One thing that always comes up in language learning is being fluent in a language. I thought I knew what that is, but lately I’ve realize that people define it very differently. So the first question we need to ask is:
What exactly is fluency?
I started thinking of this when I saw Benny Lewis’s blog Fluent in 3 Months. Achieving fluency in 3 months in my opinion is not at all possible. But reading the blog, I realized he just has a different definition for what it means to be fluent. And despite the slightly arrogant name, there’s actually a lot of good stuff on that blog, especially if you’ve struggled with language learning. I tend to side more with Olly Richards’ opinion (Olly’s blog: I will teach you a language, check out the podcast also!): He thinks fluency is the point where he can behold and enjoy a conversation with another person and neither has to slow down unnecessarily (see podcast #18 and #19 and 60secondfluencytest.com).
Both of these of course only address the fluency in speech. Which, to be fair, is what most people think of when they think of fluency. I would add also writing and reading into this. In my opinion, I’m fluent when I can fairly confidently have discussions both in speaking AND in writing without a huge effort. This would mean not checking the dictionary all the time or writing for example e-mails without the need to read them for confirmation that it’s understandable. For me fluency doesn’t mean perfect and I don’t think one can really achieve perfection anyway. The native speakers make mistakes too, although maybe not the same ones as the foreigners. Also, fluency would mean that the skill is not just speaking with your friends and your teacher but pretty much anyone who is at least at the same level as you.
Many people also think you only speak a language fluently when you have a native like accent. I’m not sure how possible this is, and I would say it’s not a useful goal. Then again, even in this people differ a lot what they think is good enough. Most people who know you are not native will of course say, you don’t quite sound like one. And you might pass for one in a fleeting conversation, but most likely not if the person you’re talking to gets to know you also when you’re tired… (although after living abroad for awhile, I’m not quite fluent in Finnish in that point either). But in the end, I don’t think it really matters. If you can discuss without effort, and people understand you, you are fluent even with a clearly foreign accent.
Do I need to be fluent?
This has been at least my goal in most languages. Although I’m totally not fluent in all the languages I speak or am learning. But this is not necessarily the goal for everyone. If you just want to get by on your holiday, I would concentrate on speaking and being understandable and understanding simple sentences and things like directions and menus. On the other hand, if your goal in Russian is to read Russian classics in the original, that would require more study, but you can totally concentrate on the reading and understanding the language and not worry so much about speaking.
So, for me, that would be a yes. But maybe not in all the languages I’m studying. In any case, I think it’s a very personal goal and even small amount of knowledge in another language can make you happy. And if you’re traveling and can greet people in the local language, the local people tend to be more enthusiastic in trying to find a way to understand and communicate with you, so this might be all you need. I guess my point is, don’t set too high goals in the beginning. You can always change your mind.
How to get there?
If you decide that fluent is what you want to be, the first thing you need to decide is, what that means for you. If you go with my definition, that means studying. But of course there are many ways to get there. I think the main point is, though, to use the language as much as you can. Although, it might make sense to have a bit more concrete goals than being fluent. It’s a good overall goal, but I like to have smaller goals I can achieve in few weeks or months, otherwise it’s hard to keep up the motivation.
If you want to improve your speaking, start speaking as soon as you can. If you don’t know anyone then there are websites online that can help you with finding a language partner or a tutor. My favorite site for this is italki (if you use this link to sign up and end up booking a lesson, once you’re done with the lesson we both get $10 credits for free!). All teachers and tutors have a video of themselves, so you can judge a bit if it’s a person you could work with. And if you are looking at one of the more popular languages, you have a bit of choice. There is also a forum for language exchange, but I haven’t tried that, because with my busy schedule, I prefer to pay someone and get the language practice I need, instead of spending time on the language I already know.
If you want your writing to be more fluent, then just write as much as you can. I like writing a bit of diary every day (unless I’m too lazy). I don’t even ask anyone to correct it, it’s more getting used to the idea of writing in the language. Also, I find I remember words better when I write them by hand, so I don’t use my computer for it. This also applies for any vocabulary I need to learn: I ALWAYS write the words down in my notebook and half the work is done!
These are just a few things one can do, I will write more elaborate posts in the future. But in the end, my advice is simple: use the language as actively and as much as possible. In the end, fluency is probably not the most useful goal, since it’s so abstract. But even if that is your ultimate goal, it’s good to have smaller goals you can reach in the near future. And in any case, that doesn’t need to be your goal at all. Even getting by with few sentences on a holiday is a goal worth pursuing!