What Constitutes Being Fluent, Exactly?

Many people will say “It takes so and so hours to become fluent and master so and so language.” However, I’ve been thinking about this recently: what does it even mean exactly to be “fluent” in a language?
There are so many aspects to communicating in a language like Japanese. There is speaking, reading, and writing. So is fluency being able to speak to anybody, write anything, and read anything? What about having perfect word choice, pitch accent, and pronunciation? Or understanding every cultural nuance and common knowledge that a native would know? At what point does one just wake up and say, “Ah yes, I am a fluent Japanese speaker”, because I definitely don’t know when I would say that.

I’m level 31 now, and as I learn more about Japanese, I have just now started to understand how much I do not understand about Japanese at all, and how complicated the language is. So does the bar of what we consider being fluent is move farther and farther away the more we understand Japanese?

I’d like to hear what you guys think constitutes fluency, because I have no idea.

This is my first post on here so 勘弁してください if I posted on the wrong thing or something, haha.

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Bienvenue !

For me being fluent is when you’re able to interact smoothly, ie. reading, writing and speaking. It doesn’t mean that your level of proficiency is perfect. I am not even perfect with my native language.

When someone bilingual (English and French) makes some mistake in French I feel it’s totally fine because he makes the effort to learn a second or third language.

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This is an old chestnut in language learning :slight_smile: There is no widely-accepted single definition of ‘fluency’. A more strict usage would be that it refers strictly to a quality of spoken output, i.e. whether it flows, without obvious hesitations or stumbling over words. This definition makes it just one component of competency.

Generally formal attempts to classify abilities in a second language take the approach of defining specific capabilities that you might or might not possess in the different aspects of it. So for instance CEFR level B2 is defined with:

  • Can understand the main ideas of complex text on both concrete and abstract topics, including technical discussions in their field of specialisation.
  • Can interact with a degree of fluency and spontaneity that makes regular interaction with native speakers quite possible without strain for either party.
  • Can produce clear, detailed text on a wide range of subjects and explain a viewpoint on a topical issue giving the advantages and disadvantages of various options.

and although it does use ‘fluency’ it’s part of the spoken-language element only and attached to a more concrete criterion (conversations aren’t “a strain”).

Personally I think this is a better approach also for the individual language learner than aiming for some unclear label of ‘fluent’ – think about what you want to be able to do with and in the language, and how good, in concrete terms, at those tasks you are now and want to be in the near future.

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This is one of those things where no one really agrees with each other, but it also doesn’t really matter.
¯\(ツ)

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I think @pm215 ’s answer is spot on, but I did want to point out the following:

One of the hallmarks of the intermediate stage is being able to understand and appreciate how much actual work is involved and how big the task really is.

So you’ve come that far at least. :wink:

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Fluency can be anything to anyone. For me it’s the level of effort needed to do certain tasks in a foreign language across the 4 skills. I’m fluent in some ways but not in others. For me fluent doesn’t mean perfect though.

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This is probably how I would define fluency for myself too.

I started calling myself fluent in English (second language) when I could do the above. But even more so when I stopped translating English into my native language (Swedish) in my head. English words works in my head the same way that Swedish ones do. They just hold the concept/meaning, not the Swedish equivalent.

I do however really like @pm215 more detailed definition. It would make it easier to judge where I stand for sure. :slight_smile:

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Interesting – for me I was thinking in Japanese words, not mentally translating to English, a long time before I felt able to interact smoothly in the language.

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Well, it wasn’t really like one happened and then the other. Taking words and just having them mean what they mean is a process that happens over time (in my experience). I have a few Japanese words where I understand them without translating them in my head. (A couple of words here on WK, I’ve added the “reading” as a meaning synonym because my brain was being forced to switch gears/languages when it didn’t need to.)

It could have just been that I wasn’t paying attention. This was my late teens and I wouldn’t call a teenager super self aware. :joy: But I seem to remember being able to communicate fairly well, but still needing to translate some of it in my head. Only a couple of years later did I realize I wasn’t really translating things anymore. (Also my memory might be faulty… xD )

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I don’t really explicitly translate Japanese into English or my native language in the first place. It happens only rarely, for very specific vocabularies. Reusing and adapting native phrases might be a component of fluency.

I might define almost fluent as, having freedom of expression, as well as understanding the input, in communicating sense; even for more complex topics.

But being fluent might be, being able to make a broken, but fully captured, translation somehow; enough to be in touch with my native language, being in touch with my native life.

I don’t always go that far even in English, tbh.

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