Fluency. It is a concept that is difficult to wrap our heads around and one that is almost impossible to quantify. Because of this, I think the idea of fluency is not worth a whole lot for language learners. It’s neat to say that I am fluent in Turkish or Spanish and it feels great to have friends comment on my fluency in the company of others, but in terms of actually being a useful marker for my language learning, the word is pretty worthless. To better understand this, let’s ask the question – Am I fluent in Turkish?
My dictionary defines fluency this way:
the quality or condition of being fluent, in particular
• the ability to speak or write a foreign language easily and accurately : fluency in Spanish is essential.
• the ability to express oneself easily and articulately.
When my mom visited last fall, she would have unequivocally said that I had the ability to express myself, to speak Turkish easily and accurately. She is my mom and she is great, but she doesn’t know Turkish. My Turkish friends would say I have a long way to go, that I do not yet have the ability to express myself easily and articulately – at least not all the time.
So who is right? Who gets to decide if I am fluent in Turkish or not? Do you see the problem in using the word fluent as a measure for our ability to use a language. It seems that one learner’s idea of fluency is another’s idea of babbling. Because of this, the only person who gets to determine if I am fluent or not, is me. And I’ll tell you right now that I’m not. Many may disagree, but it doesn’t matter. I get to decide. Whether someone else thinks I am fluent or not just doesn’t matter.
As a word, fluent is subjective, carries nothing but vague meaning and does little to help us think about and plan a personal program for learning the language. It seems we’ve left the assessment of our language learning to a ‘gut feeling.’
I am not a big fan of ‘gut feeling’ language assessment however. When someone asks me if I am fluent, what am I supposed to say? I usually give the answer that,
“There is not much I can’t do with the language, but not much that I do really well either.”
For my own learning journey, I would rather use an objective scale to measure myself against. The scale I prefer to use I first found in the Peacecorp Volunteer On-going Language Learning Manual. This scale is easy to use, offers useful feedback and takes less than ten minutes to complete. The Language Learner’s Proficiency Scale, an adaption of the ACTFL’s more complex program of assessment, is divided into Beginner Low, Mid and High; Intermediate Low, Mid and High; Advanced and Advanced High; Superior; and Distinguished.
If I use the scale to assess my ability with Turkish, I find myself at somewhere between Advanced and Advanced High. I can say this because the scale has a checklist of tasks that I am able to accomplish with my Turkish. In Turkish I can complete all performance indicators from the Advanced level:
- I can describe my work in some detail and discuss with my co-workers most work related tasks.
- I can talk comfortably about topics of general interest, such as the weather and current events.
- I can deal with and explain unexpected problems, such as losing my traveler’s checks.
- I can take and give messages by telephone.
- I can be understood by most native speakers and I can follow normal conversations involving native speakers.
- I can perform at least one task at the Advanced High level.
Looking at all the levels on the scale, I can comfortably say that in my opinion, I am not yet fluent. Why? Because I used this same scale to determine the level of Turkish I would like to achieve. I used it to define my goal. Setting fluency as your language learning goal does little for you unless you can define it and give it meaning. I still have a long way to go before I get to the Superior level – the place that I personally want to be with Turkish and the level I have personally decided to identify as the place of fluency. Remember I get to decide. You can decide for yourself. And you should. You may define fluency as Intermediate High or somewhere else on the scale and that is totally fine. The key is to figure out what you want to be able to do with the language. That should be your goal. Whether you define that as fluency or not is up to you.
If I look at my goal, the Superior level, there are still a number of things I’m not able to do (yet).
- I can listen to a radio program, oral report, or speech and take accurate notes. (not yet)
- I seldom have to ask speakers to repeat or explain. (not yet)
- I can speak at a normal rate of speed, without groping for words or trying to avoid complex grammatical structures. (not yet)
Pretending like I can do these things does nothing for me as a learner. Ruthless evaluation does however. If I look at the second one for example, I can honestly say that I seldom have to ask speakers to repeat and explain what they are saying. I can say that because I have gotten really good at smiling and nodding and pretending I know what’s being said. And that is okay too. It’s a good skill to keep the conversation going, to allow me to practice more and to help my friends not give up on me completely. I understand enough to stay with the conversation, but I still have work to do and need to think about how to create opportunities to improve in this area.
Too often it seems we want to be able to say we are fluent. It’s like a sort of badge we can carry around and show off to others. At least that is what it is for me. But saying I am fluent or not misses the point. As self-directed language learners, the challenge is in understanding how to get to where we want to be. We are often left wondering if we are making progress, if what we are doing is effective, if we are ever going to learn this language. Have you been there?
There is a problem with assessment scales and evaluations though. These scales have a way of telling us where we’re at on our journey, but they do little to evaluate the journey itself. But it’s the journey, the methods and activities that we have created in our personal learning program, that will determine if we learn the language or not. If we do not find ways to evaluate the journey, then we are missing a major tool to help us be more effective, more efficient and have more fun learning another language.
I know that we can learn better if we learn together so take a moment to share your ideas in the comments below about how you evaluate your progress and how you go about evaluating the journey.
In the next few weeks I will be releasing a new guide that I hope will be the tool I mention above. The Everyday Language Learner’s Guide to Self-Assessment has been created to evaluate both your ability to use the language as well as to evaluate the program you have created and are using to learn the language. It is the tool that I wish I had as I was beginning to learn Turkish. If you are on the mailing list I’ll send out the announcement a few days before I put it up for sale on the site and I’ll be giving you a fun discount. So if you haven’t yet, sign up today.
I also want to give 20 copies away to bloggers interested in writing a review of the guide. If your interested, contact me.
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