Language Fluency Myths That People Still Believe

How should we measure fluency in a foreign language? The answer is not so clear-cut, but there are some persistent myths that need to be busted.
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For all you fluent English speakers out there, don’t you think it’s interesting that “the Kronecker pairing on the homology and cohomology of a space should be thought of as an analogue (in fact it is a generalization) of integrating a differential n-form along an n-dimensional sub manifold”?

Or, maybe you don’t find that interesting. This excerpt is from a lecture on algebraic topology, an advanced and (to some) obscure branch of mathematics. I imagine that most native English speakers reading this article did not understand it at all.

That’s because fluency in language is a relative phenomenon. No one will ever be “completely” fluent in a language like English, which is spoken in so many different ways by so many different people, and is used to describe so many different spheres of activity. You may be a native English speaker, but that doesn’t mean you’ll understand an 80-year-old bus driver from Scotland describing the terrible weather they had 50 summers ago, nor a professor in algebraic topology. Not even dictionaries have every single word in a language.

This is not only the case with English, but with any of the world’s languages: Spanish, Hindi, Chinese, Arabic, German and on and on. I want to bust two popular fluency myths which I have repeatedly come up against.

Myth #1: You Are Either Fluent, Or Not

The first and most destructive myth is the idea that fluency is an absolute status. That the world of each language is divided into two groups: “fluent” and “non-fluent.” Here’s a brief example of how muddy these waters can actually be. If I am born in Moscow, but then move to Toronto at 14 and never speak a word of Russian again for the rest of my life, am I still fluent in it at 89? The language will have changed, and so will the memory of the language.

Language is a living thing; it always happens within a context and relative to that context, and those contexts often do not have any exterior criteria by which they could be termed “standard.” The boundaries between “fluent” and “not fluent” are porous, and it’s not that easy to define.

Myth #2: Fluency Is Only About Language

A second, related myth is that fluency is purely about speaking the language. In reality, learning how to speak is only part of the process. Some countries have different gestures and body language to signify “no” and “yes” — written fluency won’t help you understand the meaning of a nod, for example. Obtaining fluency means you need to know how people speak, move and act.

Another example from my travels involves a cultural reference: I lived in Italy for a short time, and while my Italian was improving I kept hearing (and not understanding) the term “redot,” until I learned that was the Italian term for the band The Red Hot Chili Peppers. Needless to say, this was not in any textbook I had.

Myths Busted

The above examples don’t mean that there are no language standards, or that there is nothing to gain from regular study. But they do show that one’s use of language changes and matures, it fades and grows, and the lines aren’t as strict as they may seem. The difference between beginner and advanced becomes much less clear once a language is used in the real world.

As a last example, let’s compare a graduate student who can read complicated mathematical texts in Arabic, but doesn’t know the word for grocery store, with a traveller who has learned Arabic on the fly (colloquially and imperfectly) ­but who can navigate the bus system in Morocco with ease. In your opinion, which of these two is more fluent speaker?

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Noah Harley
Noah Harley is a writer, translator, and musician living in Queens, New York. He recently co-produced and translated for Salero, a feature-length documentary exploring humanity’s fraught relationship with natural resources shot on site in southern Bolivia, which garnered grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Tribeca Film Institute, and the San Francisco Film Society. When he is not writing articles or producing videos for Babbel, he roams the eastern coast of the United States with his band, The Horse-Eyed Men.
Noah Harley is a writer, translator, and musician living in Queens, New York. He recently co-produced and translated for Salero, a feature-length documentary exploring humanity’s fraught relationship with natural resources shot on site in southern Bolivia, which garnered grants from the MacArthur Foundation, the Tribeca Film Institute, and the San Francisco Film Society. When he is not writing articles or producing videos for Babbel, he roams the eastern coast of the United States with his band, The Horse-Eyed Men.
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