Thursday, December 24, 2009

On Fluency

Having just graduated with a B.A. in Japanese, the question is, am I now fluent in the language? People often ask me this. They assume that since I've spent four years studying the language I should have some high level of proficiency in it. This is sadly not the case. I do OK—I have all the basics down and can understand most of what someone says to me—but what I understand still outpaces what I can say, and what I say often comes out haltingly. I remember reading somewhere that getting a degree in Japanese is "a good start." So when will I be fluent?

Perhaps first we should define exactly what fluency is. Is it being able to communicate day to day, bar some extraordinary circumstances like ones that require medical jargon? Or is it being comfortable in any situation, no matter how rare?

Let's ask Oxford. "Able to speak, read or write a language, especially a foreign language, easily and well." Pretty vague, this definition. Let's say I can hold court at my neighborhood bar "easily and well," but a conversation with a doctor or the stone-faced man at the immigration office finds me lacking. Am I fluent? Perhaps my fluency is situation-dependent.

Let's look at the Japanese word for fluent, "pera pera." This is an interesting word because it means fluent, eloquent, glib, etc. but also to blab or go on and on. Where we say "blah blah blah," the Japanese say "pera pera." So in this case, to speak fluently is to have the ability to babble on in a language.

If the latter is my yardstick (and since I'm talking about Japanese it may as well be) I am not fluent. I cannot babble on in Japanese. Not yet. After a year or two living there I am fully confident that I will have reached babble stage. Whether I can babble on with doctors and lawyers and IT specialists is another thing.

How do other foreign language learners define fluency? Or if not fluency, than being comfortable with how much you know of a language? Comments, please.


  1. Ten years ago, when I was working in the TEAL (teaching English as an additional language) industry, I was taught to use "fluency" differently than I had used it before. We were taught that it was less a synonym for "mastery" that gets crossed into like a gateway to paradise, than a scale to apply to students that measured their ability to use English as a tool for communication.

    That is, a student who has memorized hundreds of grammar rules and phrases which he or she can pronounce perfectly, but who cannot convey an original thought in the language, is functionally less fluent than a student who makes the best of her or his limited vocabulary and understanding of the "rules" of English and is able to communicate what she or he needs and wants to get across.

    I have never achieved much fluency in a foreign language, myself. The one I've spent the most time studying formally was Latin. And using the definition of fluency I picked up ten years ago, I'm not sure it's even possible to become fluent in a dead language. One of those "sound of one hand clapping" things.

    On a completely different topic: anything stand out for you in the new VIZ Cinema calendar?

  2. Hey!! I see Brian!!! NICE!!!!
    For me, as a English learner, it hasn't been easy,,,,really.
    When I lived in Japan, people used say "if you want to be fluent in English, you should live there for 5 years"....I don't know where this came from, but I kinda believe it,,,,but after 5 years, I still can't speak English perfectly at all,,,,,I don't feel good about myself.

    I still need to think before I say any word that has L or R or both because if I don't pay attention, I ALWAYS mess these 2 up.

    Also, as I mentioned in my blog, I want to be annoyed by English when I'm trying to do something else. But STILL, English can be totally BGM(Back Ground Music) to me if I don't pay attention....

    To me, Fluent in English means, "I don't have to think about L and R when I talk" and I doubt if I can reach that point anytime soon,,,,,but all I have to do is keep trying....!!!!

  3. Thanks for the comments, guys. I wonder if anyone is ever totally satisfied with their language ability. If we go by what Brian was taught, that fluency is getting your ideas across, then I'd say we're all in pretty good shape. Of course, we can always get better (L vs R, Japanese long vowels vs short vowels) but if we're understood most of the time, then that's half the battle already won.

  4. Well, I think you are proficient in Japanese and that's what matters. We tend to get caught up in seeing fluency as this ultimate goal, but that takes a long time. It's probably better to focus on milestones. Also keep in mind that the ability to speak any Japanese at all will impress a lot of Japanese people.

  5. Nick, I like the idea about milestones. They're achievable and when you do, you have satisfaction of having succeeded, rather than chasing some unobtainable level of "fluency." I'm going to have a think about this and set some milestones.