This is a question that language teachers get all of the time. My normal response is “well, I’ve been working on it for about 20 years.” Parents’ eyes usually pop out of their head, amazed. Gaining language proficiency takes tons of time and dedication, and yes, it usually takes many, many years. It’s better to treat fluency, then, like an ongoing process rather than an ultimate destination. Most students of language simply won’t wake up “fluent” one day; instead, they should notice small incremental improvements in their fluency over long periods of time.
Before we speak more about the process of becoming fluent, let’s first talk about what fluency means. Fluency is achieved when a speaker can produce language fluidly and naturally, without pauses or hesitations. Students demonstrate fluency when they are able to communicate easily without rummaging through their heads for that one vocabulary word from chapter eight or reaching for a dictionary.
What fluency does not take into account is accuracy. Verbs must be conjugated, adjectives must agree, sentences must have a logical connection to one another, etc. Fluency does not guarantee any of these qualities. As much as we might love the idea of our students chirping effortlessly in Spanish or French, we also have to consider the huge amount of information and skill students must acquire before their speech can make sense! Vocabulary, grammar, and pronunciation are just some of the familiar components of a complex system that language learners are constructing in their heads while learning to speak.
Fluency and accuracy together are considered to be part of what we language teachers call proficiency. It is the goal of a language teacher that students learn to speak (and write!) with both accuracy and fluency. However, that is only part of the story. In order to communicate effectively, students must also learn cultural norms and customs and what are called “discursive strategies”. Students need to learn how to address others formally and informally, how to manage greetings and partings, courtesy expressions, and turn taking, among other important skills.
Now that we’ve thought about some of the many aspects of language that learners need to think about while speaking, perhaps it makes more sense why it takes them so very long to “become fluent!” But that doesn’t mean that we can’t celebrate each and every step they take towards becoming better speakers and writers of their language of choice. In my next post, I will speak more about proficiency goals and how we help students to meet them.
By Lisa Camastro