What does it mean to be fluent in English?

What do we mean by English fluency, and how can understanding competencies across the four skills provide a more realistic picture of communicative English ability?

What is fluency?

fluent in EnglishAs someone who worked in dictionaries, the meaning of words has always interested me – and fluency is a particular case in point. Language learners often set themselves the goal of becoming fluent in a language. Job adverts often specify “fluent in English or Spanish” as a requirement. But what does being “fluent” in a language actually mean? If we look in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (no apologies for plugging one of my own titles!), we see that fluent means “able to speak a language very well”. Fluent speech or writing is described as “smooth and confident, with no mistakes”. In general, fluency is most often associated with spoken language – but is that the goal of all language learners? And what does being able to speak fluently show about the other language skills?

Describing English proficiency

Before entering the world of dictionaries, I taught English as a foreign language in France. At that time, the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) had not yet been published and learners were described in very general terms – beginner, intermediate, advanced – with no agreed standards on what learners at each level were expected to know. As well as establishing standards, the CEFR also shifted the focus of language assessment from knowledge of grammar and vocabulary to functional competence, i.e. what can a student actually do with the language they’re learning across the four skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing. Interestingly, while calling out specific objectives for each skill, almost two-thirds of the information in the CEFR describes spoken language. This seems to imply that spoken fluency is indeed the most important goal for all language learners.

Mapping out a personalised path to proficiency

As a global publisher, Pearson English recognises that all learners are different – in their backgrounds, in their learning environments and in their learning goals. This is why we have undertaken new research to extend the set of learning objectives contained in the CEFR to account for learners who need detailed information about their level in all four skills, not just in one (typically, that of speaking). No learner will be equally proficient in all four language skills – in the same way that no native speaker is equally proficient in all skills in their first language. Some of us are better at writing than speaking, and many are illiterate in their first language. A true measure of language proficiency needs to take into account all of the skills. Equally, not every learner of English will need to be “fluent” in spoken communication. Many researchers need to read papers in English and attend conferences in English – but will only ever present and write in their first language. Is “fluency” a good way to describe their goal? And if it isn’t, does that in some way diminish their language achievements? By acknowledging proficiency in individual skills – rather than catch-all terms such as “fluent” – we gain a clearer understanding of goals and outcomes, and with this knowledge we are in a better position to tailor learning to the individual.

To find out more about the Global Scale of English Learning Objectives and see what teachers around the world have agreed it means to be at a level for reading, writing, speaking and listening, visit www.english.com/gse

Originally published on our Pearson English.com blog by Mike Mayor

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