Defined as the extent to which someone can speak frictionlessly and effectively on a variety of topics in a second language, fluency represents an elusive degree of proficiency.
Of course, the ability to use a language with ease and precision involves multiple skills, but which ones?
A Fundamental Skill
There are different views when defining what it means to speak a language fluently. The International Center for Language Studies, for example, points out that a person achieves proficiency when they can confidently, competently and easily express themselves in a language other than their own.
They add that this does not imply a complete mastery of vocabulary: “If that were the case, nobody would be fluent in their own language, let alone a second one! The Oxford English Dictionary contains 273,000 words and about 171,000 are in use. However, the average educated English speaker knows and uses between 20,0000 and 30,000 terms. Knowing just 1000 to 3000 words in English is enough for everyday conversations.”
Poland’s capital (Warsaw) scored 614 out of 800 points on Education First English Proficiency Index in 2022, indicating the highest level of proficiency in this language among major cities in Central and Eastern Europe.
In that sense, the institution proposes some questions that allow each person to assess their own language level and fluency:
● Do I translate to and from a language in my head? Those who are more fluent can think in their target language while speaking, without having to translate constantly.
● Do I speak quickly in my target language? Speaking slowly is often a sign of lack of confidence and, therefore, fluency.
● How well and quickly do I understand what is being said? Rapid understanding is often more important than speaking quickly.
● Can native speakers understand what I’m saying? Effective communication is key in terms of developing fluency.
● Do I feel at ease speaking in my target language? Being able to speak in your target language almost as easily as you speak in your mother tongue is a very good sign of fluency.
The Keys of a Competent Speaker
The Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) of the Council of Europe organizes language proficiency into six levels (from A1 to C2), which can be regrouped into three broad levels: basic, independent and proficient user. Among the qualitative aspects of spoken language use are range, accuracy, fluency, interaction and coherence.
Fluency is one of the pragmatic competences and has two meanings: a holistic, broader one (being an articulate speaker) and a narrower, technical and psycholinguistic one (accessing one’s available repertoire). According to the CEFR, the broader interpretation of fluency includes precision, flexibility and, at least to some extent, thematic development and coherence/cohesion.
It takes approximately 200 guided learning hours for a language learner to progress from one level of the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR) to the next.
Data Source Provider: University of Cambridge
People who reach a C2 level in language proficiency express fluency “through broad and sustained speech with a natural, effortless, unhesitating flow. Speakers stop only to reflect on what are the most appropriate means to express their thoughts or to look for an example or adequate explanation”. A speaker who really reached fluency can express themselves spontaneously at length with a natural colloquial flow, avoiding or backtracking around any difficulty so smoothly that the interlocutor is barely aware of it.
Thus, among the key concepts of fluency in language are:
● The ability to make statements despite hesitation and pauses (at lower levels).
● The ability to maintain a sustained speech or conversation.
● The clarity and spontaneity of expression.
These guidelines can help new language learners assess their fluency level and improve it. It is, in short, a fundamental ability to communicate better with others and to develop better professionally. When hiring talent, companies not only seek knowledge of languages, but also eloquence, fluency and mental speed.