Language fluency is a common goal for language learners but difficult to define and even harder to measure.
Lose 15 pounds. Drink more water. Quit smoking. Become fluent in a new language. These are just a few of the most common New Year’s resolutions made every year by those of us who would like to finally kick a bad habit, start a new one or otherwise make a major change in our lives. And yet, for those who truly want to learn to speak a foreign language, the goal of fluency is not only hard to measure, but also counterproductive. Here are three reasons that fluency is the wrong objective to have when it comes to language learning and what you should aim for instead.
Fluency is too hard to measure.
One of the biggest obstacles when it comes to fluency is that it is not an easily measured objective. Are we fluent in a language when we can engage in everyday conversations with native speakers or when we can read an academic article? What if you’re really good at speaking, but you’re not able to write well in your target language? Frameworks such as the CEFRL exist to provide guidelines for assessing language learners, particularly in academic or professional contexts. Still, in many cases, language learning goals are too personal to fit neatly into existing standards. If someone does very well on a written language test of general grammar, vocabulary and oral comprehension, but lacks the vocabulary necessary for their particular language use case, being able to prove their fluency with test results becomes meaningless.
Fluency is an unattainable goal
To highlight the fact that fluency is an evolving and subjective concept, consider your fluency in your own native language. You can probably imagine a professional or technical field whose terms are unknown to you. Would not being able to participate in a conversation involving this vocabulary make you any less fluent? Some may argue that fluency is simply being able to converse about everyday topics like a native speaker, but as you’ve surely seen, native speakers of the same language can have vastly different levels of vocabulary and grammar mastery. And no matter our current knowledge, most of us are constantly learning new terms and adapting with the language as it evolves to incorporate new concepts. In short, language learning is a continual process. There is no finish line. Language learning competence is thus best thought of as a continuum instead of a “fluent” or “not fluent” binary.
If not fluency, what?
So if fluency isn’t the answer, what should our goal be instead? Language learners would be well advised to focus on their personal reasons for learning a new language. Do you plan on moving to a new country where you’ll need to speak a foreign language in a professional context? Do you simply love the literature or cinema of a particular culture and want to be able to read a book or watch a film in its original language in order to have a richer experience? Whatever your motivation, there are a few things you can do to transform this vision into an actionable goal:
Visualize a specific situation that would signal that you’ve met your language learning goal. Do you want to be able to buy food at a market without using a dictionary or app to translate? Do you want to be able to participate in a conversation over dinner with your in-laws? Be very specific. Imagine yourself participating in a particular activity in your target language. Don’t worry if you want to be able to do many things in your new language. For now, focus on one specific interaction.
Once you’ve zoomed in on your vision of success, it’s time to define the key steps that you’ll need to take to get there. Before you can ask the market vendor about seasonal fruit, you’ll need to be able to ask a basic question. And you can’t engage in a riveting conversation about politics with your in-laws before you can exchange simple pleasantries. Try to define the milestones you’ll need to check off in order to reach your ultimate goal. To maximize your chances of success, focus on a maximum of two to three progress areas at a time. And remember, be specific. “Learn vocabulary” or “improve pronunciation” are not very actionable goals. Imagine each milestone as its own visualized interaction.
Without action, visualization is just dreaming. Once you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve, it’s time to take the steps to make it happen. You’ll need to define the timeline, action steps and resources you’ll need to make your dream a reality.
Ultimately, fluency in itself is a pretty unhelpful goal. Instead, by reflecting on your own motivations for learning a new language, visualizing specific interactions and planning the action steps you’ll need to take to reach your goals, you’ll be well on your way to confident conversation in your target language.
* Here’s an interesting article that cites academic research on visualization in language learning.