fluency is not the goal

In the society at large (which, be it said, I am not usually a part of), when it becomes known that one is learning a foreign language, generally the first question one receives is “so are you fluent yet?”

And, unfortunately, this question is usually taken seriously and answered in all earnestness, whether “yes” or “not yet”.

I say unfortunately, because this matter of fluency is both something of a myth, and – I was about to say, seldom anyone’s actual goal, but the definitions of “fluency” vary so drastically that it can’t even be determined honestly whether it is anyone’s goal or not.  You might think it’s your goal, and then you might think you’ve reached it, and then the next person might come along and think you have very far still to go.  Or perhaps that you are far beyond what they would consider fluent.

Some would say that fluency means that you are, linguistically, in every way indistinguishable from a native.  If your accent is notably unusual*, or if you commit the occasional amusing error**, you are not fluent, they say.  On the other end of the spectrum some say that if you can comfortably get by in ordinary daily life without getting too lost or putting too much additional wear on the pages of your dictionary***, there you go, fluent.

And then let’s say some day you arrive at the point of fluency that you set out towards – will there still be more to learn?  Certainly yes, so how will you know when you have “arrived”?

I will have to disappoint anyone hoping that I will propose my own definition.  I just don’t think it matters, at all.  I would suggest that learners rather focus on what they would like to do in the language; not some arbitrary definition that no two people have ever agreed on.

For my part, I would like to be able to read Japanese as easily as I read English.  That’s pretty much it.  Will I be fluent? I’m not even going to answer that.

*natives have accents too

**natives do this all the time

***natives look up words too

3 responses to “fluency is not the goal

  1. I think several scales for measuring foreign language proficiency draw a line between fluent speakers and native speakers. I don’t think I’d equate those two. In any case, though, I think it might be better to say “in many cases fluency is the goal, but definitions of that fluency vary widely.”

    In my case, I don’t know that I ever had any specific goals in mind as I studied Japanese. I learned the language at first because I was in Japan and it would come in handy, and at university because it ended up being my major. The one time I ever had a specific benchmark to shoot for was the level 1 JLPT, and when I picked up some preparation books for it I figured out I didn’t really need to prepare at all. There are very tiny goals that I still set for myself each day—I’ve got to get a handle on this term because it shows up in the text I’m translating right now, for instance—but I’ve never really positioned my language learning within some larger goal-oriented framework. /personal 蛇足

    • Thanks for the comment 🙂 and yes, I think your rephrasing is essentially all I was trying to say. Unless one needs to pass some tests for career or other purposes, the question should be “what would I like to do”, not “do I meet so-and-so’s standard”.

  2. I totally agree with you – “fluency” is so hard to define. I think in my case at least, I have certain goals that I do want to reach, but I don’t think I’ll just stop when I reach those goals. While I’m more and more happy with my level in Japanese and become more and more comfortable with the language, I hope to continue to try to improve… indefinitely! Hopefully becoming “fluent” will somehow happen in the process… whatever it means 😛

    This was a very interesting post! Best of luck with your goals~ 😀