Fluency in a language is such a dubious concept, it’s almost worth abandoning it altogether when it comes to language-learning. Clearly, most people are fluent in their native languages (although sometimes one encounters an individual who would give cause to doubt this assertion). But at what point can one say that one is fluent in a second language? Is it when one can hold a spontaneous conversation in the language? When one is able to comprehend a broadcast with ease? When one can think in the language?
But no matter how good one is in one’s second language, one may still always come across a situation in which they encounter vocabulary or a figure of speech of which they were previously unaware. To my thinking, it is very, very difficult to claim fluency in a language which is not your mother tongue.
Fluency is also very situational, I think. For example, in German, my best language after English, I feel comfortable speaking and understanding in most situations and can do so with relative ease. However, as soon as I’m in class, with everyone looking and me expectantly and with the teacher speaking to me, my brain freezes up, I forget all my vocab, and a stutter like an idiot – or someone who has only been learning for a couple of weeks. Actually, I think it’s probably the teacher. Language teachers freak me out for some reason – maybe because I subconsciously expect them to grade me or something. I can speak well enough with the other students in the class, but as soon as you put a teacher or adult in the mix… forget it.
However, there is a general perception out there, mostly among monolinguals, that fluency is somehow very easy to achieve. People who speak another language are often considered by these people to be “fluent”, even though they themselves might not consider themselves to be so.
So, let’s forget about classifying someone as “fluent” or “beginner” or “learner” or “intermediate” and so on. Here’s a better system: CEFRL. That stands for “Common European Framework of Reference for Languages”. You can read about it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_European_Framework_of_Reference_for_Languages. It’s not foolproof, but it’s a good deal better than blundering around, trying to label one’s ability level in various languages. That is, provided the other party is familiar with the framework.
Basically, it works like this: A1 is a beginner with knowledge of only a few basic phrases and grammar points. C2 is a native, fluent speaker. The intervening stages are labelled A2, B1, B2, and C1. All of which rather makes me feel like a banana in a striped blue and white suit.
However, the framework still raises questions. For example, I’ve sat a test for German under the standards of this framework and came out as a low B1 (at the end of last year). Whilst there’s no doubt I’ve improved in the meantime, I’m probably still a B1. However, according to the requirements on the link above, I probably sit at about a high B2, possibly pushing C1. That could just be the Germans, though – my teacher has stated that only a lawyer or surgeon would have a C2 level and most teenagers would probably only be a B2, whilst the chart in the link above clearly shows that any native speaker would be a C2 level.
It is still a helpful tool to have, and a good way of gauging one’s basic level – especially when one uses textbooks with that label on the front! So, here’s a chart showing (my estimates of) my levels in each of my languages:
How do I know these levels? Well, I’ve sat a test for the German (plus my textbook says “B1” on it). I’ve been told that Year 12 language students in Australia usually sit around that A2 mark, so that gives me a reasonable idea for French. And my Spanish textbook says “A1/A2” on it and I’m quite near the end. I haven’t put AUSLAN in, but I’d probably be an A1. As for Gaelic?… well, I’ve only just started. And English?… it’s my native language.
So how about we forget about fluency, and find better terms for these things – and educate people on them! There’s nothing more awkward than trying to work out whether you should tell someone you’re fluent or not.
Except, possibly, having someone tell someone else you’re fluent in a language, and knowing that you’re not.