What it Means to be Fluent, 12/12/2019
tl:dr, don’t think about fluency, learn what you want to.
Before I started learning languages I always marveled at those who were fluent in other languages. The idea of fluency to me meant someone could talk about, well, just about everything at any time in that language. And while fluency to an extent means being able to have a conversation on a variety of topics on a deep and expressive level, to most language learners it’s not quite as simple as that. So let’s dig into this phenomenon.
“Are you fluent yet?”
Perhaps of all the questions to ask a language enthusiast, this is the most difficult to answer. Ask this and you’ll see us squirm, stutter, and sheepishly say:
“Well, it depends on what you mean by ‘fluent’…”.
You see, once you start learning a language you begin to change your own definition of fluency. Fluency becomes a matter of what level you want to get to personally and whether you’re there or not. When people learn languages, they all have different reasons for doing so. Some only learn for business so if they can get by in the business world then that’s perfect! If someone wants to read books on Buddhism in Hindi then reach that level then that’s great! Some people could tell you how to make a creme brule with flawless French but struggle to tell you how they get home from work every day. You see, it’s about what we want to learn.
To phrase it another way, if a physicist struck up a casual conversation with you on atomic physics and asked you about the nature of quarks, quasars, neutrons, and hadron colliders how do you think you’d fair? I’m guessing, like me, probably not too well. In fact, I’d probably be really childish and make a joke about the “hardon” collider haha
Does that make us bad at English because we don’t know about atomic physics? No, of course not. It just means we don’t know about that particular topic for any number of reasons. To say we’re bad at English is preposterous. An almost laughable idea! I think you see where I’m going with this, right?
This is our journey people! We’re in control of it! Nobody else. Nobody can tell us what we must and mustn’t learn. We should take control of our language adventure and learn what’s right for us.
If we like surfing, then learn about surfing. If we like history, then learn history. If we li… you get the point. We needn’t waste our time learning about things we’re not interested in. Think of this way, would you sit down and learn about this topic in your native language? If the answer is no, then don’t bother doing it in that language you’re learning.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Yes, bubble tea is bloody delicious! Wait, you weren’t thinking that? Maybe just me then. You’re probably thinking that this is all nice and sweet but what about those whose profession revolves around the language. Well, yeah, if that’s our job then we need to be as proficient in that language as possible because of the various situations where we’ll need to be succinct and clear as possible.
BUUTTT! I still believe this idea applies to some extent. If our job is in languages (interpretation, translation, transcription, teaching, and so on) where every day you’re constantly using this language then I’m assuming you’re so passionate about languages you got to that level THEN started working in it. That or you were raised bilingual. Oh, how I envy you guys.
There are basics in any language that you probably should learn so you can have a foundation. These are things you’ll find in the “Starter” or “Travel” books and give me a sense of confidence during my baby steps. However, beyond those basics, it just becomes a matter of specific topics that you may or may not be interested in. Either way, once we reach a certain level we have this innate desire to know more and keep learning.
So, here’s the takeaway:
-Forget about “fluency”
-Figure out WHY you want to learn the language