 (Edit: I maintain this site by offering help to language learners in the form of Fluent in 3 Months Premium), and have several other projects in the pipeline too.

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.

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).

So, I have to find a way around these obstacles 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” in my target language, having learned a few things 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 😛 )

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Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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